July 22, 2018

A Proper Frame for Stephen Strasburg

February 28, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson left southern California in 1907 a shy young man who was uncertain why the Washington Senators thought he was going to be a star. Manager Cantillon had heard from scouts the kid was a unique talent-77 straight scoreless innings, 166 strikeouts in eleven games. Now, a century later, another unassuming young man from southern California has taken the trip to Washington to pitch for a cellar-dwelling baseball team.  How far will this comparison carry?

As I contemplate my trip later this month to the Nationals training camp, I know it is going to be all about getting a sneak peek at Stephen Strasburg. What is a reasonable approach?  Through what lens do you view this young phenom?

Ivan Rodriguez was on the receiving end of one of Stephen Strasburg’s first bullpen sessions and he referred to his stuff as “amazing.”  Asked how Strasburg stacked up against Justin Verlander, Pudge said that was the wrong comparison.  He reminded the press that he had caught Nolan Ryan for three years and he said Strasburg’s stuff was in that league.

Nyjer Morgan has started calling Strasburg, “Jeeesus,” because that is what everyone says after watching him throw.  These are just the early precincts reporting in on the ballot question, “How good is Stephen Strasburg?”  There was caution in the Nationals camp in Viera, Florida from superstitious players who don’t want to jinx the best thing they have seen in camp since…

So how do you frame Strasburg.  Comparisons to Nolan Ryan don’t work for me.  The Big Texan is just that, from Texas.  No, I want a DC baseball lens and the best one is the best ever–Walter Johnson, thought by many to have thrown the ball faster and harder than anyone before or after.

Pundits like Tom Boswell, quoted above, know that there is a long way to go, even until Strasburg throws his first major league pitch.  Yet, there are several noteworthy similarities between the two pitchers separated by a century of baseball history.

Walter Johnson was only nineteen when he started his career for the Washington Senators against Ty Cobb’s Tigers–one of the best lineups in the American League.  The kid, who had been pitching in little better than semi-pro leagues in Idaho, shut down the Tigers until Sam Crawford had an inside the park home run in the eighth inning of his first start.  Big Train went from 16-year old who had hardly played organized ball to the big leagues in three years.

Strasburg was not a phenom coming out of high school, nor much touted early in his college career.  He came on over his three years at San Diego State.  Does he throw harder than anyone else?  Is he the best prospect since the Amateur Player Draft began in the 1960’s?  Those are the questions that have been tossed around until the young man signed for less than $50 million with the Nationals and became just another name on Baseball America’s or Keith Law’s prospect board.

After Walter Johnson’s first few games in 1907, roaring crowds awaited him outside the DC stadium every time he pitched.  Strasburg already has a huge contingent of press and scouts following his every bullpen session.  Wherever he begins the season–whether in the DC suburbs for high-A Potomac or at Nationals Park, there will be huge crowds to which a somewhat unassuming young man will need to adjust.

Before he was known as “Big Train” Walter Johnson was called the “Big Swede,” because he was a very big man with long arms that dangled almost to his knees.  He generated more speed than perhaps any other pitcher in history with an unorthodox sidearm delivery that every one agreed limited the stress on his shoulder and arm.  Few have such confidence in Strasburg’s natural motion.

Keith Law’s analysis of Strasburg during the run-up to the June draft expressed concern about the velocity of Strasburg’s arm and the long term stress of his motion.  Johnson did not even begin to pitch until he was 16, which some have reasoned helped explain his longevity as an elite pitcher. Although Strasburg was a money pitcher of sorts in high school, he did not stress his shoulder then the way his current motion does.  So like Johnson, he benefits from a late start.

The best similarity between Strasburg and Johnson is their attitude towards their stardom.  Johnson was always humble about his natural gifts.  Strasburg has shown remarkable humility for someone who has been subjected to such intense scrutiny for more than two years.

I recommend to Strasburg that he get away from the media attention with a good book.  Walter Johnson by Henry W. Thomas is about the best baseball book I have ever read, and Walter Johnson is certainly the best player ever to wear a big “W” on his cap.  It is worth learning what his ultimate ambition might be.  Sure, Strasburg will never fill up the Big Swede’s hat or shoes, but there is no problem aiming high.

Comments

One Response to “A Proper Frame for Stephen Strasburg”
  1. Joe Williams says:

    Nice article. Strasburg’s major league debut should be one of the highlights of the season and I would love to be in the stands. The Nationals need a player with this kind of talent and hopefully he will live up to it. Nice to see you compared him to the Big Train. Sometimes I think he gets overlooked and maybe the Cy Young Award should have been the Walter Johnson Award.

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