By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 14, 2008
BEIJING -- With Stephen Strasburg, it always comes back to his heat, that beautiful heat, that supreme cheese, that ungodly fastball. It's that heat that hitters can't touch -- including 23 times in one glorious afternoon four months ago -- that makes scouts drool all over their radar guns, that makes the mind search its dusty corners for a suitable comparison. Who was as good, at the same tender age, as Stephen Strasburg is right now? Well, let's see . . .
"I keep thinking back to Dwight Gooden," said Bob Watson, the general manager of the U.S. Olympic baseball team and a former GM of the Houston Astros and New York Yankees. "But the thing Gooden had was that incredible hook [curveball]. The thing this kid has is the incredible heat."
Strasburg, who turned 20 last month, and his incredible heat -- a fastball that has been clocked by scouts as fast as 101 mph -- belong to America this month, as he is the only collegiate player on a 24-man team otherwise made up of minor leaguers, and in fact the only collegian to be selected to the U.S. Olympic team since it was opened up to minor leaguers for the 2000 Games.
With Team USA already in an 0-1 hole after losing, 8-7, to South Korea in its opener, it was left to Strasburg to reverse its fortunes against the Netherlands on Thursday morning (late Wednesday night in the United States) at Wukesong Stadium.
When he heads back to the United States, assuming he doesn't leave his heat in China or have it confiscated at Customs, Strasburg belongs to San Diego State University, where he will be a junior this fall and widely viewed as the top college pitcher in the country.
But next June, when the Major League Baseball draft comes around, Strasburg (or at least the rights to him; getting him signed is another matter) quite likely will belong to the team that on Sept. 28 of this year owns the worst record in baseball -- the team that therefore gets the first overall pick in next year's draft.
"Whoever gets him," his college pitching coach, Rusty Filter, said in a telephone interview, "is getting a gem."
It just so happens that the worst record in baseball at this moment, with 6 1/2 weeks left in the major league season, belongs to the Washington Nationals. So it is completely false to say that the Nationals, who had a scout at the U.S.-Netherlands game, have nothing to play for this season. They are playing, in a sense, for Strasburg, who already has signed up with an "adviser" -- uh-oh, that would be hard-driving uber-agent Scott Boras, according to Strasburg -- in preparation for the draft.
"Can you imagine him going to a team like Washington?" Watson mused. "Who knows? If he stays healthy, he could be in the majors later that  season. When you have an arm like his, you tend to move fast through the organization that signs you. I believe his experience here [in the Olympics] will accelerate his climb to the majors like he has afterburners on him."
The Nationals, understandably, are not rooting -- at least not publicly -- for the first pick in next year's draft and are not ready to talk about whom they might pick should they get it. But a scouting director for another major league team, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to reveal his team's evaluation of the 2009 draft class, said Strasburg is "the consensus number one [overall pick] if his performance [in the 2009 college season] stays the same."
"A lot obviously can change in the next 10 months, but Strasburg is the clear front-runner to go number one overall," said Jim Callis, executive editor of Baseball America, which focuses heavily on amateur baseball and the draft. "He's the most consistently dominant college starter since Jered Weaver [who came out of Long Beach State in 2004], and his stuff is a lot better than Weaver's."
It would have been difficult to predict such a thing just a few years ago -- or for that matter, as recently as this spring, when San Diego State's season began. At that point, Strasburg, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound right-hander, merely was a promising college sophomore whom the Aztecs were converting from a reliever -- the role he filled as a freshman, when he wound up closing games by the end of the season -- to a starter.
There were enough questions about Strasburg coming out of West Hills High School near San Diego -- he was a pudgy kid who threw just 88-90 mph -- that Filter had to sell the team's head coach, Hall of Fame outfielder Tony Gwynn, on giving him a scholarship.
"It wasn't exactly skepticism," Filter said of his conversations with Gwynn regarding Strasburg. "It was more like: 'Are you sure this is the guy you want? Are we sure we want to go that high on the scholarship amount?' "
Strasburg's delivery was mechanically sound, but needed refinement. His body was, as Filter puts it, "soft" -- as was his mental game. The Aztecs immediately put him on a conditioning program, a throwing program and a yoga program.
The results were immediate and stunning. Strasburg began dropping pounds and gaining velocity. By the time he was a sophomore, his fastball was consistently clocked at 97-99 mph with occasional touches of 100 and 101. He also features a wicked slider that Filter calls his out pitch, and a change-up that he might throw just a handful of times per game.
"I always had the ability in me," Strasburg said, "and I think I was just able to harness it when I got to State because of all the work they had me doing every day. It was a natural progression. Some of it was [because of] maybe losing that baby fat. Some of it was just maturing."
On April 11 against the University of Utah, Strasburg took the mound and walked off it nine innings later having set San Diego State and Mountain West Conference records with 23 strikeouts.
"I've never seen anything like it," Filter said. "The next game, I think he struck out 13 or 14 and we were like, 'What's wrong with you?' "
Strasburg has gunned his motor hard this year, his odometer reading already up to about 138 innings when you take into account his college season, his stint this summer with the college-level U.S. national team and the exhibition games he has already thrown as part of the pre-Olympics schedule. Last year, he said, his total was about 47, and the most he had ever thrown before this year was 60 as a high schooler.
But the arm, Strasburg said, feels fine. It feels great. And the heat? It's there. It's always there. And once the United States is done with him, and once San Diego State is done with him, it will be coming to the major leagues, to a stadium near you -- maybe, Nationals fans, very, very near you.