In the second inning of Tuesday’s big win over the Atlanta Braves, Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg took a 110-mph comebacker off the bat of William Contreras to the glove hand. The ball ricocheted into his pitching hand and then bounced away. A grimacing Strasburg—in fact Strasburg spent most of his Tuesday evening grimacing—retrieved it and made the throw to first for the out, but the close brush with a hellbound baseball prompted a mound visit, and after some back-and-forth manager Davey Martinez made the decision to yank Strasburg from the game. As shitty as it is to say about a guy getting creamed by a screaming liner, the timing of the comebacker was fortuitous, and the excuse for a serious talk was a gift from the cosmos: Prior to the reverse plunking, Strasburg, a former World Series MVP and in the second year of a $245 million contract meant to keep him in Washington through his age-37 season, looked an awful lot like a pile of crap.
Fans’ first impression of Strasburg, formed back in 2010 and then reinforced following Tommy John surgery, was of a guy who complemented a big fiery fastball with a big nasty curve and a changeup that even in the upper 80s looked like some cartoon slowball shit thrown by Bugs Bunny. The guy who took the mound Tuesday against the Braves was unrecognizable: The fellow in the Strasburg jersey struck out Dansby Swanson with a pitch MLB’s tracking system identified as a changeup, but which was in fact an 89-mph fastball. The fastest pitch Strasburg threw in his aborted start was a 90-mph heater that missed the target by a good six inches during a game-opening four-pitch walk to Ronald Acuña Jr. Strasburg was treated to his first mound visit, from Martinez and the team’s head athletic trainer, after just one batter.
His condition is not looking too good. Strasburg is scheduled for an MRI on his neck and upper shoulder Wednesday, and at this point it would almost be more alarming if the imaging didn’t reveal a major injury. Strasburg came into the league averaging 98 mph on his four-seamer. As recently as 2017 he was still favoring the hard stuff and averaging better than 95 mph. This season nothing he throws averages much better than 91 mph, a discouraging new low point on a long trajectory of declining velocity. He spent his time on the mound Tuesday twisting his neck uncomfortably and rubbing his throwing arm, and struggling with command, and getting smacked around. If there’s not a treatable pocket of crabmeat somewhere between his chin and the tip of his right index finger, and this slow-throwing guy is just what a healthy Stephen Strasburg looks like now, then he and the Nationals are in for some extraordinarily rough times.
You’d live with Strasburg doggedly remaking himself as a gritty fourth starter if the man were ever, ever, ever healthy, but he just simply is not. In the five admittedly very weird combined months of regular-season baseball since Strasburg signed his big deal, he’s pitched just 26.2 total innings. Carpal tunnel neuritis in his right hand and wrist, followed by corrective surgery, limited him to just five total innings of work in the shortened 2020 season. Right shoulder inflammation knocked him out for most of April and May; Tuesday’s inning-plus against the Braves was just his fifth appearance of this season. It’s a career-long thing: Strasburg has topped 180 innings pitched just three times in 11 seasons in the majors; injuries have knocked him out for major portions of five of the last seven years. It used to be an event when Strasburg took the mound because his stuff was so consistently electric! Now it’s an event when he pitches because, like the return of Brood X cicadas, there’s a decent chance it will not happen again in your lifetime.
Strasburg has been to the mountaintop with the Nationals, a summit that redeemed, at least narratively, a lot of injury-related frustrations from earlier in his career. His performance in the 2019 World Series will keep him in free beers around D.C. for as long as he lives. Only a lunatic would dare call him a disappointment after delivering the first championship to a Washington baseball team since 1924. But the particular arc of his career, marked at infuriatingly regular intervals by back, elbow, arm, neck, and hand injuries, gives the impression that you are constantly waiting for Strasburg to just be Strasburg for a while. It’s frankly shocking to look back at his career and realize that he’s made 246 starts and pitched almost 1,500 total innings. When, between trips to the injured list, did he have time for all of that? And more importantly, when will his next turn through the rotation not feel like an ultra-fleeting stopover between rehab assignments?
Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo indicated Wednesday that Strasburg’s alarming velocity drop had less to do with a dead arm and more to do with pain management: “Oftentimes with Stras, it’s fundamentals and mechanically driven when he comes out of his chute and doesn’t throw well. But this one had a little bit different flavor to it. It was mechanically and you could see there was something not right with him.” That sequence—Strasburg altering the way he throws in order to avoid or manage pain—is also a handy summary of the entire back half of his baseball career. He’s changed his delivery, tweaked his mechanics, dialed back his hard stuff, and taught himself to pitch to contact, all in order to lighten his workload and the stress put on his body. In an era when velocities and strikeouts are spiking like literally no time in baseball’s long history, Strasburg, gifted with some of the most explosive stuff of his generation, is steadily turning himself into Josh Towers. And still his body is breaking down. It sucks!
While they wait to see when or whether Strasburg’s latest ill-timed muscle or nerve issue will pass, the Nationals will shuffle their staff and guys like Erick Fedde and Austin Voth will assume larger roles. Broadly, this is fine, because the 2021 Nationals are crud and one way or another they will find their way toward the bottom of the NL East. But another injury for this poor guy is a loss for everyone. Nationals fans and fans of baseball want to see Stephen Strasburg pitch, but more than that they want to see him pitch like Stephen Strasburg. Whether that will ever again be possible very much remains to be seen, but the chances are looking more remote with every grimace.