Stephen Strasburg: 20 Reasons Why We Were Fools To Get So Excited
I have only myself to blame.
I got just as excited about Stephen Strasburg as anyone in baseball. After my fantasy baseball draft this season, I promptly traded away my first overall pick (Roy Halladay) for Strasburg, essentially straight up.
I spent the spring trying to convince buddies to go to one of his various minor league starts with me, whether in Harrisburg or Syracuse or where ever. No one took me up on it.
I even went to StubHub, bought three tickets to his debut with the Nationals, and took a day off work to take my father-in-law and my daughter to the game.
"We'll never forget this game" I told them. "We'll tell our grandkids about this one," I exclaimed, forgetting that my father-in-law was, in fact, at the game with one of his grandkids.
We talked with much excitement about the future of the Washington Nationals with Strasburg, Bryce Harper, and Ryan Zimmerman.
And so today, as I sit at my desk disillusioned with the news that Strasburg is going to have Tommy John surgery and is done for this year and all of next year, I have only myself to blame. I allowed myself to be fooled into believing that there was such a thing as the baseball version of Santa Claus: the can't miss pitching prospect.
This in the face of baseball history, which teaches us that there is no such thing.
Here's 20 reasons why I should have known better.
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Curt Schilling reminds us that great pitchers don't arrive great, they become great.
Drafted in the second round of the 1986 amateur draft, he didn't make it to the bigs until 1988, didn't make it as a full time major-leaguer until 1990, wasn't a starter until 1992, and didn't become the dominant pitcher we remember today until 1997, at the age of 30.
Great pitchers don't usually spring from high school or college fully formed; they grow and develop and learn to play the game. Schilling was one of the most cerebral, knowing his opponents inside and out and going so far as to position his own defenses for each batter.
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Scott Kazmir reminds us that, sometimes when you start at the top, you can only go down.
Kazmir was once the envy of every general manager, and was drafted out of high school by the New York Mets with the 15th pick in the 2002 draft.
He arrived two years later, had two very good years in 2006 and 2007, and now has an 8-11 record and a 6.33 ERA for the Anaheim Angels.
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Chris Carpenter reminds us that the elite pitchers in baseball don't always get to the major leagues as elite pitchers.
It took Carpenter 12 years from the time he was drafted to become a great pitcher.
Today, Carpenter is one of the elite pitchers in baseball, having won the 2005 NL Cy Young Award and annually placing at or near the top of the NL's pitching elite.
Carpenter, though, had to learn to be that pitcher, and at one time he was an average-to-above-average pitcher with the Toronto Blue Jays.
Carpenter's renaissance, though, came after successful Tommy John surgery, a reminder to those Nationals fans who may have climbed out onto the ledge to come back in and let events take their course.
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Joba Chamberlain is a reminder that no matter how we treat a young pitcher, when the results go awry we'll always question the keepers. Whether we limit the number of innings or pitches they throw or we let them throw 150 pitches in a game at the age of 19.
Remember when Joba burst onto the scene with the Yankees in 2007 and helped guide them to the playoffs on the a strength of his 102 mph fastball and the best ERA+ any pitcher has ever lodged?
Where is Joba now?
As the once apparently-imminently talented Chamberlain has demonstrated, a talented young pitcher can be a real catch-22.
Even Jim Palmer, one of the all time greats and a guy who showed talent at an early age, took six years to develop into a major league star.
Palmer wasn't even drafted by a major league team, signing as a free agent with the Baltimore Orioles at the age of 17.
He made his major league debut at 19, pitched a full season at 20, and then went back to the minors for almost all of the 1967 and 1968 seasons at the age of 21 and 22.
When he returned to the O's in 1969, he led the AL in winning percentage, and then at age 24 won 20 games and led the league in shutouts, innings, and batters faced.
Unlike Palmer, Vida Blue did have immediate success.
Drafted in the second round of the 1967 draft, Blue was with the Oakland A's at the age of 21, winning 24 games, leading the AL in ERA, shutouts, and WHIP–while pitching 312 innings–and winning both the Cy Young and the Most Valuable Player Awards.
Blue would never be "that pitcher" again; injuries limited him to only 151 innings the following season and he was never much more than a solid-to-good major league starter.
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A 22nd-round pick in the 1985 amateur draft, John Smoltz was famously traded by the Detroit Tigers to the Atlanta Braves for Doyle Alexander in the stretch run of the 1987 season.
