Stephen Strasburg will be pitching with a chip on his shoulder this season. He did not want to be limited in 2012. He did not want to be shut down in September. He certainly did not want to miss out on helping his team in the postseason. Allowing Strasburg to help the Nationals to all the success they had then shutting him down just before the ultimate reward of postseason glory was devastatingly frustrating to the young pitcher, but now he's free.
As Strasburg enters the 2013 season with no innings-limit, there will be some things to keep an eye on. The team will still closely monitor Strasburg's performances and his health regardless of any publicized limits. But they'll have to be careful not to allow Strasburg to push himself too hard.
Don't be surprised to see Strasburg pushing himself further into games. He wants to pitch more innings and go deeper into games. Strasburg has even said he wants to reduce his strikeouts and get more ground balls in order to achieve this goal. While pitch efficiency will be important, and Strasburg could pitch more innings without throwing more pitches, it will be important to monitor for fatigue.
Fatigue leads pitchers to do dumb things. Things like change their arm angle, ignore their bodies' warning signs, and play through pain. As the season progresses, Strasburg's velocity may take a natural dip, but any significant drop off on his fastball velocity should be concerning. In addition, command is a key indicator of fatigue. Strasburg has done a reasonably solid job of avoiding free passes, but if he starts to get wild, he may be simply burning himself out.
As mentioned above, Strasburg intends to strike fewer people out. But will he be able to stick to that plan? Strikeouts are exciting. They are often a pitchers' claim to fame. But they are terribly inefficient. Strasburg has been working to improve his sinker, and he says it will help him allow more balls to be put into play. That may not be such a great idea.
Allowing more balls to be put into play could back fire for Strasburg. Although he has the equivalent of close to two full seasons of Major League experience, the sample size for BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is still small. But it might tell a story. And that story says, strike people out. Last season, Strasburg's BABIP was .311. He is projected to have a .304 BABIP by Bill James. If he allows more balls to be put in play and continues to have a high BABIP, he will still have to throw more pitcher because he'll be trying to get out of jams.
There are so many injury indicators for pitcher. Far more, obviously, than position player. Yet, it seems like teams often ignore these indicators or trust their players to simply tell them when something is wrong. The Nationals can't do that with Strasburg. Considering his injury and the fact that he was pulled early last season, there's a good chance Strasburg will hide any nagging problems he may have throughout the 2013 season. It's on the Nationals to figure that out.
Performance is a great indicator. If Strasburg is suddenly walking more batters, throwing more fastballs (while losing velocity on the fastball), or doing any number of other indicators, the team will have to think long and hard about whether the problems are performance-based or an injury concern. Johan Santana and C.C. Sabathia had clear warning signs leading up to their injuries last season. Whether the Mets and the Yankees ignored those signs or not will never be known, but the Nationals can't ignore any signs Strasburg gives. Because he surely won't say anything.
There's a good chance that Strasburg has a Cy Young-like season this year. He will be free to pitch as much as his body will let him. This can be good and bad, but having Strasburg healthy is going to be a huge advantage for the Nationals. The team will simply have to keep a close eye on their ace and monitor the little things. A bunch of little things can quickly become one big thing.
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