Sunday, March 14, 2010

Contrasting styles, similar results

Photo by Rachel Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Battling a fierce crosswind, Stephen Strasburg tossed three scoreless innings.
VIERA, Fla. -- You'd be hard-pressed to find any pitching tandem in baseball more diverse than Stephen Strasburg and Livan Hernandez.

One is the embodiment of a power pitcher who blows hitters away with sheer force. The other slings slop up toward the plate, hoping to catch guys off-balance and force them into bad swings.

One throws his fastball as hard as anyone in the sport and even tops 90 mph with his change-up. The other throws his fastball in the low 80s and occasionally fires up a 61 mph curveball that would make Bugs Bunny proud.

One is a picture perfect, physical specimen: 6 feet, 4 inches and 220 pounds of pitching perfection, with strong legs that drive off the mound and allow that fastball to reach such dizzying heights. The other is, shall we say, a bit on the pudgy side, with a body that the casual observer would never guess belongs to a professional athlete.

Yet Stephen Strasburg and Livan Hernandez possess far more similarities than you'd ever believe. More than anything, each right-hander possesses the quality most important to achieving success in their field: an acute understanding how to pitch.

And on a windswept Sunday afternoon at Space Coast Stadium that saw the Nationals drop their 10th straight Grapefruit League contest, we saw both hurlers display their mastery of the profession.

Battling that fierce, 20 mph crosswind that wreaked havoc with their control, both Strasburg and Hernandez tossed three quality innings against the Cardinals, each stating their case to be included in Washington's rotation sooner rather than later.

Neither was admittedly at their best, whether because of the wind or because of other factors. But even when they weren't on their game, they managed to get the job done. Strasburg, learning how to control his assortment of four power pitches against the wind, allowed two singles and a walk during three scoreless innings. Hernandez, making his first appearance of the spring, had to adjust on the fly after allowing two early runs (one earned) and wound up holding St. Louis to those two runs over three frames.

An appreciative batterymate came away impressed.

"I told [Strasburg]: 'Good pitchers who win 15-20 games in the big leagues, that's what they do,'" catcher Wil Nieves said. "That showed his character. Even though he's young, he doesn't get frustrated. He keeps battling and gives us a chance to stay in the game."

Strasburg's second outing of the spring wasn't as dazzling as his first. His fastball was down a notch or two, registering between 94 and 97 mph. Despite throwing first-pitch strikes to seven of 11 batters, he still needed 49 pitches to get through three innings.

Yet look at the linescore at the end of the day, and the kid retired eight of 11 hitters, allowing two singles and a walk, striking out two and recording seven other outs via groundballs. In two starts spanning five innings, he's yet to surrender a fly ball to the outfield.

"That's very encouraging," manager Jim Riggleman said. "A guy who's a power pitcher like that has the potential to get some quick innings, low pitch counts, with some groundballs. We saw more of that today."

Further evidence of Strasburg's understanding of pitching: In college and in the Arizona Fall League, he regularly hit 100 mph with his four-seam fastball. Yet he hasn't come close to cracking that magic number so far this spring. Is he still working his arm into shape to build up to that kind of velocity? No, he's making a conscious effort not to try to throw that hard.

"I'm not worried about velocity," he said. "Guys that can throw 100 can get lit up in the big leagues. A guy hits a 100 mph fastball. That's not pitching. I'm trying to go out there and pitch."

(If only Daniel Cabrera could spend 10 minutes talking shop with this guy. Then again, Cabrera would probably still insist he's fine sticking with what he's done for the last decade, content to be a guy with a 98 mph fastball and a 7 mph brain.)

Strasburg has come to this understanding on his own. He didn't need to hear it from coaches or teammates. But if you didn't know any better, you'd swear he's been dining every night this month with Hernandez, a guy who understands better than anyone in the game that high velocity does not guarantee success.

Livo was up to his old tricks today during his three innings of relief. Fastball barely cracking 80 mph. That incredible curveball, the slowest pitch in the majors that doesn't emanate from someone's knuckles. Dude's been doing this for 14 years now. He must have some clue what he's doing.

Hernandez also knows spring training results mean nothing. You think this guy doesn't know how to prepare himself for the regular season?

"In spring training you come and work on the pitches and the mechanics so everything is perfect for the season," he said. "Spring training, for me -- for somebody else maybe it's different -- but I try to put everything together for the season."

Comparing Stephen Strasburg and Livan Hernandez is like comparing apples and nose hairs. There's really no way to connect the two. But there are things the rookie can learn from watching the veteran in action, and he could come up with plenty worse role models.

Is Livo the greatest pitcher of his generation? No way. But he did throw more innings and more pitches than anyone in the majors from 2000-2009, has earned 156 big-league victories and has started 10 postseason games. He must have been doing something right along the way.

"I'm trying to learn as much as I can from all the guys," Strasburg said. "They've been around the block. They know what to expect. They know what it takes to endure a 162-hopefully-plus-game season."

Notice how Strasburg threw that "hopefully-plus" between "162" and "game"? He knows what this really is all about. He doesn't need Livan Hernandez or anyone else to tell him that. But it can't hurt having a guy like that around just in case.


Anonymous said...

Could connect it if one was snorting apples.

natsfan1a said...

Now, that's funny. Kinda sad, but funny. :-)


(If only Daniel Cabrera could spend 10 minutes talking shop with this guy. Then again, Cabrera would probably still insist he's fine sticking with what he's done for the last decade, content to be a guy with a 98 mph fastball and a 7 mph brain.)

Sunderland said...

Mark: At 0 - 10 it's laugh or go nuts. Thanks for the wit. I for one needed it tonight.
And thanks for connecting Strasburg and Livo. It's easy to see the differences. Glad to see that Strasburg see value in some Cuban Relaxation.

Doc said...

Hey MarkMeister thats what writing about BB is all about. Neat article. Thanks. By the way, Greg Maddox won 350+ games with a fastball that rarely went over 88 mph.; same for my favorite all time pitcher Warren Spahn. Like the team IQ guru, A. Dunn says, this dude Strasburg has a lot up top--if you know what I mean!

Eric said...


How about a comparison of Livan and Wakefield? Sure, one's a slop pitcher and the other's a knuckleballer, but both are innings-eaters, savvy veterans, relatively inexpensive and love pitching for their teams.

Why should the Nats even think of not having Livan in the rotation? Sure, he's going to have some horrible games, but he also will have more quality starts than anyone else in the rotation. And, for some inexplicable reason, he loves wearing the curly W. A key to winning is to get a QS out of your SP and keep the bullpen fresh, right?

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