But there were parts of Strasburg’s start, as there almost always are, that made your jaw drop. A changeup that he threw to strike out Joey Votto in the second inning falls into that category.
Which changeup, you ask? This one. (GIF courtesy of CBSsports.com)
But before we get into the actual pitch, it’s important to remember the scenario in which this pitch was thrown. With two outs and Strasburg needing a scoreless frame after a three-run first was nullified with a Nationals’ three-run second, the Reds hit back-to-back singles.
Working with runners on first and second and Votto at the plate is generally a tough way to do business. The scoreboard above Strasburg’s right shoulder, boasting Votto’s stats with runners in scoring position, explained why.
Votto has had 621 at-bats with runners in scoring position over the course of his career, which is essentially a season’s worth. He’s hit .351, has a .478 on-base percentage and a .618 slugging percentage.
He has 35 homers and 57 doubles. He’s not someone you want to trifle with.
That’s part of what made the way Strasburg approached it, and the final pitch, so impressive. Strasburg started Votto off with a fastball. Then he threw him two changeups, another fastball and another changeup. Votto fouled off four of those pitches.
Then came the final pitch. As you can see, Votto swung helplessly.
“To tell you the truth, honestly, with Stras’ changeup you never know what it’s going to do,” said catcher Kurt Suzuki, who admitted the pitch is “dirty.”
“Sometimes it drops, sometimes it’ll tail, sometimes it’ll stay straight, sometimes it’ll cut, it’s kind of like a 90-mph split. You never know what it’s going to do so that’s what makes it so tough for the hitter. They don’t know if it’s going to sink or cut or just stay straight. It’s a tough pitch.
“That was the second one in a row that he threw him, (fourth) one in the at-bat. So to do that to as good of a hitter like Votto is, it’s pretty impressive.”
Strasburg himself actually didn’t seem to think it was all that great.
“It was alright,” he said. “It was a little bit out of the zone. But when you try to work your fastball in and make pitches to set him up before that, I get some bad swings.”
Strasburg threw 28 changeups on Sunday, a quarter of the 114 pitches he threw and 15 percent more often than he used it on Opening Day. The final one he threw to Votto had 8.2 inches of run on it, according to Brooksbaseball.net.
Manager Davey Johnson felt the right-hander located it well only some of the time on Sunday. He threw it for strikes 60 percent of the time and got five swings-and-misses on it.
“It’s one of my better pitches,” Strasburg said. “I think when it’s on, it’s a pretty tough pitch to hit. You just want to keep them off-balance. The big thing for me is to continue to not try to throw it exactly for a contact pitch. I thought it was pretty effective (Sunday), except when I hung one to (Brandon Phillips for an RBI-single in the sixth inning).”
The strategy behind using his changeup, along with the rest of his offspeed and breaking pitches more often and occasionally earlier in games and counts, is part of Strasburg’s attempt to combat the aggressive approach many hitters take against him.
“I think early in the game we really pounded fastballs in, fastballs in,” Suzuki said. “Guys really try to ambush him. We try to mix it up a little bit, change speeds.
“Obviously everybody knows (Strasburg) throws 98 mph, but at the same time, he can throw anything he wants for a strike. And there’s no sense in getting into a predictable fastball count, when you know a guy has to be sitting dead red. If he has the ability to throw a breaking ball and pitch, pitch.
“They’re trying to hit the fastball. They don’t want to get to the offspeed stuff. If you can get into those counts where you do throw some offspeed in fastball counts, it really messes up the hitter and you can just kind of play with them from there. If a guy like Stras can do it, there’s no sense in having guys just sit dead red, ready to ambush him. That’s the kind of stuff we talk about, not letting guys do that to us.”
On Sunday, at least for one at-bat, against one of the game’s best hitters, it worked.