Atlanta, GA, USA; Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg (37) pitches in the second inning against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE
Stephen Strasburg was amazing, then he had Tommy John surgery, then he returned and he was different, albeit still amazing. Now he's back to the old amazing. Stephen Strasburg is back.
In my defense, it made so much sense at the time. It was the middle of April, and that early in the baseball season we observe a lot of things we think might be meaningful. Few of them turn out to be meaningful in the end, but that never stops us, that never teaches us the lesson once and for all. On April 18, I published an article titled Stephen Strasburg Is Different And The Same And Amazing. I looked at Strasburg's numbers before and after his Tommy John surgery, I identified a number of differences, and I concluded that Strasburg had changed the way he pitches, while remaining absolutely fantastic.
It sounded great. It was even supported by quotes! Strasburg was dialing back on his fastball, and also throwing more of his fastball, in an effort to have quicker at-bats. In theory, quicker at-bats mean less wear and tear, and Strasburg's secondary stuff has always been nigh unhittable. It looked like Strasburg had taken something away from his injury and emerged as a guy who wanted to be more efficient. Great. He was still unfairly effective.
I believed with my whole heart that that article was on the money, because it made only too much sense. It was written after Strasburg had started three times in 2012. Maybe I should have waited longer to see what 2012 would have in store.
It's July now, meaning we know a lot more about 2012 Stephen Strasburg than we did. We know more about 2012 Stephen Strasburg than we ever have, with each passing moment. What we can gather is that 2012 Stephen Strasburg is different from 2011 Stephen Strasburg. And 2012 Stephen Strasburg is a whole hell of a lot like 2010 Stephen Strasburg, which was the original Stephen Strasburg.
Everything you need to know can be summarized within an alarmingly simple table. No fancy graphics, nothing too intense. Just some numbers that are easy to understand.
Those 2011 numbers are based on a limited sample, as Strasburg started just five times for the Nationals after coming off the DL. But you can get a good sense of what he was doing, and you can get a good sense of what he isn't doing anymore.
Strasburg was throwing more fastballs at first after being hurt because he had an expressed desire to generate quicker outs. His fastball rate is most of the way back to where it was when he was a rookie. Compare the 2010 line against the 2012 line and they're practically twins. There are minor differences, but they're hardly significant. Various sources disagree on whether there are differences at all. You look at the 2010 line, and you look at the 2012 line, and you'd figure those lines were posted by the same pitcher. Because they were. In name, and in style.
The guy that Stephen Strasburg was before his elbow injury has returned to the mound after an effective but different guy kept the host body warm. Strasburg still talks about keys like efficiency and keeping his sinker down for easy ground balls, but any differences between what he is now and what he was are subtle. His average velocity is down a bit, but it hasn't cost him. His average plate appearance, which lasted 3.9 pitches in 2010 and 3.7 pitches in 2011, is up to 4.0 pitches in 2012.
You want easy contact and quick outs? On average, 30 percent of strikes are put in play. Against Strasburg in 2010, 23 percent of strikes were put in play. Against Strasburg this season, 23 percent of strikes have been put in play. That ties Strasburg with Max Scherzer for the lowest rate in the league. Everybody else is at 25 percent or above.
When Stephen Strasburg first came back, there was plenty of evidence that he was pitching differently, and pitching successfully. Now that Strasburg has put more distance between himself and his ligament replacement, he's pitching the old way, perhaps because it's what he finds most comfortable and natural. Maybe Stephen Strasburg has to go to some effort to allow himself to get hit. He is a very difficult pitcher to hit, usually.
Of course, one is free to question whether Strasburg should be pitching like his old self. He's got a major injury under his belt, now, and maybe more importantly, he's looking at a possible innings cap in what's looking like a playoff season. Maybe Strasburg should be trying to be even more efficient than he was in 2011. Maybe he should be dialing it back even more, putting pitches in the zone even more, saving himself even more so that he has more left down the stretch if he's still permitted to take the mound. Maybe generally speaking, it would be in Strasburg's best short- and long-term interests to make himself slightly less unhittable.
But I'm not looking to answer that question, and indeed I couldn't answer that question if I wanted to. I don't know how Strasburg should be pitching. But I know how he is pitching, and he's pitching like he used to pitch. Which -- look, here's the thing. We fall in love with talented pitchers, and we all know that pitchers get hurt all the time. The great ones, the bad ones, the ones in between, sometimes they get hurt with no warning. Most pitchers, after getting hurt, will manage to return to the mound, but we never know how they'll return until they're back. We never know if they'll look like themselves, or if they'll look like something different, or different and worse.
When Stephen Strasburg went down with a torn ligament, we didn't know if he'd still have that magic on the other end. The magic that allowed him to become maybe the most hyped pitching prospect in the recent history of baseball. Strasburg enchanted all of us in his first tour of duty, and we recognized that baseball's better with Stephen Strasburg in it.
Strasburg's all the way back now. He's still got that same magic, and he's not afraid to use it. From watching him pitch and looking at his numbers, you'd never know that he was ever messed up, meaning we can officially turn the page from a most unfortunate chapter. Stephen Strasburg 2.0 is just Stephen Strasburg 1.0 with a new ligament in his elbow. The new ligament doesn't make him any more human.