By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
It's too bad Stephen Strasburg is a pitcher. Otherwise, he might be worth a record-shattering amount of money for a No. 1 overall draft pick. But he's a pitcher. So, he isn't.
History is unequivocal. Strasburg, no matter how much he dominates college hitters, will probably either be a .500 pitcher with a 150-150 record, or he'll be a bust.
Unless his price drops to the same general range as David Price ($8.8 million in 2007) or Mark Prior (a record $10.5 million in 2001), the Nationals should pick somebody else with their top choice in the draft in three months.
At the kind of numbers being rumored or leaked last weekend -- $50 million for six years -- there's nothing to see here. It's a waste of time. Especially since Scott Boras is Strasburg's adviser. Breaking the bank for Strasburg would be a huge waste of money and squandering of an enormously valuable draft pick.
Enormously valuable, that is, if you pick a hitter.
The history of baseball's draft since it began in 1965 is unmistakable. You can project exceptional hitters with about a 50 percent success rate. You can't project No. 1 overall pitchers at all.
Nobody -- n-o-b-o-d-y -- has used a No. 1 overall pick on a pitcher and been glad they did it. Thirteen teams have tried it since the draft began in 1965. Nine have gotten egg on their faces. The lucky four got Andy Benes (155-139), Tim Belcher (146-140), Mike Moore (161-176) and Floyd Bannister (134-143). No Hall of Famers. Just a bunch of guys who could throw a ball through a wall when they were young but never became great.
If you take a larger sample size, the evidence is even more conclusive. Since '65, 102 pitchers have been taken within the first five picks. Not one is going to the Hall of Fame. None is close. Only one won more than 200 games (Kevin Brown). Rounding out the top five -- Dwight Gooden (194 wins), Bill Gullickson, Moore and Benes. The only reliever of note: ex-Oriole Gregg Olson. Josh Beckett (89-62) may end up high on the list eventually.
More than 75 percent of those 102 were wasted picks. Yet absolutely every one was hailed as a future star.
However, if the Nats use their No. 1 overall pick for a hitter, whom might they get? Perhaps a future Hall of Famer like Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones or Alex Rodriguez. Or Harold Baines or Darryl Strawberry. Or a batting champ like Joe Mauer, an MVP like Jeff Burroughs or a young thumper like Adrian Gonzalez (36 homers, 119 RBI in '08). Or they might get a hitter with more than 200 homers like Pat Burrell, Phil Nevin, Bob Horner or Rick Monday. Or they might get a useful B.J. Surhoff or Darin Erstad.
You get it. Hitters pan out -- almost half the time. Pitchers flop or at best disappoint given their hype.
To compare apples-to-apples, look at the hitters picked in the top five overall since '65: Reggie Jackson, Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, Dave Winfield, Thurman Munson, Joe Carter, Mark Teixeira, Barry Larkin, Dale Murphy, Matt Williams, Troy Glaus, Evan Longoria, Ryan Braun, Ryan Zimmerman and many a Will Clark or B.J. Upton.
Here's the question for the Nats: Do they fall for the scariest words in investing: "It's different this time."
It's possible that Strasburg is Roger Clemens or Bob Feller. He's supposedly been clocked at 99 to 102 mph. When I saw him at the Olympics in Beijing from 100 feet away, he was throwing 93 to 97. It was the end of a long season for him, so maybe his velocity was down. But none of Cuba's hitters was overmatched by his fastball. Only his breaking ball, a fine one, locked anybody up as he allowed five hits, two runs and a homer in four innings.
The odds say he's more likely to be Ben McDonald (78-70) than Walter Johnson. McDonald was hailed in 1991 as the greatest pitching prospect in history. That kind of buzz is starting around Strasburg as he fans 14 to 18 men a game for Tony Gwynn's San Diego State Aztecs. But the acclaim for Big Ben at LSU built longer and was louder.
McDonald was 6 feet 7, threw in the high 90s, had a big curve, sound mechanics and -- above all -- seemed to paint almost every pitch on the black. Here was a giant, who wrestled alligators for fun, with classic stuff and pinpoint command. In his first MLB game we marveled as 33 of his first 35 pitches were strikes. I hope my column that day didn't put him directly in Cooperstown. That may have been the most impressive day of his career.
Ben's intelligence, self-confidence and work habits were average. In other words, he didn't have the baseball equivalent of The Right Stuff that makes a test fighter pilot. Talent may get you near 150 wins -- like Benes, Belcher, Moore and Bannister. The other qualities that go into pitching greatness --the obsession, the feel for confounding hitters -- come from the mind and heart. Such intangibles can't be scouted or priced when you're facing college boys who miss your pitches by a foot.
What, you ask, if Strasburg is the next Nolan Ryan, who threw 100 to 103 mph at 21 with a top curveball? In Ryan's first six years in the majors, the same contract length that Boras is rumored to want for Strasburg, the Express went 6-9, 6-3, 7-11, 10-14, 19-16 and 21-16. That's 69-69. Sandy Koufax was 36-40 his first six years. What sane team would pay prime-of-career free agent prices for a kid pitcher's learning years? Walter Johnson started 5-9, 14-14 and 13-25.
I'm not opposed to signing Strasburg. There's an appropriate price for him, probably in the range of the amount paid to Price or Prior. As with any young pitcher, it's a risk. But great pitching wins titles.
If early rumblings are correct that Boras wants to use Strasburg as the negotiating lever to blow up the game's "slotting" system for draft bonuses, then he's probably facing a tough sell. If he had a comparably praised hitter in a strong economy, maybe he could do it.
The Nats won't comment beyond team president Stan Kasten's remarks Sunday that did not address Strasburg specifically. "And there won't be any more comments -- at all -- until after the draft," Kasten said yesterday.
Strasburg's arm, and Boras's usual bare-knuckled but gifted negotiating, will stir comment for the next three months. But no one, including the Nats or their fans, should get a migraine over this.
It's wise to offer $20 million a year to a hitter like Teixeira in his prime or $10 million a year to a 29-year-old slugger like Adam Dunn, who's had five straight 40-homer years. All the game's history says so.
On the other hand, knowing the horrific track record of the best pitching prospects of the last 44 years, it's crazy to offer Strasburg much more than a Prior or Price. Deep down, Strasburg and Boras probably grasp this truth. But if they honestly don't get it, then move on. You may be catching a break.
I wish the truth were more cheerful, just a case of sign-him-at-any-cost-and-go-to-
the-World Series. That would be fun to write. But it's not what I've watched my whole life. Pitching phenoms were born to break your heart. That's bad enough. Don't let them break the bank, too.