Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Strasburg Phenomenon

He's the pitching version of Roy Hobbs. Well, besides the whole "getting shot on a train by a deranged woman" thing, hopefully.

It was confirmed last week that the Washington Nationals will select San Diego State right-hander Stephen Strasburg with the top pick in next month's draft. This might qualify as the least surprising news item of the season thus far.

If you call yourself a baseball fan, and haven't been living under a rock for the past few months, you probably already know a lot about Strasburg. The 6', 4", 220-pound hurler started gaining notoriety last year when he went 8-3 with a 1.57 ERA and 133 Ks in 97.1 innings for Tony Gwynn's Aztecs. He was the only collegiate player selected to play for Team USA in the Beijing Olympics. He chose Scott Boras to be his "adviser," ensuring he meant business about the 2009 draft.

What Strasburg has in his possession is an array of lethal pitches, and the strong physical presence on the mound to go with them, that comes along once in a generation. His fastball consistently tops out at 101 mph, and unlike most pitchers with that kind of velocity, the pitch has late-moving action and his control of it is impeccable. And that's just his four-seamer. His mid-90s two-seamer has a dirty sinking action out of his clean, repeatable delivery. 

Strasburg's slider is only a few mph slower, and usually stays in the low-90s (Randy Johnson and Robb Nen, in their respective primes, are the only guys I can remember to regularly sport sliders in the low-90s). His curveball has apparently hit 88 mph, and darts away from right-handed hitters in a way that seems almost unfair. Here's some highlights of a 23-strikeout performance against Utah last year (remember, kids, you only get 27 outs in a regulation baseball game). 

That set of skills has elicited some of the most astonishing quotes I've ever read from scouts, including those in this terrific SI profile by Lee Jenkins. The consensus: Strasburg is the best pitching prospect to come along since Roger Clemens was lighting it up at Texas, no one is even close to him in the 2009 draft, he's ready to pitch in the big leagues from day one, and he may or may not be the best thing since this

That skill set has also produced these eye-popping 2009 spring numbers: 10-0, 1.38 ERA, 147 K, 15 BB in 78.1 IP. Allow me to repeat: he has 147 strikeouts in less than 80 innings this year.

The Jenkins piece illuminates a feel-good story about Strasburg's maturation from an overweight, hot-headed teenager with big talent but little motivation to one of the best prospects ever through hard work and determination. Given how precious and valuable his right arm will be, Gwynn limits Strasburg to one start a week and sensibly to 115 pitches in those starts. The stage appears to be set for the Nats to select Strasburg first, and that's where the real fun will begin.

Over the winter, whispers made the rounds that Boras would seek a record-shattering six-year, $50 million pact from any club willing to draft Strasburg. As Peter Gammons recently delineated, Boras wouldn't really be that far off in that calculation for his worth over the next six years. 

Still, it'd be awfully surprising to see someone who's never pitched a professional inning get $50 million, especially two years after David Price got $8.5 million over in six-year deal with the Rays in addition to a $5.6 million bonus. I have no doubt Strasburg's deal will set records, but just not in that drastic of a way. Instead of six years, I suspect Washington will offer Strasburg three years at around $20 million, with a bonus near $10 million. Boras will wait right to the 11:59 p.m. deadline on August 15, but it'll be in his client's best interest to take that deal.

Although Strasburg's overall talent is undeniable, his staggering college numbers have one potential drawback: they've come while Strasburg has pitched in the Mountain West Conference, which is not considered one of college baseball's premiere conferences. I'd feel much more confident in his abilities had those numbers come in the SEC, ACC or Pac-10. 

And let us not forget the less-than-stellar track record of top pitchers taken in the amateur draft. The most prominent cautionary tale is that of Brien Taylor, drafted #1 overall by the Yankees in 1991. He was similarly lauded as a can't-miss, once-in-a-generation talent, but tore his labrum in a 1993 bar fight and never made it to the Majors. Others like Ben McDonald and Bryan Bullington never lived up the hype, either. 

Strasburg has all the potential in the world and then some, but comparisons to Roger Clemens and visions of dollar signs aren't going to make him a great pro pitcher, not even a good one. I want to believe a kid who throws 101 mph will have a long, productive MLB career, but these stories often end in a malaise of rehab stints and trips to the office of Dr. James Andrews.

However, none of that should dampen what's been a ridiculous spring for Strasburg, one that will soon make him a very rich young man. He can inject life into a moribund franchise and bring people out to the ballpark for an otherwise non-desrcript team. It will be good for the game at large to have someone like Strasburg hit immediate success. 

The Roy Hobbs of pitchers is coming. Don't miss him.


AbsoluteTruth said...

Hey man, its Cailyns friend Andrew. Read your blog, and yeah, hes gonna be a hell of a player =)

Ben Hyman said...

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