For about half an hour this afternoon, Viera, Florida was the center of the baseball universe.
Stephen Strasburg, last season’s top amateur pick, took the mound and for the first time faced veteran major league players and not fuzzy-cheeked prospects.
Space Coast Stadium was nearly full. Sports writers from across the nation were in attendance. The game was broadcast live back to Washington.
He looked a little nervous.
He retired all three batters in the first on grounders, using just seven pitches. The second inning was more difficult, but more impressive too. After easily getting the first two outs, Strasburg gave up back-to-back singles before going 3-0 on second baseman Brent Dlugach.
Two fastballs, both in the upper 90’s, got Strasburg to 3-2.
Then came an 81 mph breaking ball (call it whatever you want, a curve, a change, Strasburg calls it a slider) and Dlugach’s knees buckled and the ball dropped off an imaginary table right into Wil Nieves’ mitt.
Two innings, two hits, no walks, two strikeouts.
He pitched well, but how did the writers and scouts see his outing?
Phil Wood of MASN.com talked to a scout who said, "His velocity was as advertised...he threw his fastball at 97-98 consistently, 94 a couple of times...he showed me a little deception which I hadn't seen before...his breaking ball was good, but not lights out...his command was okay, he was able to locate his pitches when he had to...he was aggressive...he had a good role model to watch in (Detroit starter Rick) Porcello, who really knows how to pitch...he's the best they've [Washington] got that I've seen this spring...great poise and presence for a kid just out of college."
So he pitched well enough but not up to his superstar status, is that about right?
Well, not if you ask ESPN, who quoted another scout who said that watching Strasburg throw made it seem as though Detroit's Rick Porcello was playing catch with his sister.
Miguel Cabrera, who struck out on a 98 mph fastball, was impressed. "What you read about, it's true," Cabrera said afterward. "It's real. He's the kind of pitcher you don't see every day. When he throws the ball, it's like an explosion."
Tigers’ manager Jim Leyland called Strasburg’s fastball “electric” but was even more impressed with his breaking ball.
That’s a fairly representative cross-section of what’s being said across the baseball world this morning. Yes, he has the potential for greatness, but no, Tuesday wasn’t his best day as a professional.
He looked just like the pitcher I watched blow away BYU two seasons ago in the first inning but seemed to struggle in the second. He began to labor after giving up the first hit and then began to overthrow after allowing the second.
He wasn’t even close with his first three pitches to Dlugatch. But then he walked off the mound, took a deep breath, and then threw two blazing fastballs before getting him on that wicked breaking ball.
He caught himself throwing too fast, and throwing too hard, and he compensated.
And he was successful.
Several writers have compared Strasburg with Ardolis Chapman, the Cuban defector who signed recently with the Cincinnati Reds (who barely beat out the Nationals for his services).
Chapman pitched on Monday and allowed one hit and a walk in two innings, striking out three Kansas City Royals.
Remember, these were the Royals, not the Detroit Tigers.
Most believed that Chapman was the more impressive pitcher, mainly because three of his pitches topped 100 mph.
They couldn’t be more wrong.
True, Chapman can hit 100 mph seemingly anytime he wants to. But—and this was a concern that many teams shared when he was shopping his services last winter—he doesn’t have a second major league pitch.
Most of his pitches on Monday were fastballs and this early in the spring few hitters are able to turn on triple-digit pitches.
But what happens the next time he takes the mound when those same hitters are sitting on his fastball?
Chapman will strikeout a lot of hitters, but I also think that he’ll give up a lot of runs, especially if he struggles with that second pitch.
I’m beginning to think that Stephen Strasburg isn’t going to be a dominant strikeout pitcher in the mold of Nolan Ryan or Roger Clemens.
He doesn’t have to be.
He has four major league pitches, three of them “plus plus.” He doesn’t have to rely on his fastball to get players out like Chapman does. Heck, it’s not even his best pitch.
Against the Tigers, he struck out just two while coaxing four ground ball outs. Not a single fly ball in two innings of work.
Jason Stark of ESPN called Strasburg “economical.” His pitch counts won’t soar into the 130’s as they did with Randy Johnson and will with Ardolis Chapman.
He can strike out 15 in a game if he needs to, but will be just as content to rack up dozens of boring ground balls instead.
No, he didn’t look as impressive as I’d hoped, but he was a lot better than I thought he’d be. He had to take the mound and prove in just two innings that he is worth all of that $15.1 million signing bonus.
And that’s impossible to do.
He lacked command. He got behind on most of the batters he faced. He bounced two or three balls in the dirt.
And yet he dominated veterans like Carlos Guillen and Miguel Cabrera and didn’t give up a run.
If this wasn’t his best, I can’t wait to see what that looks like.