There’s been no shortage of superlatives spewed about future-best player in baseball history Stephen Strasburg after his electric debut last night . His success has been well documented.
But his most impressive accomplishment—the one that, to me, reveals the difference between a run-of-the-mill great player and Strasburg’s once-in-a-generation talent—has seemingly been lost in the sea of hyperbole.
His first time through the order, the right-handed flamethrower tore through the Pirates’ lineup, racking up six strikeouts while allowing just one hit. Now, that’s obviously very impressive, but it’s not the stuff of legends.
Starting pitchers almost always do better their first time through an opposing lineup. Partly it’s because the pitcher’s arm is fresher in the first couple innings, but mostly it’s that, when the leadoff man comes to bat for the second time in a game, he’ll know what to expect.
“Fool me once, shame on you,” the old saying goes, “Fool me twice, shame on me.”
Look at Tim Lincecum, who most would say is at least one of the best pitchers in the game. So far this year, when a batter steps in against him for the first time in the game, there’s a 29.4 percent chance that he’ll see strike three.
But even the greats can stumble. When he’s facing a batter he’s seen at least twice before, that falls to a pedestrian 19.6 percent. Ten times in 2010 he’s faced a batter more than thrice in a game; he’s struck out just one of them the fourth time up.
Strasburg’s sample size is way too small to declare him immune to this regression. But he didn’t show any signs of it last night.
After the first time through the order, the Pirates combined for 15 more plate appearances. More than half ended with a K.
Six batters had the misfortune of stepping in against Strasburg a third time. Every single one of them struck out .
These were six professional baseball players who had seen his stuff twice already. He mowed them down, and made it look easy.
This shows two things about Strasburg as a pitcher: first, he has a mature mindset beyond his years. For a young pitcher to resume playing with such poise after running into trouble in the fourth inning is incredible. He didn’t seem jarred or rattled after that, he just went back to work.
In addition, his maturity lent him the presence of mind to fool batters who had already seen him. A lot of young guys have trouble making adjustments in those kinds of situations. Not this guy.
Second, it shows that his stuff is just that good. By the time Andy LaRoche stepped in to the box to become Strasburg’s eighth consecutive strikeout victim, it seemed like the Pirates had just given up on making contact.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
But if you can consistently fool MLB hitters three times, you’re the best pitcher in the game.