October 21, 2014

The Rapid Emergence of Stephen Strasburg in 2007

June 8, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Last year, after I looked up some stories about Dwight Gooden as a teenage phenom, I started wondering about Stephen Strasburg’s early pitching performance. Was he touted as a future star in high school before graduating in 2006? The answer’s no. The San Diego Union-Tribune hardly mentioned Strasburg when he was at West Hills High School, which plays in the Grossmont North League of San Diego. Their first feature on Strasburg didn’t come until May 23, 2007, when Kirk Kenney wrote a short profile of Strasburg, a freshman at San Diego State.

At the time, one National League scout compared his high school makeup to a guy named A.J. Griffin, another San Diego high schooler, who was the closer for the University of San Diego and was drafted by the Phillies in the 34th round in 2009: “Griffin was a more polished pitcher. He always showed that he was tough and a winner and everything else. That guy’s not afraid of anything.”

The scout said his colleagues said of Strasburg in high school “that he’s afraid of his shadow.”

In April 2008, a few days after Strasburg struck out 23 Utah batters in a nine-inning game, the Union-Tribune’s Tim Sullivan noted: “San Diego State’s sophomore strikeout machine went undrafted at West Hills High School, and he cut such an unpersuasive figure that not even so keen an observer as Tony Gwynn was completely sold on what he was seeing.”

Strasburg’s coach, Tony Gwynn: “Our pitching coach, Rusty Filter, just had this vision of him being this guy that we’re seeing. When I first saw him—I’m not going to lie—I asked (Filter), ‘Are you sure?’ “

Rusty Filter said: “I don’t think anyone would expect this. He would touch 90 (miles per hour), maybe, in high school, just kind of scratching the surface, and you’ll see guys who might pick up 3-4 miles an hour. But you never see it go from 89-90 to 99-101. You never see that.”

Strasburg: “I came in here at 245 (pounds) and the strength and conditioning coach put me through pretty much hell. I just tried as hard as I could every day and I lost like 30 pounds. Mechanically, I’m pretty much the same. But my velocity just jumped.”

In May 2007, Filter said: “I thought he was going to be a dominating guy [as a closer]. It was more believing in himself. He didn’t have any type of awareness of what he actually looked like. Physically he’s a big guy, he throws hard, he’s got a good breaking ball. We said, ‘Come in and be that guy. Live up to that.’ “

At that time, the Union-Tribune reported on the turning point in 2007: “Strasburg struggled to close an early-season game against USC, allowing four runs in the ninth inning of a game the Aztecs came back to win. But he was right back out there for the next game, pitching three innings against Cal State Fullerton. Strasburg retired nine straight batters from the sixth through the eighth.”

Tony Gwynn: “As he walked by me, he said an expletive that I can’t repeat. But that’s when I knew that he was going to be fine. From that point on, he was the ninth-inning guy.”

Strasburg, who wound up allowing 10 earned runs for all of 2007 and a .141 opponents’ batting average, was named Co-Freshman of the Year for the Mountain West Conference in 2007. He said: “I’ve started all my life, and it was definitely different (being the closer). I think I’ve gained that mentality.”

The N.L. scout said: “He’s come a long way in a year. I can’t believe what they’ve done with him.”

By the time Strasburg was set to square off against top pitching prospect Brian Matusz of University of San Diego to start the 2008 NCAA season, one scout was quoted saying this: “Eighty percent of the teams wrote him off in high school. Now guys are saying, ‘I turned him in.’ Oh, yeah, you thought he was going to throw 100. Bull.”

Baseball America had Strasburg ranked as the number 3 college pitching prospect for the 2009 draft, but Aaron Fitt, its national college writer, said: “We thought hard about making him No. 1. Maybe we should have. He’s got the prototypical body for a power pitcher, with all the velocity you could want and breaking stuff that’s very good.”

And by May 20, 2008, in the aftermath of the 23-strikeout game, Baseball America’s Jim Callis was saying about the 2009 draft: “It’s still early, obviously, but Stephen Strasburg is at the head of the class right now. A lot can change over the next 13 months, but he’d be the easy No. 1 pick at this moment. His fastball and slider have just devastated hitters all season.”

Arne Christensen runs Misc. Baseball, a blog assembling eclectic items about baseball’s history, and 1995 Mariners.

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