No surprise that Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg dominated the Miami Marlins in his Opening Day 2013 start. What was surprising, however, was his lack of strikeouts.
The Nats phenom threw a very efficient, seven-inning outing in the opener — only 80 pitches in 7 innings. Strasburg allowed the Fish just three hits and no walks, and struck out only three batters. That might seem crazy — how does a guy who regularly flirts with triple digits, and has a knee-buckling curveball, manage to strike out only three batters in seven frames? With his kind of stuff, young Stephen would have to TRY to not strike guys out.
And that’s exactly what he did.
Wait … what?
Yup — fewer strikeouts, more contact, and lower pitch count was Strasburg’s plan all along. In fact, that’s his new default strategy going forward.
It’s an interesting concept in today’s sabermetric-influenced game — one in which pitchers are valued more highly for their ability to get swings and misses. But it’s not a new concept; it’s an old-school one that made sense for the hundred or so years before Bill James started distributing his hand-stapled newsletter, Michael Lewis wrote Moneyball, and Billy Beane became a rock star. In the past, though, it wasn’t called “pitching to contact” — it was merely called pitching. Efficiency made sense for many reasons. It was democratic, for one (to steal a line from Bull Durham), as it involved everyone on the field. More to the point, when a pitcher “lets the batter hit the ball,” and looking to have that happen early in the count, the fielders are more alert, on their toes, and ready to field. Ready fielders are better fielders. Higher-pitch games mean more down time for fielders, which makes concentration more difficult to sustain, especially as a game wears on.
Don’t misunderstand — the pitcher isn’t just letting hitters hack away at meatballs. There is generally a specific strategy that is shared with the entire defense. For example, if the plan is to pitch in such a way so as to induce a righthanded batter to pull the ball, all defenders will be shaded to the left. So in essence, instead of man-to-man combat between pitcher and batter, it’s seven against one — and aren’t the odds a lot better when it’s seven guys vs. one?
Against the young, anxious Marlins lineup, Strasburg could have very easily gone for the strikeout on every batter — and could have been very successful with such a strategy. However, it’s unlikely he would have lasted seven innings had he struck out, say, 10 to 12 batters. Regardless of whether you’re a supporter or opponent of pitch counts, the unfortunate reality is that artificial, universal pitch counts exist in MLB, and pitchers must work within their limits — which is all the more reason it makes sense for a pitcher to try to be as efficient as possible (assuming, of course, he wants to hang around beyond the fifth or sixth inning).
Now, we can’t expect Strasburg to dispose of every team he faces with such dominance and efficiency — he took advantage of a club that is predominantly over-aggressive by nature, and, with Strasburg on the mound, crank that aggressiveness another notch. From the Marlins’ perspective, Strasburg’s stuff is so good, so difficult to hit, that a batter will swing early in the count because he thinks a) it may be the most hittable pitch he’ll see in the at-bat; and b) he doesn’t want to fall behind on the count and have to face the really nasty stuff. Again, this is an old-school mentality, and one of the reasons games routinely lasted only two hours back in the day; batters swung often and early. Such an approach generally means batters lack confidence, and though it’s not quite as common in the present-day, OBP-focused mindset, it’s still prevalent — particularly when certain pitchers are on the mound (like Strasburg). And to reiterate, Strasburg could have fulfilled Miami’s expectations and attempted to blow away every hitter with his lights-out stuff. Instead, he took advantage of his opponents’ approach, and induced early, weak contact.
It makes plenty of sense, and it will keep him in ballgames a few batters to a few innings longer than the alternative.
Oh, and Strasburg wasn’t the only elite pitcher to use this strategy with success on Opening Day — the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw employed the same plan, and spun a four-hit, complete-game, 98-pitch shutout.