Strasburg needs perfect setting for debut

BY Bob Klapisch • March 22, 2010

Dwight Gooden has never met Stephen Strasburg, but he has a pretty good sense of what’s registering on the kid’s Geiger counter: disappointment, impatience and the feeling of being held back — like Hannibal Lecter in a strait jacket.

Set-me-free is the prism through which most 21-year-olds see life, especially those blessed with a fastball like Strasburg’s. Gooden knows; he’s been there, done that, having made his debut at age 19 in 1984. A year later Doc became the youngest Cy Young Award winner in baseball history.

You’d think Gooden would be the first to advocate Strasburg’s instant promotion to the Nationals’ big-league roster. Not so. He says the Nats made the right decision sending the rookie down — and all the way to Double A, to boot.

“You can’t take a chance with a kid who’s that good. He needs to be successful from the get-go,” Gooden said by telephone from his home in New Jersey. “There’d be too much pressure on him if he’s in the rotation right away. And if you send him to Triple A, there’s a lot of major leaguers there who’ll be looking to take him down.”

Even at Double A, Strasburg will face hitters who are more skilled than the ones he saw in college. That’s where the learning curve begins: can he adjust to sluggers who catch up to fastballs? Can he work out of trouble? Can he assimilate in a diverse clubhouse, where he could be one of the more educated players in the room?

Those are some of the factors GM Mike Rizzo will be evaluating in the coming weeks. And when it’s time for Strasburg’s debut, Gooden has one more piece of advice for Strasburg’s handlers: start him on the road, pick the opponent (preferably a weak one) and the ballpark (avoid a small one like Wrigley) and make sure the rookie faces a No. 4 or No. 5 starter.

“Do whatever it takes to get him that first 'W',“ Gooden said. “The last thing you want is for him to get lit up, so you try to stay away from the better lineups.”

Timing, of course, is everything: most everyone assumes Strasburg will be called up by May, but exactly when matters greatly. As the Washington Post’s Dave Sheinin recently wrote, a difference of a few days next month could cost the Nationals millions of dollars down the road.

The longer Strasburg stays in the minors, the longer the Nats delay his eligibility for free agency and arbitration. The rookie needs to be kept off the major league roster for at least three weeks so that he’ll have less than six years’ service by 2015, thus keeping him within the Nats’ control through 2016.

The Nats also want to keep Strasburg from reaching Super Two status, which grants arbitration rights to the top 17 percent of players with less than three years’ service. To do that, Rizzo has to err on the side of caution, since the cutoff for Super Two changes every year.

Sheinin correctly points out the Giants paid dearly for their decision to call up Tim Lincecum on May 6, 2007, which, as it turned out, was seven days before the Super Two threshold. Thus, the reigning Cy Young Award winner would’ve been able to take the Giants to arbitration this past winter, settling for $9 million when, without Super Two leverage, he would’ve had to accept approximately $700,000.

Does this mean Strasburg is being treated unfairly? Not really. A difference of $8 million might not make a dent in the Yankees’ finances, but to the Nats, that sum could impact the financial operations for an entire season. Surely Strasburg understands baseball’s corporate soul. Anyone who hires Scott Boras as his agent has already replaced his idealism with a bottom-line ethos.

But that’s not to say Strasburg will suffer because of a late start. He might as well learn at the lower levels what a target he’ll be, Gooden says.

“When you’re that good, and everyone’s already talking about you, you have to have your A stuff every time out there,” Doc said. “I’ve seen him (pitch) on TV. I think he’s great. But nothing about this is going to be easy.”

Mark Teixeira and Thoughts about Ultimate Zone Rating.

Do you think of baseball as art or science? Nine innings of subtle beauty or data to be entered in a software program?

That split is at the heart of a running philosophical debate — between old school scouts and players themselves and the sabermetric community.

Case in point is Mark Teixeira, generally viewed as one of the game’s finest defensive first baseman. According to Ultimate Zone Rating, a metric used to measure runs saved relative to the average fielder at that position, Teixeira had his best season in 2008, with a 10.7 rating that was No. 1 in the majors.

Somehow, though, UZR panned Teixeira’s performance in 2009: He was 16th in the big leagues with a minus 3.6, the second-worst year of his career.

Not surprisingly, Teixeira strongly disagreed. Not only does he object to the premise of quantifying defense, he says UZR’s evaluation was dead wrong as it pertained to him.

“Honestly, I don’t think I had that great of a year in 2008,” Teixeira said. “I thought I played better last year with (the Yankees). I was very proud of the fact that between me and Robbie (Cano), not a lot of balls got through the infield.”

Teixeira says UZR is flawed because it’s unable to factor in his ability to scoop throws in the dirt — one of his greatest assets, if you listen to Yankee infielders. Ultimately, his beef is with software mixing in a world inhabited by humans.

“Look, if computers could run the game, why bother having general managers?” Teixeira asked.

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