Stephen Strasburg is back, so don’t worry, be happy

Thomas Boswell
Columnist September 15, 2011

Last July, Stephen Strasburg went on the disabled list because of shoulder tightness. Last August, he tore the main pitching ligament in his elbow and missed a year following Tommy John surgery. In his last start, he was taken out after three innings; his velocity had dropped from 97 to 92 mph, for no apparent reason, before he’d even reached his 35th pitch of the game.

“Are you okay?” Washington Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty asked Strasburg on a mound visit — in the second inning. The bullpen was already up and hot.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

After the game, Nats Manager Davey Johnson said, “The radar gun seemed to be stuck on 92.” Darn scientific gadgets. Unreliable. Except when the gizmos had Strasburg touching 99 mph in his previous four starts. Then, count on ’em.

McCatty said, reassuringly, that Strasburg just had a one-inning mechanical glitch and got back up to 97 in his final inning.

“Cat is a worrywart,” Johnson said, adding, “What’s wrong with 92?”

What’s the difference between 99 and 92? Answer: Five feet of fastball.

Oh, the Nats have also decided to start Strasburg on every sixth day, not every fifth day. So, he’ll start Saturday, not Friday — just to get a bit of extra rest. And, final footnote: They might skip his final turn in the season’s last week.

But I’m not worried.

The reason I’m not worrying is that if we start fretting over Strasburg the way the Nats and Johnson are paid to do, we’ll soon be as batty as McCatty.

You may say that anybody with a heart, anybody who sees a fine young man with enormous talent, ought to be a little fretful that he might, for reasons outside his control, never be able to live out his ambitions.

Pitchers who are exceptional enough to be picked at or near the top of the amateur draft, like Strasburg, have either thrown a great many pitches at an early age or have thrown at extremely high velocity before their bodies were fully mature. For many, it’s Catch-22: If you’re that good that young, you may not be that good for long.

We knew all this before the Nats ever drafted or signed Strasburg. The risk factor is why he got $15 million, not $50 million. But, at some point — different for everyone — you just get burned out on fretting.

Because his arm endured the strain of throwing (reportedly) 102 mph at age 21 and because his curveball is so vicious and because he already has had one major injury — which was, by luck, the one injury that science has learned to fix 90 percent of the time — the Nats are always going to wear blood pressure cuffs while watching Strasburg light up the radar gun.

But that doesn’t mean everybody else must do the same. On Sunday, my first impulse on seeing that “stuck” radar gun at 92 was to think, “Shut him down for the year. What’s the risk-reward on starting three more games?”

Luckily for me, before I could open my mouth, Strasburg opened his. Sometimes, he seems to think more sensibly than most of the rest of us, not merely pitch better. This week, he talked about what must seem like a dream to him: the boredom of just playing baseball for a living, no melodrama, pitching every fifth day, season after season.

“I need to get into a routine to where it’s just auto-pilot,” Strasburg said. “Answer the bell every fifth day. . . . Get into the monotony of it, not really focusing on, ‘Oh, here’s his next start; Strasburg strikes again’ or whatever. It’s a ton of starts that you get in the big leagues. It’s a long road. It’s a grind. That’s kind of what I’m looking forward to.”

Sometimes, athletes just have to live out their professional fates. They’re fatalists about their bodies at an early age. Clearly, the Nats, Strasburg and his analytical, obsessed-with-detail agent Scott Boras have accumulated every piece of pertinent medical and biomechanical information available.

They haven’t just studied his body but also analyzed his often-criticized pitching delivery with the “scarecrow” motion — both elbows point skyward as his left foot is about to hit the ground. (Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and countless others do much the same.) They’ve all decided. Strasburg has followed the standard Tommy John surgery recovery to the letter. He’s built up his core muscles and shoulder. He’s kept the same delivery, slightly tweaked, with less glove-hand motion. Now, let it fly. Play the hand as dealt.

There’s much about Strasburg to be enjoyed and analyzed. Only one aspect of his career is a waste of time: figuring out if or when he’ll get hurt.

So my new policy, which goes against all my controlling instincts, is to say: Leave the guy alone. Let him pitch. After two starts, he’s still allowed just a couple of hard-hit balls. If he says he’s okay, then he’s okay. If he says he’s not, send him to a doc. If he gets hurt, follow standard medical procedure. Repeat as necessary. And if he never gets hurt again, just enjoy it.

This seems so sane that I’ll probably have to rethink it.

Again, Strasburg seems to be in the right place — trying to relax into his career and enjoy it, not constantly wonder how long it will last.

“I’m not worried about coming to the park and having cameras in my face” this year, Strasburg said. “That’s kind of nice. I can come here, talk to guys and settle down. I see familiar faces.”

Whether it actually works out this way or not, there’s no face in sports we’d rather become so familiar with that, every fifth day, it seems “like auto-pilot,” not Strasmas. It’s a monotony devoutly to be wished.

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