Thomas Boswell's Impressions of Strasburg
Stephen Strasburg is as close to a clone of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood as you'll see. And he's probably just about as good a prospect, despite his loss to Virginia on Friday night. All three pitchers are listed as 6 feet 5 and about 225 pounds. All had fastballs at or near 100 mph but were made truly special by their dazzling breaking pitches -- the kind of pitch, unfortunately, that puts the most strain on the arm. Prior, after USC, got the biggest draft contract for a pitcher ever -- $10.5 million. Strasburg belongs in the same category. But, at least based on his work in the two most important games of his career so far -- his loss to Cuba in the Olympics and his loss to Virginia in an NCAA regional on Friday night -- he isn't better. He's not on a different level. He's not The Best Pitching Prospect Ever. He's the best one since the last one.
That opinion comes with one (big) caveat. Both times I've seen Strasburg -- up close in Beijing, allowing three runs in four innings on 75 pitches against Cuba, and on TV Friday night -- his fastball ranged from 93 to 97 mph. Only two pitches registered 98 against U-Va. In both games, hitters reacted as if his fastball was straight, with little movement, fouling off lots of pitches, taking him deep in counts, making good contact on fastballs that got much of the plate and, in general, not looking overmatched, except by his breaking balls. So where is the "consistently 98- to 102-mph" pitcher the scouts rave about? Where did those 5 mph go? The straighter your heater, the faster it better travel to compensate. Maybe I've seen his two "off" nights. Cuba and the Cavs are the only teams to beat him in those nine months.
Comparisons to Prior and Wood are high praise. Prior went 18-6 for the Cubs at age 23 with a 2.43 ERA and 245 strikeouts. However, arm injuries drove him out of the sport by age 25. Wood struck out 20 men in a game (sharing the MLB record) and had 266 strikeouts in a season, but he never won more than 14 games or had an ERA under 3.20 for the Cubs. Arm problems have made Wood, 31, an Indians reliever.
Against Virginia, Strasburg also brought to mind one other Phenom of the Century -- Ben McDonald, the 6-7 alligator wrestler from LSU with the high-90s fastball, the big 12-to-6 curve, exceptional command and hype so enormous that it undermined his self confidence. Long homers, and base runners around him, brought out the worst in Big Ben. In those first two innings against U-Va., Strasburg used 49 pitches, allowed five hits, including a 410-foot home run, threw two wild pitches and made a nervous fielding error when he bobbled an easy dribbler.
By the time his seven innings of eight-hit work were done, he had 15 strikeouts and no walks -- an accurate testament to his potential -- but he didn't overwhelm the top four hitters in the Cavs' order, who went 6 for 18. Even Virginia's No. 9 hitter, 5-7, 140-pound freshman Keith Werman, lined a single off Strasburg.
So discount the Best Ever at His Age talk. At 20, Dwight Gooden went 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA, threw 16 complete games and had 268 strikeouts for the Mets. At 19, he was 17-9. More likely, Strasburg is on a track like Prior, who started only nine games in the minors (79 strikeouts in 51 innings) before being called up quickly by the Cubs at 21 and going 6-6 as a rookie. Strasburg may have a bit less poise than the extremely mature Prior and need more time in the minors.
For those who like to point out that Stasburg had even more spectacular college stats than Prior, the Virginia game may have offered an explanation. At USC, Prior probably faced tougher competition. Virginia, now ranked No. 7 in the country after winning the ACC tournament, was only the No. 6 seed in that tournament.
For Nationals fans, who have endured so much, the appearance of a mortal but still marvelous Strasburg may -- with the proper cock of the head -- be good news. It shouldn't be (quite) as hard to draft and then sign Strasburg now. You don't pay $50 million, or probably $20 million, for a pitcher who loses a pitching duel to a U-Va. freshman, gives up a long homer, staggers through the first two innings, allows eight hits, looks like a jittery 20-year-old and desn't knock the bat out of the hands of a 140-pound freshman batting ninth.
On the other hand, you're probably going to give more than $10.5 million to a pitcher who bounced back to strike out 15 men, walked nobody and looks like a guy (Prior) who went 18-6 at 22 and resembles another fellow (Wood) who struck out 20 men in a game. As for nettlesome thoughts of Big Ben and arm injuries, banish them from the mind.
Strasburg isn't perfect. But he's mighty good. And, even in a sport in which young pitchers with huge elbow-torquing curves seem born to break your heart, he's worth the risk.
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