Strasburg’s Emergence Worth the Wait?
There were a half dozen TV trucks outside the Altoona Curve’s stadium, all aiming their signal at the stars. The stands were packed and all the attention was focused on the first of the “Once in a Lifetime” talents the Washington Nationals signed after wandering in the desert for three seasons. Stephen Strasburg was hyped as much as any amateur in decades and it all came to a head in his first professional game in Altoona on April 11, the first season after he signed. He struck out eight in five innings and gave up a single run. It was the the first of many firsts culminating in his first Major League start at Nationals Park when he electrified the crowd with 14 strikeouts over seven innings, the radar gun hitting 100 mph even in the last inning he pitched.
It is easy to forget the wonder of it all. Bryce Harper became the second, “Once in a Lifetime” talents signed by the Nats and he was the first ever unanimous MVP in the National League last season, so Strasburg has been pushed from the spotlight a bit. Yet his signing to a long term contract and his very fine start to the 2016 season invite reflection on the arc of his first six years in the Majors. Is it all coming together for him?
Last season the low ebb of it all may have been an early start against the Mets. It was the third game of the season at Nationals Park and the match up of Strasburg versus Matt Harvey promised fireworks. But the high heat came from Harvey who was still lighting up the radar guns and he was more than the Nationals ace could handle. Strasburg went gently into that good evening during the sixth inning, behind by a 6-0 margin and I distinctly remember the Mets fans down by the Nationals dugout pouring on their disdain as they believed they had the better pitcher than night by a wide margin.
And they did. The Mets won two of the opening series to the 2015 season and established a dominance that continued until they walked away with the NL East title. It seems like a long time ago in some ways. Strasburg is now pitching with a seven-year contract worth $175 million. The contract is structured so that the actual value in current dollars is less and he will get no more than $15 million in any one year, but it puts him in the upper echelons of the pitching world, if not act its pinnacle where we once thought he would be.
But the contrast with Matt Harvey could not be more appropriate. The Met fans who were up in Strasburg’s grill as he walked off the field last April are not the kind for reflection, but if they were, they would admit their ace has lost his luster in the early months of the 2016 season, prompting the New York press to wonder what is cooking in the once golden arm. Harvey’s 2016 season has raised questions about his overuse down the stretch during 2015 when machismo ruled the roost and concern for the long term health and career of Harvey were tossed out the window of a fast moving train.
For the record, Strasburg has a 7-0 record and an ERA of 2.80 as of this writing. He is fourth in strikeouts in the NL, but for all of the statistical comparisons that can be done, the most striking on is the 7-0 record. His best season to date was in 2012 when he won 15 games and that year Gio Gonzalez won 21 and led the team in every statistical category.
After Tommy John surgery there was a fragility to Strasburg. The electric fastball disappeared for the most part and he pitches at 95 mph most of the time though he can still dial it up to 96-97 when needed. But it was the over reliance on the fastball that has been his Achilles heel and hitters sat on the pitch, waiting for one in the middle of the zone and too often causing heavy damage when they got one. The ERA has always been good, but never great. Maybe he will always be prone to the long home run, or maybe he is just beginning to emerge as the pitcher he was always meant to be.
This season he has developed a hard slider that he throws at around 90 mph and at times it appears to be his most potent weapon. He will still throw too many fastballs when his command eludes him, the slider–or whatever he wants to call it–has sharp late break when it is working and gives him just one more weapon and another strikeout pitch to go with the change and the curve.
The new Strasburg is drawing from a combination of things, not the least of which is the sense of security he has gotten knowing that he has a home in DC. Everyone is different. Ian Desmond shrank in the heat of his walk year, but Strasburg began negotiations with the Lerners early this season and Boras kept moving the ball forward for the past few months. So was it the sense of belonging? Or maybe it is Mike Maddux the new pitching coach? Or maybe all of the above. There is probably more to it than even that, but what ever has come together here in 2016, we may be seeing the very best Stephen Strasburg emerge from a chrysalis that has been seven years in the making.
If so then it is time to put aside Strasburg’s nickname, “the Orchid.” There is nothing temperamental about the Stras this season. He is thriving in the spring temperatures of DC, in the cold and wet and in the longest rainy season even recorded. He is becoming something no one would have thought possible a few seasons ago: consistent and in doing so is fighting to become the ace of a very good pitching staff that could lead the Nationals into the Post Season once again.