Alexander got the Tigers to the playoffs, and Smoltz went on to become a Hall of Famer.
Nevertheless, it took Smoltz several seasons to become the great member of the 1990s Brave's rotation.
Though he pitched over 200 innigs from 1989 to 1993, his won-loss record hovered around .500 and his ERA hovered around league average.
It was only in 1995, and then for good in 1996, that he became a dominant Cy Young caliber starting pitcher, at the age of 28.
Smokey Joe Wood
Smokey Joe Wood reminds us that sometimes the amazing things kids can do with their pitching are the same amazing things that are slowly killing them.
Wood was signed out of high school, made his major league debut at the age of 18, and was a major league starter at the age of 19. At age 20, he went 12-13 but had a sparkling 1.69 ERA (151 ERA+) and in 1912, at the age of 22, he went 34-5 with a 1.91 ERA, 35 complete games, and ten shutouts.
It would be his last full season, and by the age of 26 he had converted to being a full time outfielder.
Don't look for any Bob Lemon pitching prior to age 25. You won't find any.
Lemon was in professional baseball from the age of 17, in 1938, and slowly made his way through the minors as a merely-average outfielder and third base.
After World War II, Lemon had to be convinced to try his hand as a pitcher; he took to it well.
Lemon went on to become a Hall of Famer; the autobiography of Ted Williams might convince you that Lemon was one of the greatest pitchers of all time.
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Bret Saberhagen was drafted in 1982, threw 157.2 major league innings in 1984 at the age of 20, and won a Cy Young Award at the age of 21.
Saberhagen won another Cy in 1989 at the age of 25, but in between he had some up and down seasons, including going 7-12 with a 4.15 ERA in only 156 innings at the age of 22.
After his second Cy Young Award, he would never throw 200 innings again.
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Johan Santana reminds us that the best pitcher five years from now is likely to be someone that you've never heard of today.
Santana was signed as an amateur free agent by Houston in 1995. It took him five full years to get to the major leagues at age of 21, and then another three years to become a full time starter, at the age of 24.
At 25, Santana enjoyed his breakout season, winning an ERA title and leading the AL in strikeouts on the way to his first of two Cy Young Awards.
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Did Dwight Gooden have a good major league career? Yes.
But in 1984, at the age of 19 and just a year and a half after being the fifth overall pick in the 1982 draft, Gooden went 17-9 and led the NL in strikeouts with an amazing 276 in 218 innings.
The following year he won the Triple Crown, going 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA and 268 strikeouts.
To say he never had another good season would be inaccurate. But at the age of 20, he'd peaked, to be sure.
Gooden reminds us that when a brand new pitcher shows once-in-a-lifetime skills as a teenager, there is no logic to the notion that he'll "only get better"; chances are, he's as good as he'll ever be.
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Roy Halladay was the 17th overall pick in the 1995 draft. The Blue Jays took him 13 spots after the Cubs took Kerry Wood, and 10 spots after the Rangers took Jonathan Johnson.
Halladay made his debut the same year as Wood, but pitched only 14 innings. The following year, he threw 149 innings, but over the next two years he'd only pitch a combined 173 innings at the major league level.
It wasn't until the age of 25, seven years after being drafted and four years after making his major league debut, that Halladay developed into a full time major league starter. The following year he won the AL Cy Young Award and was on the scene to stay.
Halladay reminds us that it isn't what you come to the show with, but rather what you pick up once you get to the show, that determines how your career will unfold.
Mark The Bird Fidrych
If I were to keep this slide as brief at Mark Fidrych's playing career, it would have to stop righ . . .
In 1976, at the age of 21 and never having played major league baseball before, the Detroit Tigers 10th round pick in the 1974 draft led the AL in complete games with 24 and ERA with a 2.34, while going 19-9 in 250.1 innings pitched. He won the Rookie of the Year and made the All Star team while finishing second in the Cy Young voting.
He was out of baseball five years later, having pitched a career total of 412.1 innings.
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Okay, so we all knew Greg Maddux would be a good major league pitcher. We just didn't know how good, and it didn't happen over night.
The Cubs second round pick in 1984, Maddux went 6-14 with a 5.61 ERA in his first full season three years later.
From 1988 to 1991, he was a good, not great, major league starter, going 67-46 with a 3.24 ERA in four seasons.
