(Above image courtesy of Glen Connely)
Steven Strasburg was just a month into his sophomore season at San Diego State University. Though he had a superb freshman year with the Aztecs, Strasburg had been the team’s closer and wasn’t generally well known around the baseball world.
But now he was a starter, and was no longer cloaked in baseball invisibility.
A week earlier, the 19-year-old took a perfect game into the 7th inning against TCU before settling on a one-hitter while striking out 13.
Two weeks earlier, Strasburg struck out 23 Utah Utes while facing the minimum 27 batters, again giving up just one lonely hit.
And now thousands of fans had packed San Diego’s Tony Gwynn Stadium, but they weren’t there to watch the Aztecs play another little known Mountain West Conference foe.
They were there to watch Steven Strasburg.
Behind him was a young fan taping a giant “K” to the outfield fence each time Strasburg fanned a batter. In front of him was a buxom co-ed, sitting behind home plate, rocking side to side, holding a large white sign above her head.
“Yo mama let u date?”
No longer was Steven Strasburg just a tall, gangly kid from suburban San Diego who was playing his favorite sport solely for the love of the game.
He was now a hot commodity, someone who would likely be worth upwards of $10 million dollars within a year, and certainly a major league pitcher by the time he was 21.
His buddies and girl friends were now being pushed aside by financial advisers, investment counselors, and hangers-on.
The sophomore had a posse.
And Scott Boras' claws were already deep into the young pitcher's future.
“With the first pick in the 2009 Major League Baseball amateur draft, the Washington Nationals select San Diego State University pitcher Steven Strasburg.”
Forget about it. It’s a done deal.
Well, of course there is a small chance that something will happen and Strasburg won’t be the Nationals’ pick, but it would have to involve things like prison or space aliens.
Steven Strasburg is that good.
There was never a question that Strasburg was going to be a special ball player.
He had a 1.68 ERA in his senior year of high school, striking out 74 batters in 62 innings. He threw seven complete games in his senior year alone, an unheard of number for a high school player.
He could have played college ball anywhere he wanted. His arm was recruited by most schools in the west and his mind was recruited by Stanford and the Ivy League schools in the East.
But in the end, he chose San Diego State, his hometown school and his parent's alma mater.
And having the chance to be coached by Tony Gwynn certainly helped.
A starter in high school, Strasburg was converted into the Aztec’s closer his freshman year.
He was solid in that role but was short of dominant, going 1-3, 2.43 in 25 appearances. He allowed just four hits per nine innings, struck out 11 per nine and allowed less than one base runner per inning. His batting-average-against was a minuscule .143.
The only real chink in Strasburg’s armor in 2007 was his control; he allowed almost four walks per nine innings.
Strasburg was named the Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year.
He was moved into the starting rotation prior to the start of 2008, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Strasburg went 8-3, 1.57 as a sophomore. He allowed just five hits per nine innings (sixth best in the nation), upped his strikeouts to 12 per nine and lowered his walks to just one per nine.
His batting-average-against was .136, one of the very best in America.
He was named the Mountain West Conference Pitcher of The Week seven times, including five weeks in a row.
In two seasons, pitching against major college competition, Strasburg gave up just one home run.
And then he got even better.
He pitched in an exhibition against Team USA, and allowed no hits while striking out seven in three innings.
Playing for Team USA, Strasburg went 4-0, 0.88, striking out 62 and walking seven in 47 innings. He pitched in the Olympics and finished with a 2.45 ERA, pitching against both the Chinese and the Cubans.
He was the only amateur on a team full of professionals.
Do I need to go on?
Yes, I believe I do.
Lincoln Hamilton, a writer for projectprospect.com, listed Strasburg as the best college pitcher in more than a decade.
Well, Strasburg or Mark Prior. He just can't decide which is the more complete package.
Either way, he's in elite company. He includes Strasburg in a select group that includes Tampa's David Price, San Francisco's Tim Lincecum, Los Angeles' Jared Weaver, Cleveland's Kerry Wood, and Prior.
When compared to the top college pitchers of all time (per Hamilton), Strasburg has the lowest WHIP, the lowest home runs allowed per nine innings, the third best strikeouts per nine and the second lowest walks per nine within the group.
So why is Steven Strasburg so good?
Because he can make a baseball dance.
His fastball touches 99 mph and cruises at 96-97 mph during a game. But that’s not his strikeout pitch. His slider looks just like his fastball but dies late and ends up in the catcher’s mitt before the batter realizes what he saw.
Strasburg’s best pitch (how can a 99 mph fastball not be his best pitch?) is his “plus-plus” breaking ball that has a two plane break.
Bats just can’t seem to find it.
Thebaseballcube.com has a unique scouting system that places a hard number on predetermined statistical categories. For pitchers, they use control, strikeouts and efficiency.
Johan Santana, perhaps the best pitcher in the major leagues since 2003, has the following scouting numbers (based on a 1-100 scale): control: 85, strikeouts: 95, efficiency: 98.
Take a look at Strasburg's numbers: control: 96, strikeouts: 100, efficiency: 100.
Now, I'm not saying Strasburg will be as successful as Santana at the major league level. I am saying, though, that Strasburg has the talent to be even better than Santana.
But there has to be drawbacks, right? I mean, all pitchers have drawbacks.
Well, no. Not really. But there might be.
His mechanics are a concern.
His elbow is positioned farther back then one would like during the “scap-load” phase of his delivery. This places too much stress on his arm and could lead to the same type of troubles that Kerry Wood and Mark Prior have experienced.
There is also too much recoil in his follow through, and he completes his delivery standing up.
This may indicate that Strasburg, like Kerry Wood and Mark Prior before him, may have problems keeping his arm sound and strong.
The problem is that no one dares tinker with the premier pitcher in college today. Nationals' fans know that Ross Detwiler's troubles this past year were a direct result of the team changing his mechanics, hoping to prevent him from damaging his arm early in his career.
Would the Nationals retard Strasburg's growth in the short term for his long term success?
I don't know. I hope not.
Those questions not withstanding, pitchers like Steven Strasburg come along once every decade or so. There is a chance that he’ll develop his arm trouble later in his career, but it’s a chance the Nationals must take.
And let’s not forget that the chance of the team holding on to Strasburg once he is a free agent is almost zero.
Scott Boras is his agent, after all.
Memo to Washington Nationals: Draft Strasburg with your No. 1 pick in June and then hand a blank check to Scott Boras and bend over.
Having not signed Aaron Crow last year, Boras knows that it would be a public relations nightmare for the team not to sign Strasburg and sign him quickly.
From a dollars perspective, it's going to get ugly.
Once signed, give Strasburg a plane ticket to Washington and put him in the starting rotation.
Forget about his delivery. Forget about the future. Wind him up and point him towards the mound and watch the wins pile up.
With Steven Strasburg, the Washington Nationals could actually have one of the strongest rotations in the National League in just a year or so.
Scott Olsen and John Lannan have have been successful at the major league level and both will be just 25 during the 2009 season. Jordan Zimmermann has the chance to be a true No. 1 starter, and Strasburg is a No. 1 starter.
That leaves one spot in the rotation, and the Nationals have several young pitchers able to fill it. Whether it's Shairon Martis, Collin Balester, Colton Willems, Ross Detwiler, Josh Smoker, Matt Chico, or Tyler Clippard filling that spot, the Nationals will have five special arms in the rotation for the first time.
"The Plan" is less than a year away from finally leaving the station, and Steven Strasburg will be the engineer driving that train.
And watch out: Strasburg won't be stopping for disbelievers.