All eyes were on big #37 tonight 9/6 (box/gamer), with Stephen Strasburg making his comeback. I’ll be the 1000th opinion you will read about his return, but here’s what I thought of his return.
Final line: 5ip, 2hits, zero walks and four strikeouts. 56 pitches, 40 for strikes through 5 complete innings. He left with a 3-0 lead but got a no-decision when his bullpen conspired to blow the lead.
Strasburg featured mostly 2- and 4-seam fastballs on the night, mixing in a handful of curveballs and a few well timed change-ups. He sat mostly in the 96-97 range (average on the night was exactly 96.68) on his 4-seamer but (amazingly) humped his 2-seamer up to the 97 range as well (click here for his Pitch f/x data). A 2-seam running fastball at 97mph is almost unfair to hitters, and if he can continue getting that kind of pace on a ball that moves so much that catchers have a hard time catching it, that’s bad news for the league. It didn’t seem to me he really was commanding the curve (he only threw 3 of 7 for strikes), and he didn’t throw the change-up nearly as much as in 2010 (only five change-ups on the night). This approach was perhaps because of who was calling the game; Ivan Rodriguez called lots of change-ups while Wilson Ramos seemed content to call a more conventional fastball-heavy game. I’m guessing the coaching staff gave him some edicts about not abusing Strasburg’s arm with a bunch of circle-changes his first game back. Personally I think it was over-use of the change-up that led to his arm injury, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him develop something less stressful on his arm at some point to use as a change of pace pitch.
Strasburg’s mechanics seemed a bit more reserved, a bit stiffer perhaps than last year. To me, he wasn’t efforting as much into each pitch as we have seen. Perhaps this goes along with the same game-plan that Jordan Zimmermann has been employing; instead of running up your pitch count to get a bunch of Ks, try to pitch to contact and get hitters to go after your stuff earlier in the count. Its better to go 7 or 8 innings on 100 pitches with 6 Ks than to be sitting at 100 pitches after 6 with 10 Ks. You have a better chance of guaranteeing the win and saving the bullpen.
The Dodgers did their part in extending his planned outing from 4ip to 5 (albeit with a 60 pitch limit) by going up hacking. They probably figured that Strasburg would be grooving 4-seamers to start everyone off with a routine fastball … and they were mostly right. First pitch swinging continued into the 2nd pass through the lineup, to the point where I was wondering why Ramos wasn’t mixing up the pitch calling. No matter; the Dodger hitters more or less couldn’t catch up to his fastball. The two hits he allowed consisted of a game-leading off double on a jammed blooper over the shortstop’s head, and a grounder up the middle that Ian Desmond really should have gotten (it was a soft hit ruling, in my opinion). Only one hitter really put good wood on anything Strasburg threw; James Loney lined a grooved fastball to right, but right at Jonny Gomes.
Perhaps the most impressive at bat of the night was the 2nd time MVP candidate Matt Kemp faced Strasburg. He started Kemp off with a 2-seamer that rode the inside corner for strike one, then he blew a 98 mph 4-seamer at the knees over the outside part of the plate for strike 2. An absolute unhittable ball. The announcers thought he’d go curve; I knew he’d go change. He threw an absolute gem of a change up, a diving 90mph 0-2 change up that Kemp waved at for the best 3-pitch combo he threw all night.
The 2-seamer was moving, his curve seemed to be a bit loopy and out of control. His vaunted circle change wasn’t diving back as much as we’ve seen; he seemed to be gripping it with more of a palm-ball grip instead of the circle change grip and the changeup was coming in straighter than his change last year. But, it was still coming in and diving down well enough to elude the batters waving at it.
Summary; fantastic outing, as much as we could have hoped for.