In 1992, at the age of 26, he won his first Cy Young Award.
One of the greatest pitching careers of all time had begun.
Maddux reminds us that the best pitcher in the game in five years might be today's above-average inning-eating starter.
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On May 6, 1998, in just the sixth start of his career at the age of 20, Kerry Wood struck out 20 Houston Astros in one of the greatest games ever pitched.
Wood gave up only one hit, a questionable call by the official scorer on a play that could easily have been ruled an error, and walked no one, in throwing one of the most dominating games of all time.
Nine months later, he had Tommy John surgery, and after a brief resurgence has never been the dominant force we all hoped he'd be.
The name Kerry Wood kept popping into my head as we watched Strasburg become the Greatest Pitching Prospect of All Time.
I should have known better.
Wood, by the way, serves as a reminder that for all the criticism the Nationals management is now going to receive for its babying of Strasburg, pitchers who aren't babied can end up in the exact same place Strasburg finds himself now.
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In 1985 the Montreal Expos picked up Randy Johnson in the second round of the amateur draft, and thus began one of the longest treks to major league super-stardom baseball has ever witnessed.
It would be three years before the Big Unit would make his debut, in 1988 at the age of 24. The following season, he would be traded to Seattle where he became a full time starter and put up a 4.40 ERA.
For the next three years, Randy pitched 200 innings each year, striking out plenty of guys and not allowing many hits, but doling out more bases on balls than any other pitcher in the league. For three years his K:BB ratio lived in the 1.50 range, which isn't good.
Then, in 1993, at the age of 29, things clicked for the Unit. He threw a career high 255.1 innings, broke the 300 strikeout threshold, and kept his bases on balls under 100 for the first time as a full time starter.
Two years later, he won the Cy Young Award, going 18-2 in the strike shortened 1995 season with an AL leading 2.48 ERA and 294 strikeouts in 214 innings. He did that at the age of 31.
Today Johnson is considered by some to be the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time, a not-so-subtle reminder that greatness in the major leagues must be earned, and learned, and no one gets to the Big Show with greatness handed to them.
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Mark Prior must go to sleep at night wondering what he could have done differently.
The number two pick in the 2001 draft—after Joe Mauer—Prior was reputed to have one of the most fundamentally sound throwing motions in all of baseball.
Prior debuted in 2002 and looked excellent, and was a dominant force in 2003 as the Cubs came within a dropped double play ball of going to the World Series.
We haven't heard from Prior since.
Prior reminds us that there is a chance that injuries to exciting young multi-talented pitchers may simply be inevitable.
In 1988, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Pedro Martinez as a free agent.
At the time, he was known as "Ramon's brother," since his brother Ramon pitched for the Dodgers as well.
Four years later, in 1992, Pedro made his major league debut and pitched eight innings. The following year, as a reliever, he appeared in 65 games.
In the strike-shortened 1994 season Pedro was part of a magical Montreal Expos team that has been lost to history, and began to emerge as a bona fide major league starter.
Three years after that, he led the NL in ERA and won his first Cy Young Award.
Two years later, at the age of 27, 11 years after being signed by the Dodgers, he pitched the greatest season ever pitched with the Boston Red Sox and became part of baseball history.
I want to say to Washington Nationals fans, just as I want to say to myself, that Stephen Strasburg will be back. Tommy John surgery is not nearly as risky or dire as it once was, and some people even joke (cruelly) that a pitcher's career doesn't start until he's had Tommy John surgery.
So everything will be fine.
Unfortunately, though, we also know the story of David Clyde. And this is what scares us.
Clyde was drafted number one overall by the Rangers in June of 1973 out of a high school in Houston, Texas, where he’d allowed three earned runs in 148 innings.
Clyde made his first major league start on June 27, 1973, the same month he had been drafted, and allowed one hit and two earned runs in five innings while striking out eight (and walking seven). In his second start, on July 2nd, he struck out six in six innings and allowed only four hits and one earned run.
Here was a guy who sprung from the womb ready to pitch to major league hitters.
But it was not to be.
He remained with the Rangers for the remainder of the season, got tired around his eighth start (remember he’d already pitched 148 innings in high school that season), and finished the season with a 5.01 ERA.
Struggles with control and injuries ensued, and the guy was out of baseball at 24.
We can only hope for a better fate for Stephen Strasburg.