Wednesday

6-9-10: Hype, Embraced

Hello again everybody...

Welcome to a Wednesday. Like the new pictures? (Look up under the title... there you go.)

While my mom was in town, we had a chance to go down to Target Field while the club was out of town and get a good look at - as well as a few snapshots of - the various items located on Target Plaza. Thanks to a little photo-editing I was able to put together that collage of the Harmon Killebrew, Kirby Puckett and Rod Carew statues. It's nice to change things up a bit, no?

I'm not sure about anybody else, but it seems like this week is going by a bit slower than usual. Maybe it was the holiday-shortened week last week? Maybe it's because there's been so much going on lately? I don't know. I just can't wait for the weekend to get here!

Speaking of “so much going on”, last night was a huge night in baseball. Two rookie phenoms made their MLB debuts, and as seems to be the pattern in 2010, both did pretty darned well.

Marlins rookie OF Mike Stanton made his debut against the Phillies last night and went 3-for-5 with two runs scored. Not shabby at all.

Unfortunately, for Stanton, his debut was blown out of the water by the arrival of Washington Nationals phenom pitcher Stephen Strasburg. Strasburg might be the most hyped pitching prospect since Mark Prior debuted for the Cubs in 2002.

Did his performance last night live up to said hype? I'll discuss...

Right after the quote!

”Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”
- Thomas A. Edison (1847 - 1931), American inventor, scientist, and businessman


Some gifted athletes try to get by on their God-given talent alone. Others take that talent and bust their tails to refine it, and end up being legendary...

Sounds a bit melodramatic? Perhaps. But after Stephen Strasburg's major league debut last night, it might just be apropos.

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Here's the thing, I can't stand hype. If hype were walking down the street in high heels and a sexy red dress, I'd flee in the opposite direction.

I refused to pick up a Harry Potter book until the fourth volume, simply because I thought they were over-hyped (ooh-wee did I get that one wrong). I'm one of the few people who still hasn't seen “Avatar” partially because I don't believe it can live up to the hype that surrounded it (the other part being my belief that the directors a world-class D-bag, and I don't want to give him my money).

Sometimes I'm right, sometimes I'm wrong... and then sometimes I go ahead and give in to the hype anyway.

Stephen Strasburg (pronounced STRAHS-berg just to clear up any confusion) was the number one overall selection in the 2009 MLB entry draft. After going 13-1 with a 1.32 ERA in his final season at San Diego State University, the only question was how much money he was going to get as a signing bonus. The Washington Nationals answered that question by signing him to a $15.1 million contract this past August.

Remember, baseball contracts are guaranteed, so that contract promised $15 million to a kid who'd never thrown a pitch in professional baseball. And even if he blew out his elbow in his first
Spring Training and never threw a pitch in the majors, he'd still collect every penny of it. Astounding, when you think about it.

Once his contract was signed, the next question became when he'd be in the big leagues. As a college pitcher, he was more mature physically and in terms of baseball knowledge than a lot of draft picks, so there was a possibility at least that he could skip the minor leagues entirely and open the season with the big club. The Cincinnati Reds made exactly that call with their rookie pitcher, Mike Leake, and all he's done is go 5-0 with a 2.22 ERA so far. Yeah, that'll do.

Washington decided to go another direction. They sent Strasburg to AA-Harrisburg to start the year. The Nationals brass claimed it was because they wanted to give Strasburg the best chance to be successful in the big leagues. They wanted to let him start in the minors, work on making his mechanics big-league-ready, and allow him to build up his confidence by feasting on lesser competition, and then bring him up when he was truly ready.

What they didn't say, is that MLB arbitration rules state that if they waited until after June 1st to call him up, they'd delay his arbitration eligibility by a year. After three years in the majors, players are eligible for contract arbitration, which is a process that usually costs clubs a lot of money. By waiting until now to call Strasburg up, the Nationals effectively bought themselves a fourth year. That means if Strasburg turns out to be the phenom pitcher that Washington fans hope he'll be, the Nationals have bought themselves an additional year to figure out a longer-term contract.

Strasburg's performance in the minor leagues was exceptional. In his five games in AA-Harrisburg, he went 3-1 with a 1.64 ERA. He struck out 27 while walking only six, and had a ridiculous WHIP of 0.864. Believe it or not, when he advanced to AAA-Syracuse, his numbers got better. There, he went 4-1 with a 1.08 ERA in 6 games. He struck out 38 while walking seven, and reduced his WHIP to 0.750.

So after 11 professional starts (and the June 1st deadline passing), the Nationals decided to give the kid the call up to the big leagues, and that led us to his major league debut last night in Washington versus the Pittsburgh Pirates.

As I said, I abhor hype. But I love baseball, I love baseball history, and I love having a chance to experience events which may go down in baseball lore. So I bought in. Yesterday morning, I set my DVR to record the game on MLB Network. When I got to work, I printed out the Washington Game Notes off of MLB.com, and I also dialed up the website when I found out that they were showing Strasburg's first four innings live online for free.

As it turned out, I was rewarded.

