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Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Strasburg-Santana battle one to watch

By David Schoenfield

There are so many new pitchers to capture our attention -- Matt Moore or Yu Darvish or Justin Verlander, for example -- it's easy to forget it wasn't long ago Stephen Strasburg was the prospect du jour or that Johan Santana was one of the best pitchers in the game.

The New York Mets won't be protecting a perfect record Wednesday afternoon at Citi Field after their first loss of the season on Tuesday, but their game against the Washington Nationals features an intriguing matchup between these two pitchers. Both are attempting to return from injuries after missing all or most of 2011.

"It's always good for baseball when you have a matchup like that," Santana told ESPN New York's Adam Rubin. "I'm still working my way back. But it's definitely good. Every time you have a challenge like that, it's going to be a good one, and I'm looking forward to it."

Strasburg had a solid Opening Day effort against the Chicago Cubs, allowing one run with five strikeouts in seven innings at Wrigley. His average fastball velocity clocked in at 95.3 mph, less than the 97.3 he averaged in 2010 but still some impressive heat, especially for a first start in April. The bigger issue, as it is with many pitchers coming off Tommy John surgery, is command of their pitches.

Here are two heat maps for Strasburg, the first showing his pitch location versus right-handed batters with his fastball in the 2010 season, and the other from last week, in his start against the Cubs.

Stephen Strasburg
Left: Strasburg's fastball location vs. RHB in 2010. Right: Opening Day location.


In 2010, Strasburg held right-handed batters to a .218 average off his fastball. As you can see from the heat map, he pretty much gunned high fastballs down the middle, overpowering them with high 90s octane. Against, the Cubs, he threw 42 fastballs to right-handed batters and was a bit inconsistent with his location. He walked only one batter, but if you watch Wednesday, pay attention to where he's spotting his fastball and whether he can use it to get ahead of hitters.

From 2002 through 2010, Santana was an incredible 130-66 with a 2.90 ERA, leading his league three times in ERA, three times in strikeouts and winning two Cy Young Awards. He led all starting pitchers in ERA over that span and held hitters to a .221 average. His knockout pitch was a devastating changeup, a big reason he's held right-handed batters to a lower career OPS than lefties.

Below is the heat map on Santana's changeup location versus right-handed batters in 2010 and in his Opening Day start against the Braves.

Johan Santana
Left: Johan Santana's changeup location vs. RHB in 2010. Right: Opening Day location.


As you can see, he made his living against righties on the low outside corner; there's not much hitters can do with that pitch. Righties hit just .189 off Santana's changeup in 2010. He threw 10 changeups to righties against the Braves and, with this limited sample size, he was all over the place. Like Strasburg's fastball command, check to see Santana's changeup location. With the Nationals featuring a righty-heavy lineup, he'll need to be hitting that outside corner.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Matt Kemp
He didn't build it, but Dodger Stadium is Matt Kemp's house now.