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Strasburg will encounter obstacles
There's hype, and then there's what's preceded Stephen Strasburg's arrival in Washington.
On Tuesday, when the Nationals' presumptive ace and savior toes a major-league slab for the first time, "flood the zone" media coverage is assumed. But this is more than the debut of your garden-variety phenom. This is the guy who's rookie card will fetch more than $16,000, and this is the guy who may well have a town named after him. All before he even throws a pitch at the highest level.
To be sure, Strasburg's talent is unassailable. Most close observers will say he's got the most upside of any pitching prospect of the draft era (i.e., 1965 and onward).
Strasburg has a fastball that sits in the high 90s, touches triple digits and has outstanding late movement, and his sharp breaking ball is a true wipeout pitch that hits the top of the scouting scale. As for his changeup, it's "merely" a plus pitch. Besides, if any starter can get by with a "show me" third pitch, it's Strasburg and his power combo. But his changeup is already better than that.
In terms of mechanics, he maintains his velocity from the stretch, gets a nice downward plane toward the plate, shows consistent (and lightning-fast) arm action, and boasts an ideal pitcher's frame.
It would be one thing if all Strasburg had going for him was one of the best fastballs anyone has ever seen, but he's got so much more than that. And the numbers have been no less impressive. Strasburg has worked just 55.1 innings as a pro, but those 55.1 innings have been almost uniformly dominant. He's whiffed more than a batter per inning, his strikeout-to-walk ratio is a spectacular 5.0, and he's given up only one dinger and just 14 runs.
In other words, the hype — all that bandwidth, all those column inches — is justified.
Then again, Strasburg is, let us remember, a young pitcher, and young pitchers (to pilfer and mangle a great Bart Giamatti rumination) are designed to break your heart.
In keeping with this idea, Baseball Prospectus once minted the acronym "TINSTAAPP," which stands for "There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect." That's hyperbole, of course, but there's also a kernel of genuine wisdom in there: so, so many things can go wrong. The unrelenting caliber of major-league hitters can overwhelm. Injuries can derail. The mind can play its tricks. And that, of course, is but a partial listing of the things that can go wrong with a young pitcher, regardless of his gifts.
Examine the depth and breadth of baseball history, and you'll find names like David Clyde and Brien Taylor and Todd Van Poppel and Ryan Anderson and so many others — young pitchers on an unswerving course for glory who never found that glory.
So will Strasburg rise to meet those lofty expectations, or will he be the next to join the conga line of failed flamethrowers?
Stephen Strasburg's minor league stats have been spectacular. Jared Wickerham
It's in Strasburg's favor that he's 21 years old and has thus made it through what some have called the pitcher's "injury nexus" of age 18 to 20. In a related matter, it's also in Strasburg's favor that he's a college-trained arm. After all, supremely touted college arms rarely flame out to the extent that prep draftees do (for instance, those names above were all signed out of high school).
Still, cautionary college tales abound. Dewon Brazelton, Bryan Bullington and Kyle Sleeth achieved almost nothing.
Remember when Mark Prior was said to mix legendary stuff with flawless mechanics? His major-league career consisted of fewer than 700 innings. Paul Wilson was similarly ballyhooed coming out of Florida State, but he has a career ERA of 4.86 to show for all his promise. Darren Dreifort combined, in some senses, the flaws of both. Others like Floyd Bannister, Andy Benes, Joey Hamilton, Kris Benson, and Mark Mulder accomplished a bit more.
Still other college hurlers like Ben McDonald were even better without quite reaching the heights predicted for them. In the here and now, Justin Verlander and David Price — both coveted coming out of college — may yet achieve greatness. And that's to say nothing of hyped college pitchers like Tom Seaver, Roger Clemens and Mike Mussina (among others) who justified the hype and then some.
So will Strasburg achieve greatness, or at least come close to what's expected of him? Barring serious injury, probably so. The thing to remember about Strasburg is that at this early stage he's better than any name you've read in this column. But here's the other thing to remember: even such rare promise doesn't inoculate him against the many ways a young pitcher can disappoint.
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