Scout's Take: Nitpicking at Strasburg
Well, honestly, there are no "problems" with his game at all, but he has chinks in his armor. Even the greatest pitchers had their flaws, and Strasburg is no different. And the small flaws we've seen in his first two starts really come as no surprise.
Back in April, I had the chance to scout Strasburg's debut in Altoona, and a couple things jumped out at me that could possibly come back to bite him against big league hitters. One of those things was his changeup. He still has some problems locating it consistently, and that was clear in his brief minor league stint.
But now, at the big league level, there seems to be a more fundamental problem that stands out about Strasburg's changeup and how he chooses to use it. He's been sitting at 98-100 mph with the fastball, and not surprisingly the vast majority of hitters have been way behind it. Other hitters have looked downright hopeless against it. Yet even against those hitters, Strasburg and his battery mate, Pudge Rodriguez, have continued to go to the changeup quite a bit.
There have been so few good swings put on Strasburg thus far, it's difficult to say there is one way to hit him, but some of the very few good hacks against him have been on his changeup. Delwyn Young, for example, got a changeup in Strasburg's debut and knew what to do with it. Carlos Santana got one on Sunday and lined out hard to left field. Now, typically, a changeup gets a hitter out on his front foot, but in the case of Strasburg's changeup, the hitters are suddenly right on time.
Most hitters are geared for fastballs around 88-92 mph, also referred to as hitting speed. When Strasburg is living around 90-92 mph with his changeup, it is really helping out hitters who are consistently late on his fastball. Obviously, it's important to have another speed for lefty hitters in particular to think about, but he's going to have to pick his spots and be very sharp with his location. Otherwise, it is an ideal velocity for the bat speeds of most hitters.
Of course, another thing to keep in mind is that Strasburg's changeup is still a work in progress. Similar to what I saw in Altoona, he still tends to overthrow it and miss up and away to his arm side. That decreases the differential in velocity from his fastball and makes him much more hittable when it's in the zone. If he can be around 88-89 mph with the changeup without sacrificing arm speed, use it a little more sparingly, and keep it down in the zone it can be a usable pitch. But let's not go on thinking that he is already a full-fledged three-pitch pitcher. Nor does he need to be.
If he can sink the fastball away to lefties, mix in the occasional changeup and continue to throw that otherwordly breaking ball, let's just say he'll be fine -- to say the least. There's a reason that guys who throw exceptionally hard have difficulty using a changeup as a weapon. It's very difficult for them to throw one below the typical fastball hitting speed, and that's a big key. But, there is just no reason for him to overuse his change right now and get hurt on it when hitters look hopeless against his best two pitches. It's important for him to develop it and keep hitters honest, but not to the point where he is helping hitters out and getting too much plate with it.
So, to recap, there are two issues with the changeup: First, there's a little too much velocity right now for it to get hitters consistently out in front. Second, he may be using it a bit too much and allowing some better swings against him than there need to be, and sometimes (like Sunday) he's getting behind in the count because his command of it is not quite there yet.
And, aside from the mound being an issue for him in Cleveland on Sunday (it was a legitimate problem), I question the aggression of the game-calling just a little bit as well. Oddly, Pudge Rodriguez, who once was thought to call too many fastballs, could get Strasburg in more of an attack mode with his fastball. In both of his big league starts, he got into some ruts of using every pitch in his arsenal and going at hitters like a pitcher with much lesser stuff. Right now, there should be more of a focus on being aggressive with his fastball and getting ahead with first-pitch strikes.
Let me reiterate, all of this is nothing less than an act of extreme nitpicking, but that is how high Strasburg has set the bar. He's been nothing short of outstanding in the early part of his big league career, but let's not lose sight of the fact that he is still a 21-year-old pitcher with minor flaws he has to work out and things he needs to learn about pitching at the big league level.
Frankie Piliere spent the last three seasons working as a scout, most recently in the professional scouting department for the Texas Rangers in 2009. He now serves as the National Baseball Analyst here at FanHouse.