Nats and volts: Strasburg 'electric' vs. Yanks

Righty could be poised for career year after solid spring, strong second half of '15

Nats and volts: Strasburg 'electric' vs. Yanks

VIERA, Fla. -- Even though the Yankees did not bring many of their regular starting position players to Space Coast Stadium on Wednesday, Stephen Strasburg showed flashes of brilliance during the Nationals' 13-0 victory over the Yankees. He stifled the Yanks through five scoreless innings, striking out nine and yielding six hits without issuing a walk.

"It appears that off-day [on Tuesday] came right on time," Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. "We seem fresh, we seem quicker, we seem rejuvenated, especially the guy that started the game. ... Strasburg got out of a tough jam, and that's what good pitchers do. His changeup was electric today."

It was another strong outing this spring for Strasburg, who is scheduled to pitch the Nationals' home opener on April 7 against the Marlins. And perhaps more importantly, it was another outing where he came away healthy.

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At this time during Spring Training last year, Strasburg was skipping starts because of a twisted ankle that was the first of a plethora of injuries he dealt with through the first half of last season. He posted a 4.60 ERA during April 2015, which only got worse in May with an unsightly 10.13 ERA. He struggled with a sore neck/upper back in late May, and an oblique injury in early July finally forced him to the disabled list.

Strasburg escapes jam

By then his 2015 was largely considered an injury-riddled, disappointing season, except that Strasburg was utterly dominant in his return from the DL in the second half. It may have been a bit overlooked, considering the Nationals struggled down the stretch while the focus shifted to a dugout fracas and the future of the manager.

But in Strasburg's final 10 starts of the season, he posted a 1.90 ERA, a 2.09 FIP and a video-game-like 92-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He attributed the success over the final two months to finally getting more consistent in his delivery and mechanics.

"I don't know the reason for it, but I do know that I did have some injuries and I wasn't commanding the baseball like I have in the past," Strasburg said. "I tried to battle through it and the mechanics were a little bit off. Once I started to look at video and started to see exactly what was going on, that's when I was able to make some adjustments."

Strasburg's dominant final two months of 2015 came after a stellar '14 season in which he made a career-high 34 starts and posted a 3.14 ERA with a 242-to-43 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 215 innings. He finished ninth in the voting for the National League Cy Young Award, the highest finish in his career.

His batting average against on balls in play has been unusually high the past two seasons -- .311 in 2015, .315 in '14 -- which is likely due to a combination of bad luck and the Nationals' poor defense. Should that number regress to near the league average (.299 last season), it could mean Strasburg is due for even more improvement. And despite his struggles last season, his strikeouts per nine innings (11.0) and walks per nine (1.8) were actually better than his career averages of 10.4 and 2.2.

Strasburg's fastball still averaged 95.98 mph last season, a tick better than in 2014. He also threw more high fastballs last season, which in turn induced popups at a higher rate than ever before in his career. In fact, Strasburg's 14.2 infield fly-ball percentage ranked sixth throughout baseball. Most of the other pitchers ranked highly on that list are softer throwers like Tommy Milone or Chris Young, and Strasburg said his increased rate was skewed by a small sample size.

"I try and hit my spots, I try and execute the pitch," Strasburg said. "If I execute the pitch and it's weak contact, I don't really care what it is. I don't think I'm like your prototypical ground-ball pitcher. I'll throw sinkers in there, but I think with my stuff, it's getting the swings and misses when you need to, but other than that, it's just pitching to contact and trying to get that weak contact."

It all lines up to this: If Strasburg, who will be a free agent at the end of the season, can remain healthy for the entire 2016 campaign, he could be poised for perhaps the best year of his career.

Jamal Collier is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.