- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Stephen Strasburg will pitch in a game for the first time in about a year on Sunday, when he is scheduled to throw either two innings or 35 pitches, whichever comes first. And Strasburg will be a very different pitcher.
Maybe the alterations were inevitable, the result of a young pitcher experiencing a major injury. Maybe they happened, at least partly, because of the conversations he had with Roy Halladay and Albert Pujols. But as Strasburg comes back, Washington general manager Mike Rizzo explained on Thursday, he has made changes.
A message that he got from both Halladay and Pujols was that he needed to attack his rehab process. "Fix every other part of his body," Rizzo said. "He changed his whole body from head to toe, and concentrated on core strength and upper body strength."
And he has changed his repertoire. During Strasburg's brief window of professional baseball last summer, about 95 percent of the fastballs he threw were four-seamers -- fastballs in the range of 97-100 mph, hard but with comparatively little movement. At-bats against Strasburg tended to be longer -- 3.91 pitches per plate appearance. In the aftermath of his reconstructive elbow surgery, Strasburg has focused on throwing a two-seam fastball -- a pitch with a lot more lateral movement. "He's incorporating that pitch more," Rizzo said. "He has more of a pitching-to-contact approach -- get early contact, and early outs [in the at-bats]."
It's an adjustment similar to what Jordan Zimmermann made as he came back from elbow surgery, a change that has worked well for Zimmermann, who has a 3.12 ERA in 21 starts this season.
And it's the kind of adjustment that Halladay made early in his career, lowering his arm angle slightly to help create more movement, at the expense of some velocity. Halladay may not realize what an impact his words had on Strasburg, Rizzo said, but Strasburg listened, and absorbed. "It was just what he needed," Rizzo said.
By the way: Assuming that first-round pick Anthony Rendon works out a contract with the Nationals before the signing deadline, Washington will position him at third base, whether he plays in the minors or the Arizona Fall League this year. Some teams projected Rendon as a second baseman after he was plagued by shoulder trouble this year, but Rizzo met with Rendon recently. "His arm is back to 100 percent," said Rizzo, who believes the time off that Rendon has had since the end of the college season helped his arm.
Molina's suspension is right in line with precedent on this kind of thing, but that doesn't mean it's the right decision. There is more and more talk that baseball needs to address the byplay between the umpires and the uniformed personnel on the field, and the bottom line is that nothing is going to change until Major League Baseball comes down with a hammer. As Joe Torre has taken over the handling of on-field incidents involving the umpires, sources say that Torre has learned that affecting change has been more difficult than he imagined -- that the roadblocks in place are substantial.
To me, this situation is much like the PED issue for baseball in 2005: Major League Baseball should just seize the high ground and worry about the details afterward. If an umpire's conduct is way out of line, then announce a suspension and force the umpire's union to defend him. If a player or manager goes way out of line, then come down with a 10-game or 15-game suspension. That's how all of this will end. Even if the umpires' union were to successfully fight a long suspension and get the umpire reinstated, Major League Baseball will at the very least have made it clear that bad conduct won't go unpunished -- and that could act as a deterrent. I'd have to believe that if Yadier Molina had known that bumping an umpire repeatedly could result in him being suspended for two weeks, he wouldn't have gone as far as he did.
There is no more angry and violent sport than the National Football League, and somehow that sport generally operates without having ridiculously bad exchanges -- and physical contact -- between the officials and the uniformed personnel. And the reason, of course, is that everybody involved knows this won't be accepted.
• Jamie McCourt might ask the divorce court to order the sale of the Dodgers, writes Bill Shaikin.
• The Yankees and Red Sox begin a three-game series on Friday, with very little actually at stake because of the wild card -- and Bud Selig spent part of his Thursday working on a revamped plan, writes Harvey Araton.
The Yankees have had good pitching, Michael Silverman writes. Look, it's an open question of who would get the ball for the Yankees in Game 2 of the playoffs, but they do have an array of decent options -- Bartolo Colon, who has a 3.30 ERA this season in 109 innings; Freddy Garcia, who has posted a 3.22 ERA; Phil Hughes, whose outing the other night was his best of the year; and maybe even Ivan Nova, who shut down the White Sox on Thursday.
Some more notes on Nova, from ESPN Stats & Info, on how he dominated:
A) Nova generated eight of his career-high 10 strikeouts using his changeup. He had only six strikeouts using the changeup in his entire career entering Thursday. He threw 26 changeups, twice as many as in his previous two starts combined (13).
B) Nova has pitched to contact in 2011, but he generated misses on Thursday night at a higher rate than in any other start in his career. He generated 16 misses, a career high, and as many as he had generated in his previous two starts combined. All those misses led to a career-high 10 strikeouts.
Nova increased his fastball velocity for the second straight start, with an average speed of 93.9 mph on his fastball Thursday, the third fastest of his career. In his past two starts, he has had two of the four fastest fastball average speeds of his career. His highest velocities have come in a pair of back-to-back starts.
