No restrictions on Strasburg this year
In 2010, when Stephen Strasburg was a rookie, the Washington Nationals controlled how many interviews he granted.
In 2012, when Strasburg was returning from Tommy John elbow surgery, the Nationals controlled how many innings he threw.
In 2013, Strasburg is a 24-year-old veteran. Now he is in control.
This will be the fourth major league season in which Strasburg has been a participant, and yet it is the first in which his performance will take precedence over the Nationals’ meticulous planning (or analytical hysteria, depending on one’s perspective).
Strasburg was one of the rare baseball prospects who earned mainstream media attention in college. Even casual fans feel like they’ve seen him pitch many times. And yet here are his career big-league numbers: 21-10 record, 2.94 ERA, 251 1/3 innings. Justin Verlander or R.A. Dickey would call that a season.
In that respect, Strasburg is just starting his career. But he’s not a kid. Strasburg is more than one year older than San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner, who has won 15 more games. Even more surprisingly, Strasburg ranks third in major league innings among 2009 first-round draft picks; Mike Leake and Mike Minor are ahead of him.
“To me, I don’t feel like I’ve done anything yet,” Strasburg said to a couple of reporters at his locker Thursday morning. “I had a decent year last year. I didn’t pitch a full year. So my expectations are pretty high, but not so much in the sense of numbers or statistics. I want to be the horse in the rotation.
“That’s one thing we talked about when I was at San Diego State, even when I was getting that crazy hype my last year. My pitching coach there, every single day he’d tell me, ‘You’re just another donkey.’ I still hold onto that. I want to be just another guy in the rotation. At the same time, I want everybody in here to know they can rely on me, that I’m going to get it done.”
Hear that? Far from the monotonous answers he gave as a rookie, that’s the sound of a young ace embracing the responsibility of his immense talent. On any given night, Strasburg can look like the game’s best pitcher. But baseball celebrates season-long consistency over isolated brilliance. Strasburg knows that. And for the first time, the Nationals are giving him clearance to look directly into the aurora of his white-hot potential.
The Nationals mothballed Strasburg’s 2012 season in September, after he threw a career-high 159 1/3 innings. The decision — rooted in general manager Mike Rizzo’s desire to care for a rare pitching talent coming off surgery — might have cost the Nationals a World Series title.
The controversy was catnip for many of us in the media, but the man at the center stayed relatively quiet.
“What’s amazing about him is the ability to shut that stuff out,” teammate Drew Storen said. “I’ve never seen it before, where you come into the clubhouse and they’re debating his pitch count. He just walks right by the TV and goes straight to his locker.”
The argument is over now. The governor is off. And with Davey Johnson in his final season as a big-league manager, craving another ring before retirement, we should see Strasburg pitch into the eighth or even ninth inning — something he’s never done in a major league game.
“Last year, I could have — on numerous occasions — gone another inning with him,” Johnson said Thursday. “But I sat on it. That kind of restriction, I won’t have this year. … When we shut him down, he probably (could) have been another 20 innings more at that point.
“When you’re coming back from that kind of injury, other parts of your arm are going to take a toll. Sometimes, you maybe put more pressure on your shoulder. Also, the psychological thought that we’re shutting you down. All those things were working against him last year. He couldn’t focus, because he was projecting ahead.
“I think he’s going to be a lot freer (this year). Today, knowing he’s under no restrictions, he was smooth as silk all the way through (his throwing session). He was pushing things a little more last year. I like exactly where he’s at.”
Strasburg has traveled quite a distance to reach that place, from astronomical expectations as the No. 1 overall pick, to surgery, to rehabilitation, to being told he couldn’t pitch in the postseason last year.
For the record, Strasburg still isn’t happy about being shut down last year. (“It sucked,” he said Thursday.) He didn’t watch the postseason after the Nationals were eliminated in a torturous Game 5 loss to St. Louis during the opening round. How did he take his mind off the disappointment?
“I drowned my sorrows playing a lot of golf,” he said.
Strasburg’s therapy meant 6:30 wakeups and predawn tee times. He often went alone and drove a cart. And he wasn’t golfing to think about baseball. He was golfing to think about golf. His season-low was a 77 at The Vineyard in San Diego.
“I was focusing on my pre-shot routine,” Strasburg said. “I was ready to get some birdies. That’s what helped. I wasn’t sitting at home stressing and complaining and upset about everything that happened.”
In time, Strasburg began his higher-impact training regimen — weightlifting, stretching and heated yoga. The program yielded obvious results. Strasburg reported to camp noticeably thicker through his shoulders. He said he weighs 233 pounds, up from roughly 224 at this time last year.
The motivation behind Strasburg’s work was a round number. Not 300 career victories, the number that virtually guarantees election to the Hall of Fame. Strasburg is set on 200 innings, the number a major league “donkey” (to borrow his word) should be able to deliver for his team.
Strasburg worked out with new Kansas City starter James Shields a little during the offseason; there was admiration in Strasburg’s voice as he pointed out Shields has hit that mark six years in a row.
“The biggest thing is I have to keep doing it,” Strasburg said. “I can’t be one year at 200 innings and then mess around after that.”
Through no fault of his own, Strasburg’s career is off to an unfulfilling start. He got hurt. He had surgery. He wasn’t allowed to pitch at the apex of his sport last October. There’s almost no comparison between Strasburg’s achievements and those of Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw; the Cy Young Award winner and three-time 200-inning man is only four months older than Strasburg.
But maybe there’s a good omen in the deep rough.
“When I have a good round going, I tend to start thinking about it. ‘If I par these last two holes, I shoot this.’ And that’s usually when I blow up,” Strasburg said. “My better round is when I’m not starting off too well. Then I’m like, ‘All right, just go out and have fun.’ Then I pick it up on back nine and shoot a really good score.”
Strasburg isn’t on the back nine of his baseball career. But this year, for the first time, he can play for as long as he would like.