AFL Notebook: Strasburg’s Big Change

PHOENIX—For all the accolades Stephen Strasburg has received, he might be even better than you think.

Strasburg didn’t have much need to throw his changeup at San Diego State, not with an arm that consistently pumps mid- to high-90s fastballs and a filthy breaking ball.

Strasburg does have a good changeup though, as Aaron Fitt points out in the Nationals top 10 scouting reports, and the Arizona Fall League provides him with the perfect outlet to mix in his changeup against more advanced hitters. It’s plus pitch at 88-91 mph with good sink, which the Peoria Saguaros found out on Saturday.

Facing Houston’s Jose Vallejo to lead off the game, Strasburg struck out Vallejo swinging on a 91-mph changeup on a 2-2 pitch. After Padres shortstop Lance Zawadzki popped out, Reds outfielder Chris Heisey struck out swinging on another 91-mph changeup in a 2-2 count. Strasburg struck out Heisey swinging again in the fourth inning, this time getting him to swing through an 89-mph changeup in a 3-2 count. 

"He has an excellent changeup, and he has thrown it quite well," said Phoenix pitching coach Paul Menhart, who spent the 2009 minor league season coaching the Nationals’ high Class A Potomac club. "It is a plus pitch, in my opinion, and he’s used it as we’ve asked him to quite effectively to go along with the electric fastball and very above-average curveball."

It was Strasburg’s best start of his five AFL outings, 3 2/3 shutout innings with six strikeouts, two walks and one hit allowed. In all, Strasburg has a 4.26 ERA with 23 strikeouts and seven walks in 19 innings. Hitters haven’t done much when they have made contact, as 82 percent of Strasburg’s outs on balls in play have been groundouts.

Strasburg didn’t throw a fastball lower than 97 mph in the first inning, sitting at 97-98 in the first frame. He settled in the rest of the game and pitched at 94-98 mph, touching 99 once. He also mixed in his plus-plus breaking ball with hard, sharp break at 81-83 mph.

"It’s a hard breaking pitch is what it is," Menhart said. "It’s somewhere in between a slider and a curveball. It’s a hard-biting, good-depth pitch that, when guys are geared up to hit that fastball, he has such good arm speed on both his changeup and his curveball that it makes it very difficult for those hitters to make solid contact."

First-Round Pitching Update

• Saturday’s game could be a familiar sight for Nationals fans in the near future: Strasburg shutting down the opposition, with righthander Drew Storen coming in to close the door.

Storen, the 10th-overall pick this year out of Stanford, struck out two batters in a scoreless eighth and ninth inning to seal Phoenix’s 1-0 victory. Storen pitched at 93-94 mph, touched 96 and showed a swing-and-miss slider that ranged from 83-86 mph. In a league known for its high offensive environment, Storen lowered his ERA to 0.71 in 12 2/3 innings, with 11 strikeouts and three walks (including one intentional walk).

"He challenges hitter, he has above-average breaking balls–both the slider and the curveball–and he’s not afraid to throw any pitch in any count," Menhart said. "Hitters are constantly wondering what he’s going to throw because they know it’s going to be somewhere around the plate, and he takes advantage of that."

• The Nationals have Storen in their farm system thanks to their inability to come to terms with 2008 first-round pick Aaron Crow, who went back into the draft and signed with the Royals this year as the No. 12 overall pick. Crow, who turned 23 last week, has pitched in the low-90s and touched 94 in the AFL and shown a plus slider for the Peoria Javelinas. He wraps his wrist in his delivery, but despite his 5.87 ERA he’s walked just two of the 66 batters he’s faced in the AFL.

“Aaron’s got a really good arm," said Javelinas pitching coach Tom Phelps, who was the pitching coach for the Yankees’ Double-A Trenton club this season. "He’s got a lot of life to his pitches. His slider’s got quality to it and sinker’s got some good sink. His biggest thing is staying on top of the ball and getting more depth, running away from his arm getting flat, and he’ll get a little scattered and get up in the zone. But (when) he keeps his head on line and finishes, his ball’s got a lot of depth. He’s got some really good stuff and a bright future ahead of him.”

• There are two more college pitchers from the first round of the 2009 draft in the AFL. Braves lefty Mike Minor (seventh-overall pick) and Reds righthander Mike Leake (eighth overall) are both pitching for the Peoria Saguaros.

Leake had his best outing of the AFL on Friday, when he allowed one run (unearned) in four innings, struck out two and surrendered one hit and one walk. His fastball ranged from 89-92 mph with impressive tailing life and his 81-83 mph changeup caught several hitters out on their front foot, though he struggled with his breaking stuff. Both Minor and Leake are known more for their feel for pitching than for their pure stuff (Bill Mitchell has more on Minor in this excellent piece).

"It’s nice when you can throw mid-90s, but what these guys have, you can’t teach," said Saguaros manager David Bell, who managed the Reds’ Double-A affiliate in Carolina this year. "They’re smart, they have a lot of things that are going to make them successful and it’s hard to put your finger on it, but they just have a good idea of what they’re doing and how to get people out."