First, we need to talk about Stephen Strasburg‘s 2017 Grapefruit League debut which added some intrigue to the normal mix of “things you never saw before”. Strasburg toed the rubber at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches to face Cardinals lead-off man Tommy Pham out of the stretch and not the traditional wind-up.
Strasburg plans to exclusively pitch from the stretch in 2017. As was rumored, Strasburg will also limit and be more judicious in throwing his slider, but contrary to some rumors, Strasburg won’t ditch the slider altogether which was the pitch Strasburg added to his repertoire during his 2016 Spring Training, and was the reason many thought he jumped out to a 15-1 record to begin the 2016 season. In fact, after throwing his fastball 57% of the time in 2016, Strasburg threw his slider as his secondary pitch of choice with 17% of his pitches followed by his change-up at a 13.04% frequency and his curveball 12.6% of the time.
While there are many theories on what caused Strasburg’s issues that led to his forearm injury in 2016 ending his season essentially on August 17th, one theory was overuse early in the season as Strasburg threw 510 pitches in the month of April including two starts by May 19th where Strasburg went past 110 pitches. Nobody knows for sure if it was the slider, too many pitches, flawed mechanics, or a combination of more than one factor that caused Strasburg’s injury, but throw caution to the wind in 2017 and Strasburg is going to be proactive with these changes. It is up to Dusty Baker and Mike Maddux to control Strasburg’s pitch counts and use patterns. Maddux reported they plan to eliminate throwing sliders in Strasburg’s side sessions as one change and not to throw the slider in games against certain batters.
“I’m not trying to reinvent myself,” Strasburg said. “But I’m trying to simplify things as much as I can. [The slider is] a pitch that I still want to throw because I think it’s effective, but to certain guys. You just never know, [these 2017 tweaks] just might be something that takes your game to the next level.”
By the way, Strasburg pitched 2 innings of one-hit baseball with 3 strikeouts, and while the radar gun in the stadium was out of order, a scout with a radar gun had Strasburg’s fastball at a free and easy 92 to 94mph.
“He was pretty electric,” Dusty Baker said. “He was very sharp for his first time out. If Mike [Maddux] don’t have a problem with [pitching exclusively from the stretch], I don’t have a problem with it. He threw pretty good out of it. So if he feels right and feels comfortable, continue to do it.”
Also making his spring debut yesterday was Ryan Zimmerman with much less fanfare. Like Strasburg, the magnifying glass will also be on Zimmerman’s mechanics and any positive changes to keep him healthy for a full season which Zimmerman has not been able to do since 2013, and in the last 7 seasons Zimmerman has averaged only 115 games played. While there is always concern about Zimmerman’s health, this spring training is focused on improving his offense. Zimmerman has been on a steady decline that started after 2012 when he finished that season with a .824 OPS. In 2013, Zim saw a small decrease to an .809 OPS. The following season he fell below that important .800 threshold to a .790 OPS followed by a .773 OPS in 2015, and then Zimmerman fell off the table with a league worse .642 OPS last year.
“[Zimmerman] has a lot of things that he has to get in sync,” Dusty Baker said. “But once he gets it, boy it’s unbelievable. I’m still thinking he’s going to have a heck of a year.”
Dusty has also said that Zimmerman was his “pick to click” for this season. Was 2016 an outlier for Ryan Zimmerman where he can improve this season above his career average OPS of .809? Time will tell, but nobody including forecasters believe Zimmerman can play as poorly as he did in 2016. We have been told that Zimmerman debuted yesterday with a big leg kick, and not the huge leg kick he has shown in prior seasons. Zimmerman is also holding his hands lower which was a trick that Cal Ripken Jr. and others had done to help in launch angle even before that term came en vogue. Players just knew that they were hitting too many groundballs and worked on changes to get more balls hit on a line. In Zimmerman’s first at-bat yesterday, he hit a liner right at an outfielder, but it was encouraging to see as it is the process now, and not the end-result of hit or out. Daniel Murphy, who had the best season of his career in 2016, is helping Ryan Zimmerman with launch angle.
#Statcast average launch angles, 2016:
— #Statcast (@statcast) February 25, 2017
If all of these adjustments work with Zimmerman’s transformation, the bigger question is going to be, “What took so long to make the changes”?
The Nationals play the Cardinals in Jupiter which is just north of West Palm Beach in the same Palm Beach County. The game is at 1:05 pm, and Gio Gonzalez will pitch for the Nationals against Lance Lynn. This game will be televised live on the Cardinals TV feed and recast at 8pm on MLB Network. Charlie Slowes and Dave Jageler will have the radio call for the Nationals on the 1580 AM feed or using the MLB App.
Today’s starting line-up is:
- Wilmer Difo SS
- Grant Green 2B
- Ryan Zimmerman DH
- Clint Robinson 1B
- Corban Joseph 3B
- Brandon Snyder RF
- Michael Taylor CF
- Pedro Severino C
- Brian Goodwin LF
Gio Gonazlez LHP