VIERA, Fla. — Because Stephen Strasburg is Stephen Strasburg, the Washington Nationals gave him one of the bigger lockers in the clubhouse at spring training. He’d prefer they didn’t.
In fact, last year, he turned it down, moving to a smaller one and letting Dan Haren have the roomier digs. He wasn’t able to do the same this year because he was one of the last arriving pitchers, and everyone else had already moved in their various belongings.
“It’s a little foreign to me,” Strasburg said. “Back in college, my pitching coach was adamant. He’d remind me every single day that you’re just another donkey. And I think the message there is to always stay humble and always work hard and always strive to be just that other guy in the clubhouse that doesn’t necessary come in and expect attention, or expect special treatment.”
But he’ll command attention nonetheless. Strasburg is only 25, but has yet to get really rolling as a pro. He has a 2.96 career ERA and has struck out 10.4 batters every nine innings — the best ratio of any pitcher in the majors with at least 425 innings since 2010. But, because of injuries, including the bone chips that required right elbow surgery in October, he has only 75 starts and a record of 29-19.
Now it’s time to get even better, specifically by ironing out the Strasburg flaws. On Sunday, with his elbow fully healed, he threw his first formal bullpen session of spring training. Of the five pitchers in his group, he was the only one to deliberately look toward an imaginary runner at first base when pitching from the stretch.
The reason was obvious: He has become an easy mark for would-be base-stealers, who have timed his delivery with ease and have been successful 79 percent of the time.
“It’s just trying to change my setup so I can see the runner a little better, know where he is in relation to first base,” Strasburg said. “And hopefully pick a couple of guys off this year.”
If he does, it would triple his career number of pick-offs.
These are the type of rough edges that are left unpolished when a player makes his major-league debut at age 21, a year after being drafted No. 1 overall.
“My situation, I didn’t really have much time in the minors to work on the little nuances of pitching,” Strasburg said. “And that was one thing where I just compensated for it by just being really quick to home plate. And big league baserunners, hitters, coaches, they’re going to pick up on that. They’re just going to cheat and sell out. If I can’t even see where they’re at, they know I’m going to home plate, so they’re gone.”
Strasburg has a reputation as a man of intense focus who wants to go about his business without all the hoopla. He’s known for having a dour disposition when dealing with the media, but he’s more much comfortable around the cameras and notebooks than he used to be. Fans could see him joking with pitching coach Steve McCatty during the bullpen session, and he cracked a joke or two while speaking with reporters.
But the best way to get Strasburg to smile these days is to mention his baby daughter.
“I look forward to getting out of here and getting to see her,” he said as his day at the park wound to a close.
Strasburg became a first-time father in the offseason, adding a new perspective to life and baseball. Wife and baby came with him to Florida for spring training. He was asked to compare Strasburg the pitcher to Strasburg the father.
“The thing that I’ve heard from a lot of people, you know, just use your gut instinct,” he said. “And don’t necessarily, like, do what other people do. And so that’s kind of what I’ve stuck to. A lot like pitching, when I try to do stuff that other people do, it doesn’t really work for me, so I just try and learn on the fly. And just learn through experience.”
Baseball experience has already taught him plenty. The old Strasburg used to show up thinking he had to put on a show from the first day of spring training. Now he’s learned how to dial back the throttle.
“Yeah, I think the first couple years it would be like, let’s go, the fans are watching and you want to go out there and ‘impress,'” he said, using his hand to make air-quotes. “I’ve come to realize there’s not a hitter in the box, and there’s still six weeks of spring training, and I need to just get my work in. I just wanted to take that kind of approach this year, just try to make baby steps and get a little better each day.”
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