Calling his pitches

Stephen Strasburg is the 19-year-old pitching prodigy from San Diego State who looks to be the number one draft choice. The Washington Nationals were so horrible last year that they ended up with the first pick, so the Washington Post published a story about him. The whole thing is worth reading and will whet your appetite for the upcoming baseball season. (Spring training begins next Saturday!) The story focuses on how Strasburg had 23 strikeouts against the biggest hitting team in the conference. 23! Only 4 outs were by some other means. Here we get some of his commentary when he watched the DVD of his exploit for the first time:

Given a chance to revisit that game — last week, Strasburg watched the DVD for the first time — Strasburg processed the action not as something extraordinary, but rather, as an explicable sequence of strategy. Even 10 months removed, Strasburg remembered almost every pitch, and in the details there was no vision of a tall tale.

“Okay, this is [Jesse] Shriner,” Strasburg, sitting on a stool in the players’ lounge, said while watching an at-bat with Utah’s catcher. “My freshman year, he ended up getting a game-winning single off me. I blew a save in the ninth inning because of this guy. So I was a little geared up for him. He’s one of those guys where, typically, he’ll just look for a fastball away and guide it. He’s not trying to pull anything. This at-bat here, I go fastball in. Then I get him up and in, swinging. That was the pitch I got him with all game.”

As Strasburg watched the game’s final innings, he noticed how the nuances aligned just so. Baseball is a game of guessing, and guessing right is its science. With two outs and two aboard in the sixth, a right-handed batter for Utah swung way too late on a one-strike fastball, fouling it off toward the first base bleachers. Strasburg debated his next pitch. The previous foul indicated that the batter would need to start his swing earlier; he’d need to cheat. The previous foul also suggested, at least to most, that Strasburg should dial up another fastball.

“But see, he was thinking I’d double up,” Strasburg said. “So now I’m thinking right here, I can strike him out with a slider.”

He did just that. . . .

On the flat-screen television in front of Strasburg, the sun dipped. The final outs fell. Strasburg offered commentary about why he never throws his change-up in college games (it’s the only pitch slow enough for them to hit) and about why most batters try to swing at the first pitch they see from him. (“Typically deeper in the count they don’t stand a chance, to be honest,” he said.)

“Right here, this is the last pitch” of the game, he said. “This one I was pretty much giving it everything I had left. You can see. One sign from the catcher. I’m bringing it.”

The pitch was high and outside, pure smoke, swing and a miss. Strasburg’s catcher leapt, pumped his fist and ran toward the diamond. Strasburg jumped off the pitcher’s mound, but then just strode toward his catcher for a handshake. Soon, teammates and coaches were mobbing him, hugging him, rubbing his head. Strasburg, face still clenched, seemed less like a part of the celebration than an object within it. A rag doll, numb.

“I don’t even remember what I was thinking here at all,” Strasburg, watching, recalled of that moment.

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  • Doug

    Reading his account makes me yearn to pick up my glove again. I loved pitching for that very reason. The cat and mouse game of trying to outguess the hitters and then trying hard to get your pitch to do what you need it to do and land where it needed to land. It was a constant duel and a splendid one at that.

  • Bruce Gee

    As a guy who spent his hardball days wearing the tools of ignorance, there was great pleasure in calling games when my pitcher had command of his pitches. For the catcher, it is like a video game. I can understand the elation of this catcher at the end of the game. After all, strikeouts are statistically credited as put-outs by the…catcher!

  • Doug

    Bruce, I must agree. Catchers are essential to a good pitcher. There is nothing worse then knowing you can strike a guy out with a hard curveball at the knees but knowing that your catcher will be unable to dig the ball out of the dirt. it takes weapons out of your arsenal. My best years were when I was caught by Glenn, the best catcher I ever threw to.

  • Peter Leavitt

    I attempted to play first-base baseball in school and college and was all too often defeated by evil pitchers like Strasburg and apparently, Doug. A pox on all of them, including their conspiring malevolent catchers.

  • Bruce Gee

    I think Doug and I remember you facing us, Peter. Be honest. It was the knuckle curve that followed the high and tight fastball that messed you up, wasn’t it.

    Of course, when I was catching, no one had ever heard of a knuckle curve, slider, nickel curve, or split-finger or cut fastball. We had three pitches, and often only two. Changing speed and location is still what works. The point the article makes: that baseball is a game of guesswork–gets truer as the competitive level rises. As a long-forgotten Brewer once commented: “I just see the blur and swing at it.”