Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 4/17/12

Stephen Strasburg the number one Major League Baseball pick by the Washington Nationals delivers a pitch in his first start in the Arizona Fall League at Phoenix Municipal Stadium in Phoenix, AZ, October 16,2009. (UPI/Art Foxall) Photo via Newscom

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Stephen Strasburg did his job Monday night against the Astros, notching the win and a quality start. He threw six innings and held Houston to two runs on six hits and one walk while striking out five. It was a solid outing and any pitcher across the league would take it, but this was Stephen Strasburg pitching at home against one of the league’s lesser squads. The no-hitter watch was started as soon as Jordan Schafer stepped up to lead it off for the Astros. Given the circumstances, Strasburg’s performance looks surprisingly human.

Through five innings, Strasburg was absolutely cruising. The Astros were scoreless with just three baserunners against the Nationals’ phenom, and Strasburg needed just 61 pitches to dispatch the first 15 outs. Strasburg didn’t fall behind a single batter in the third, fourth or fifth innings and looked to be on track for an easy seven inning start.

But then things got dicey in the sixth inning, as the Astros mustered two runs on three hits and a walk with the top of their order. Specifically, Strasburg struggled to get ahead of hitters and was forced to serve up fastballs in the zone as the inning progressed. As good as his fastball is, Major League hitters will hit any straight offering if it is presented enough, and that’s what happened in the sixth inning. Strasburg threw 13 pitches from behind in the count after throwing just 11 in the first five innings.

Strasburg opened the sixth inning by falling behind both Jordan Schafer and Jed Lowrie. He then threw fastballs in the zone, and with each hitter able to sit fastball without concerns of falling behind should Strasburg spot a breaking pitch for a strike, they pulled both for singles:

Could each of these pitches been hit had Strasburg been ahead in the count? Of course — both caught plenty of plate. But 95+ MPH fastballs are difficult to hit no matter where they’re spotted if hitters have to be aware of other pitches as well. Ahead in the count, Schafer was quick enough to be ahead of an outer-half fastball from Strasburg and Lowrie was able to pull a ball past Adam LaRoche at first base. Hitters generally don’t get out in front of his fastball in a pitchers count, and we saw that in the at-bat that eventually plated both Astros runs of the inning.

Strasburg did not fall behind Chris Johnson, the Astros’ sixth hitter of the inning, batting with the bases loaded and two outs. Instead, he was quickly up 1-2 on the Astros’ third baseman, a career .276/.309/.416 hitter. Strasburg pounded the over matched Johnson with fastballs. Early in the count, Johnson had managed contact with the curveball, with a relatively hard foul ball to the pull side. When Strasburg threw the fastball, he was well behind it. And so he threw Johnson the fastball three straight times with a 1-2 count:

Click to embiggen

Indeed, Johnson remained behind on the first two offerings, but he managed to square up on the third for a line drive single to right-center field, plating Schafer and Lowrie and tying the game at two. F.P. Santangelo suggested the following just before the at-bat’s final pitch:

The more fastballs you see as a hitter, the longer you stand in there, the better shot you have of timing one up.

It was a prophetic statement from the former utility man, a .245/.364/.351 hitter who was likely overmatched in many situation as Johnson was here. Perhaps Strasburg didn’t trust his ability to locate his offspeed stuff — eight of his 13 changeups and curveballs were balls in the sixth inning.

Strasburg’s brief loss of his usually sharp control in the sixth shows how even somebody with his fastball can be touched up by any quality of major league hitter when his ability to locate departs him. Still, part of what makes Strasburg such an effective pitcher is that his margin of error is much larger than the typical starter. Even though he was forced to pound the zone with fastballs, Houston’s hitters made good contact but didn’t manage much power. Not a single one of the Astros’ hits made it beyond the Nationals’ outfielders.

As such, even in what was a slightly disappointing outing for the Nationals’ present and future ace, he gave his team more than enough to win the game. He still enjoys an utterly absurd 2.35 ERA and 1.86 FIP in his first 111 innings and is just 23 years old. Stephen Strasburg’s beatable is still better than what much of the league has to offer on the normal day, and he remains one of the best and brightest young arms in the game.

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