WASHINGTON -- The Washington Nationals the St. Louis Cardinals by an 8-1 final on Monday, in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series. The Nationals now hold a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series with Game 4 scheduled for Tuesday evening. Another win will secure both: Washington's first pennant and World Series appearance in franchise history.
Should the Nationals advance -- and, on paper, they would seem to have the clear advantage offered by a favorable pitching matchup between Patrick Corbin and Dakota Hudson -- then their rotation will get much of the credit. That includes right-hander Stephen Strasburg, who added another dominant performance to his increasingly historic collection on Monday thanks to one of the best pitches in baseball.
Strasburg was brilliant against the Cardinals, holding them to one run (unearned thanks to a Juan Soto throwing error) on seven hits and no walks. He struck out 12 batters and generated 16 swinging strikes and five groundouts (versus three flyouts) on 117 pitches.
Stephen Strasburg got 15 called strikes on his curveball tonight.— Sarah Langs (@SlangsOnSports) October 15, 2019
That's his most in any game of his career (including postseason).
Strasburg reduced the National League Central champions in his usual devious ways. He overpowered them at times with a mid-90s fastball, stole strikes with his curveball, and sent them back to the dugout with arguably baseball's best changeup. (No offense to Luis Castillo or other candidates with worthy cambios.) To wit, Strasburg threw 36 changeups and coerced 12 swinging strikes on 22 swings -- or, to put it another way, the Cardinals were more likely to whiff than make contact when they offered at Strasburg's change.
What makes Strasburg's so effective? It starts with deception.
Scouts will tell anyone who asks that the key to the changeup is throwing it with the same arm speed and conviction as one would with a fastball. There's trust involved -- the pitcher has to believe their grip, the pressure they apply to the ball, and the batter's appetite for heat will do the rest. "I often say to myself when he throws it, 'I'm glad I'm not playing anymore,'" said Nationals manager Davey Martinez about Strasburg's changeup. "[What] makes a good changeup is your arm action, and he's got really good arm action."
Strasburg's change is more than smoke and mirrors -- it's an absolute wolf in sheep's clothing that also features velocity and movement.
Consider that during the regular season Strasburg averaged 87.8 mph with his change (a bit slower than on Monday). That means his changeup -- a finesse pitch -- traveled quicker than the four-seamer of 22 pitchers, minimum 250 tosses. As for movement, Strasburg's is a circle in nature: it runs toward right-handed batters as it sinks. It does a lot of both, as it turns out. According to Statcast, Strasburg's changeup boasts 13 percent more horizontal movement and 11 percent more vertical movement than others with similar velocity.
Strasburg has always had ace stuff -- there's a reason he was the first-overall pick in the 2009 draft, straight out of San Diego State University. Yet for most of his career he's felt overlooked, or underappreciated. Blame it on injuries, on sharing a staff with Max Scherzer, on never winning a Cy Young Award (and only receiving votes in two seasons). But Strasburg is doing well to change that perception by making this October his own.
Including Monday, Strasburg is now up to four postseason appearances (and three starts). He's thrown 22 innings, yielded four earned runs on 18 hits and a walk, and has struck out 33 batters. That would've been impressive in June, it's more impressive in October, especially given two of those starts came against the 106-win Los Angeles Dodgers.
Let's add some historical context to the equation.
Strasburg, who is assured more appearances this month, already has the 18th-most strikeouts in a single postseason since the last round of expansion in 1998. Everyone, save one pitcher, with more than Strasburg had at least eight additional innings. (That exception? Max Scherzer, who fanned 34 batters in 22 innings in 2013.) Meanwhile, Strasburg's 1.64 ERA would rank ninth among pitchers with 25-plus innings -- he'll obviously get there next time out -- and the names ahead of him include the likes of Madison Bumgarner, Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Randy Johnson, Jon Lester, Cliff Lee and others who for the most part form the who's who of big-stage pitching over the past couple decades.
What's more is that Strasburg's 39.3 percent strikeout rate would be the highest in that time period. Second place would belong to Cliff Lee, whose 34.1 percent rate isn't even that close. (No other pitcher is over 32 percent.) Strasburg's 33-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio would also be the best ever -- the aforementioned Lee (23.5), Beckett (17.5), and Adam Wainwright (11.33) are the only others better than 10-to-1, according to the Baseball Gauge.
So, no, Strasburg doesn't have a trophy of his own. Not yet. But he is in the midst of one of the most absurd postseason runs in recent memory. October is many things, including, at present, the stage for the full realization of Strasburg, one of the game's nastiest pitchers.