Overall, the Yankees rank sixth among all 30 teams in ERA.
• The Yankees and Red Sox were noticeably lukewarm on the market of relievers, their actions probably shaped by history. The greatest black hole of assets for the Yankees over the past decade has been created by their search for setup men and middle men -- hence the parade of relievers from Steve Karsay to Paul Quantrill to Tom Gordon to Kyle Farnsworth to Rafael Soriano, etc. -- which might explain why GM Brian Cashman was unwilling to part with any one of his seven top prospects for Heath Bell. And in 2008, Boston's acquisition of Eric Gagne before the trade deadline was perceived to be one of the best moves made by any team, and instead, Gagne was a total bust.
Moves, deals and decisions
2. It'll be interesting to see which of the contenders takes a shot at Arthur Rhodes, who was designated for assignment by the Texas Rangers. Rhodes, 41 years old and in the 21st season of his career, has typically been used for whole innings in his career, working against left-handed and right-handed hitters, but the left-hander's performance this season for the Rangers was much better against lefties. Right-handers batted .333 against Rhodes, with a .998 OPS; left-handed hitters, on the other hand, have batted .216 against Rhodes, with a .310 on-base percentage. Milwaukee could use a matchup left-hander, as could St. Louis, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, and the Yankees have been looking for a left-handed reliever -- but Rhodes has a rough October history in Yankee Stadium, while pitching against the Yankees. One evaluator says there has been a noticeable regression in Rhodes' stuff this year. Tony La Russa has all but confirmed interest in Rhodes, Evan Grant writes.
4. Trayvon Robinson is being promoted to the big leagues by the Mariners, writes Ryan Divish.
6. Kansas City summoned a second baseman.
Dings and dents
1. Watched a lot of Erik Bedard's debut for the Red Sox, and thought he had good stuff -- a fastball with life, a hard-breaking curveball -- and he pitched better than his line (three runs, five innings) indicates. If he stays healthy, he'll be a help for Boston. The Red Sox were shut down by a former Boston pitcher. Bedard struck a positive tone, writes Michael Vega.
2. Even without A-Rod, the Yankees have been killing the ball, and on Thursday they closed out a four-game sweep of the White Sox, Sam Borden writes.
A) On at-bats that ended with an inside pitch (in zone and out), Twins hitters were 1-for-14 (.071) with four strikeouts. On the season, Haren has held the opposition to a .160 mark on such pitches, good for fifth best in the majors among starters.
B) Of the eight innings he pitched, six were 1-2-3 frames and he retired seven of the eight hitters who led off innings.
8. The Orioles lost again, and have now dropped 12 straight road series, Dan Connolly writes.
A) Control. Of the 106 pitches Lee threw, 76 were strikes (71.7 strike percentage). It is his eighth start this season with a strike percentage of at least 70 and his 69.1 season strike percentage is best among starters.
B) More control. Of the 33 batters he faced, only one saw a 2-0 count (Jeff Keppinger, Lee's second hitter of the night). Lee's 87.9 first-pitch-strike percentage is the sixth best of any MLB start this season (min. 5 IP).
C) Curve. Lee threw his curveball only 18 times, but Giants hitters were 0-for-3 with three strikeouts on at-bats ending with the pitch. Of those three K's, two came with runners in scoring position.
Most shutouts this season:
Cliff Lee -- 5
Derek Holland -- 4
Jason Vargas -- 3
James Shields -- 3
Lee recorded his fifth shutout of the season in 23 starts. He had five shutouts in 218 career starts entering this season. It's the most shutouts by a Phillies pitcher since Steve Carlton had six in 1982. Lee struck out eight and didn't walk a batter, his third such game this season, and 13th since 2008. Teammate Roy Halladay is the only major league pitcher with more such games (he's had 14) over the past four seasons. Lee had no starts with 8 K's and 0 BB in 125 career starts before 2008.
10. The Giants had no answers against Lee, Henry Schulman writes.
11. The Pirates' struggles continue: They got swept by the Cubs.
13. The White Sox have collapsed.
14. The Cubs finished off a sweep of the Pirates.
The Patience Index
• It's time for the Reds to think about 2012.
• Charlie Manuel knows the Giants are in the Phillies' heads, writes Gwen Knapp.
• Kirk Gibson has been a terrific manager for the D-backs, writes Dan Bickley.
• Arizona is educating its players on Twitter usage.
• The Rays have bright prospects for 2012, writes Gary Shelton.
• Doug DeCinces has settled charges of insider trading.
• Trevor Bauer made his second professional outing.
• The Tigers are ready to compete, if their bullpen is, writes Bob Wojnowski.
And today will be better than yesterday.
Buster Olney writes that when Stephen Strasburg makes his return from injury this week, he will be a very different pitcher, in large part due to advice he received from Roy Halladay and Albert Pujols on how to attack his recovery.