The Strasburg effect

If only he hadn’t been quite so good, I might be watching Stephen Strasburg pitch in person tomorrow.

Strasburg, of course, is the hard-throwing rookie pitcher for the Washington Nationals, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 Major League Baseball amateur draft. I’ve been tracking his progress through Washington’s minor league system this season, in the hope that he would still be on the roster of the Nationals’ Triple A affiliate in Syracuse, N.Y., when they came to play the Charlotte Knights.

The Chiefs start a four-game series at Knights Stadium tonight, and if he were still with the team, Strasburg would have been scheduled to start Sunday afternoon, according to the Knights PR staff’s monitoring of the Syracuse rotation. (And it would have guaranteed the Knights their largest non-July 4 Sunday crowd in history, unless I miss my guess.)

Instead, the 21-year-old right-hander out of San Diego State will be making his second major-league start for the Nationals against the Cleveland Indians. His first, on Tuesday against the Pittsburgh Pirates, was called the most hyped pitching debut in the history of the game – you know it’s big when ESPN has a countdown clock to the first pitch.

And the kid lived up to the buildup.

Strasburg struck out 14 batters – one short of the major league record for a pitcher in his major league debut — and gave up only two runs in seven innings as the Nationals beat Pittsburgh, 4-3. He didn’t walk anybody and at one point, news reports said, his fastball was clocked at 100 mph. But in addition to the “heat,” he also threw deceptively effective off-speed pitches.

In short – the whole package, as they say. (It’s also worth noting that the rookie strikeout record of 15 took nine innings for each of the two pitchers that hold it – Karl Spooner in 1954 and J.R. Richard in 1971 — to accomplish. If he had pitched a complete game , Strasburg would almost certainly have broken that record.)

So is he the real deal and can he keep pitching at that level in the big leagues? After all, skeptics say, his debut was against the hapless — and, oh, how it pains me to say that! — Pirates and fueled by the adrenaline of the big event. Strasburg is easing into his big league career – his first four scheduled turns are all against teams that have sub-.500 records right now.

But the career of young pitchers can be fragile. As proof, I couldn’t help notice the names of the two pitchers whose first-game strikeout record Strasburg threatened.

Spooner, who was 23 when he made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers against the eventual World Series champion New York Giants on Sept. 22, 1954, followed that with a shutout of the Pirates. He struck out 12 in that one. “Spooner should have come up sooner,” was a popular saying of the time among Brooklyn fans.

He came back from knee surgery that fall to have a pretty decent 1955 season (8-6, 3.65 ERA) as a starter and a reliever for the National League champion Dodgers. But he developed a sore arm and never pitched again in the major leagues after losing his only start against the New York Yankees in the World Series.

Richard is an even sadder story, even though he had a 10-year major league career and won more than 100 games with the Houston Astros. He was having his best big league season in 1980 – he was the starting pitcher for the National League in the 1980 All-Star Game and had a 10-4 record – when he started to complain of numbness in his arm in July.

Medical tests revealed some arterial blockage in his right shoulder but doctors decided it wasn’t serious enough to warrant treatment. But on July 30, 1980, he suffered a stroke during a pre-game throwing drill and had surgery to remove a blood clot. It was effectively the end of his baseball career. Minor league comeback attempts with the Astros in 1982 and 1983 were unsuccessful and the team released him.

Strasburg, by all accounts, is a level-headed sort, the anti-Ben Roethlisberger. (He married his college sweetheart back in January.) He seems to be poised to have a long and successful career and I hope his story has a happier ending.

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About theoldperfessor

I'm a college professor, teaching journalism and public relations classes at a small private university, and a freelance writer.
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