First of all, the atmosphere at Nationals Park was electric. The place had been sold-out since shortly after it was announced that Strasburg would be making his debut. Nationals fans haven't had much to root for in the team's brief existence, so they were chomping at the bit to give this kid all the love he could stand. After retiring the first two batters he faced, he got to an 0-2 count on the third batter, and the fans stood up and cheered in anticipation of a strikeout. Let me remind you, this was the first inning. I'm not ever sure I've seen something like that at a ballgame I've attended. Strasburg broke off a nasty breaking ball, and gave the fans exactly what they wanted. And it wouldn't be the only time.

Secondly, the kid pitched an absolute gem. He got through the first three innings surrendering only one hit. The only trouble he ran into came in the fourth inning, when Pittsburgh got the first two runners on base. Strasburg got the third batter to ground into a double play leaving a runner at third with two outs. The next batter, Delwyn Young, got a change-up he liked out over the plate and hammered it over the right field wall to give Pittsburgh an early 2-1 lead. After that, Strasburg was untouchable.

If you're going to be a reliable big-league starter, you have to have at least three reliable pitches: a fastball, a breaking ball (curveball or a slider), and some sort of change-up to keep hitter from sitting on your fastball. And you'd better be able to throw two of those three for a strike in any given situation, or big league hitters are going to sit on a pitch and hammer you.

Strasburg has four pitches: a two-seam fastball, a four-seam fastball, a curveball and a change-up, and he can (and did) throw all four of them for strikes at any point in the count. His fastball was consistently in the upper-90's, his change-up clocked in the mid-80's and his curveball came in right about 80mph. That's just not fair. It's tough enough to hit major league pitching when a guy has only a couple of pitches he can reliably throw for strikes. When a guy has an arsenal like Strasburg and throws that hard, it makes hitters evenings less than enjoyable.

The Nationals scored three runs in the 6th, giving Strasburg a 4-2 lead which he'd never relinquish. He completed seven full innings, striking out the side in the 6th and the 7th before being removed for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the seventh inning.

Washington fans demanded and received a curtain call from the kid. One of what they hope will be many.

Strasburg's final line was: 7 innings pitched, 4 hits, 2 earned runs, 0 walks, 14 strikeouts and 1 home run surrendered. He threw 94 pitches, 65 of them for strikes.

His 14 K's are the most in a big-league debut since J.R. Richard struck out 15 batters for the Astros in 1971. The difference? Richard went the distance in that game. Strasburg nearly matched him in only seven innings.

Earning a win in your first big league start? That's always nice. Doing it while nearly setting a club-record for strikeouts in a single game? That's something special.

Yes, Strasburg lived up to the hype, and I'm happy to say I've bought in... with one caveat.

That caveat is this: it's only one game.

Bob Costas said it best during the MLB Network broadcast. There have been plenty of players with phenomenal debuts who never amounted to much, and there have been plenty of Hall of Famers who got shelled in their first big league game. One game doesn't a career make.

Already last night, advance scouts were watching Strasburg closely. With each progressive start, they'll start to find patterns in his pitch selection, which pitches does he go to regularly when he's ahead or when he's behind hitters. They'll find out his weaknesses - and let there be no doubt, as good as he looked, he has some - and they'll alert their hitters as to how to exploit them.

Baseball is a game of adjustments. Hitters learn quickly, so pitchers have to constantly be mixing up their approach, or risk getting hit hard.

Case in point, Max Scherzer. When he made his debut with the Diamondbacks in 2008, he pitched 4.5 perfect innings in relief, while striking out seven. Arizona fans thought they'd found their next great pitcher to go along with an already formidable stable that included Brandon Webb and Dan Haren. Scherzer was inserted into the rotation, promptly lost his first start, and struggled to adjust throughout the 2008 and 2009 seasons, going 9-14 with a 3.86 ERA over those two years.

Arizona then traded Scherzer to Detroit as part of a three-team deal that brought them Ian Kennedy and Edwin Jackson. So far in 2010, Scherzer's already been sent to the minors for a stretch, and is 2-5 with a 6.66 ERA.

So you never really know based on one dominant performance what's going to happen. You don't even know after 2+ seasons what's going to happen.

In his first start back from the minors, Scherzer struck out 14 Oakland A's in a superb performance. The start after that? He gave up five runs over five innings en route to a 7-3 loss to the Kansas City Royals.

So is Strasburg the next Roger Clemens (minus the PED's, we hope)? The next Max Scherzer? Or is he something else entirely?

I don't know, and that's part of the fun. This kid has all the potential in the world, and we baseball fans get to sit back and see if it comes to fruition.

Strasburg's next start comes on Sunday. Last night, he faced a Pirate team that had a collective OPS of .667 (a mere 67 points below the big league average), was 14th in the NL in home runs, and ranked dead-last in runs scored. Sunday, he'll face a Cleveland club with a collective OPS of .685, that's 13th in the AL in home runs, and ranks 12th in the league in runs scored.

Think the Nationals' brain trust doesn't want to give this kid every possible chance to succeed? I think they might.

If you have a chance to give the kid a look, do so. I don't know how his career is going to turn out, but he's got as good a chance to be special as anyone I've seen in a long time.


That's going to wrap this thing up for today. Barring a potential perfect game being botched by a lousy call - or something similarly remarkable, I'll bring you a “delayed but never denied” version of the DFTU on Friday.

Until then, thanks for reading!

2 comments:

  1. How about confirmation that some teams are moving conferences? Would that usurp the usual DFTU?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Usurp? No.

    Be included in? Perhaps.

    ReplyDelete