Baseball is in the midst of a golden age of pitching. While many fans chide the mere notion of pitch counts for young arms and "babying" prospects as they fondly remember the days of complete games thrown with regularity and 300-inning seasons from starters, those days are gone.
In their place lies a game dominated by power arms, strikeout artists and a crop of young pitchers set to take center stage for years to come.
While Clayton Kershaw (25), Felix Hernandez (27) and Justin Verlander (30) may be the cream of the crop among pitchers right now, there are candidates under the age of 25 ready to take their spots in the coming season among the game's elite arms.
Matt Moore is 4-0 for the Tampa Bay Rays. Matt Harvey looks like the best young pitcher to rock New York City since Dwight Gooden. Chris Sale has more in common with Randy Johnson than just a gangly figure. Shelby Miller is making St. Louis forget Chris Carpenter's injury ever happened. Madison Bumgarner is as accomplished as any under-25 arm in recent memory.
Yet, factoring in major league experience, success and immediate and future potential, the best under-25 pitcher in baseball resides as the ace in Washington.
Stephen Strasburg, despite uneven results this month, is the best young pitcher in baseball and poised to continue his march to the top spot in the sport within the next few years.
In some ways, Strasburg's plight from No. 1 overall pick in the MLB draft to 14-strikeout debut to Tommy John surgery to controversial shutdown last summer has overshadowed his performance on the field since 2010. When he's been on the mound for Washington, Strasburg hasn't just been good or flashed potential, he's performed like one of the greatest under-25 pitchers in baseball history.
Using Baseball-Reference.com's Play Index, Strasburg's status as an all-time great young pitcher comes into context and separates him from the other under-25 arms that have dominated alongside him.
In the history of baseball, Strasburg's 4.51 strikeout-to-walk ratio ranks No. 1 for pitchers under-25 with at least 49 games started in the majors (the number of starts in Strasburg's career). His ERA over that time is 2.94, better than a young Roger Clemens, Tim Lincecum, David Price, Mike Mussina or Felix Hernandez. His K/9 bests the young versions of everyone in history, save for Kerry Wood.
Last year, in Strasburg's first year of 25-plus starts in the majors, he struck out 11.1 batters per nine innings. From 1992-2012, a span that includes expansion, the steroid era and a tremendous rise in strikeout rate across the sport, only four pitchers topped that mark in any year: Pedro Martinez ('97, '99, '00), Randy Johnson ('95, '97, '98, '99, '01, '02), Curt Schilling ('97) and Kerry Wood ('98, '03).
In terms of age, Wood remains the only comparable in recent memory. While one attribute, an elbow injury, will keep the comparison alive until Strasburg proves he can stay healthy long-term, another, control, should keep them apart. Wood could throw it by anyone, but also had the tendency to walk to ballpark. As Strasburg's all-time best K/BB rate shows, he's a strikeout artist with command and control.
Considering the impact Matt Harvey has had in New York, he deserves consideration. As do Chris Sale, Matt Moore and Shelby Miller. In reality, though, only Bumgarner has justified the hype, produced at a high level in the majors for years and stayed healthy long enough to challenge Strasburg for this title. With back-to-back 200-inning seasons on his ledger, in addition to contributing to multiple World Series championships in San Fransisco, Bumgarner is the second choice.
Yet his upside doesn't match Strasburg's.
Few pitchers in the history of the game have performed as well as Strasburg this early in a career. Thus far, he's made ESPN.com's Keith Law's pre-draft analysis seem prescient. Prior to the 2009 MLB Draft, Law had this to say to MLB Trade Rumors about Strasburg's ability to dominate baseball from the day he was selected:
"Strasburg could pitch in the majors right now and would be Washington's #1 starter if they could sign him quickly and stick him in their rotation in June."
There was a reason for the hype coming out of San Diego State, buzz after the 14-strikeout debut and justification for shutting him down to preserve the arm last summer.
Stephen Strasburg is the best under-25 pitcher in baseball right now. As the years pass, he's likely to become the unequivocal best pitcher over-25, under-30, under-35 and hold those titles until his career winds down.
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