PHOENIX — Nobody has been a more trusted resource for Stephen Strasburg since he arrived in the big leagues in 2010 than Steve McCatty, and right now the struggling Strasburg may need nobody more than the Nationals pitching coach.
McCatty’s advice for Strasburg to help get him past the worst prolonged stretch of his career: “You just have to deal with it.”
“That’s all,” he said Wednesday morning at Chase Field. “Keep pushing. I’ve always said: The way you learn is through failing. It’s a struggle all the time. You’ve just got to keep grinding, grinding and grinding. He’s too good.”
Strasburg hasn’t been particularly good in recent weeks, and everything came to a head Tuesday night when the right-hander was crushed for eight runs in 3 1/3 innings by the Diamondbacks, raising his ERA to a shocking 6.06.
“That was just as bad as I’ve seen him, as far as making mistakes with some pitches,” McCatty said. “After 5-6 years, to have one game that was really like that … you’ve got to throw it out the window. You’ve just got to get back out there and trust yourself and make your pitches. That’s all. It’s never fun. It’s never easy. It’s always easier saying it.”
Despite the occasional hiccup along the way, Strasburg had been among baseball’s most-successful starters since his debut. From 2010-2014, his 3.02 ERA ranked eighth among all MLB pitchers with at least 100 games started. His rate of 10.34 strikeouts per nine innings was best in baseball.
That has made his struggles this season all the more striking. His current 6.06 ERA ranks 106th out of 112 qualifying starters in the majors, while his 1.71 WHIP ranks 111th
“And that’s what makes it such a big focus,” McCatty said. “You try not to get too upset by it, but you do notice it, because that doesn’t happen with him very often. But maybe sometimes we should say: ‘Well, he’s pretty good.’ I always say the standards everybody’s thrown for him … when he does have this little spell that he hasn’t had before, it’s like, boom! It’s like a red light goes off. But for a lot of other people, you just say it’s a part of playing. He’s struggling. For him, it’s a little more noticeable because he’s so good. So the tendency is always to expect the most from him. But he’s going to get through it. He’s just got to fight.”
Despite an issue with discomfort under his shoulder blade during his previous start against the Marlins, Strasburg reported no problems Tuesday night. His velocity remained at its normal levels, with a fastball that averaged 97 mph.
But Strasburg’s mechanics continue to be off, possibly a byproduct of a minor ankle sprain he suffered in spring training that made it difficult for him to plant his left foot on a proper line toward the plate when throwing. And those mechanics have led to poor command, so much so Tuesday night that Strasburg wound up resorting to his rarely used slider out of desperation. He threw that pitch nine times, more than his curveball, and wound up serving up a towering home run to Mark Trumbo on it.
“We’ve talked about it and how he’s been throwing it on the side,” McCatty said. “And sometimes in games you’d like to pick and choose your spots to use it. Not that I’ve had a chance to talk to him and catcher Wilson [Ramos] about why they used it so much and who called it. We let those go every once in a while for a period of time. But I’ll find out what their thought was behind it. For me, it was not the right pitches and mistakes with them.”
Strasburg is slated to make his next start Sunday in his hometown of San Diego, and manager Matt Williams said there’s no plan for that to change.
The Nationals simply expect him to snap out of this funk.
“It’s funny, pitching is kind of like hitting. It’s an up-and-down thing,” McCatty said. “You’re not going to be at the top the whole time, but you want to stay as close to it as you can. It’s an up-and-down thing sometimes. You can go out and the first inning you throw, you say, man, it just clicks. Here it is. I feel good.
“Again, I have not sat there and talked with him that much. But I’m sure everybody … my thoughts would tell me you’re being a little more defensive than offensive. But as far as the physical stuff, the velocity, everything is there. He says he feels fine. So just keep going. A few tough starts, you can’t give up because of that. I’m not saying he is. But you just have to battle through it. Everybody does.”