Nationals Hope New Star, Stephen Strasburg, Doesn't Burn Out

By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, August 22, 2009

Stephen Strasburg came to Nationals Park on Friday. He said he'd flown from the West Coast the night before. Presumably, he required an airplane. However, expectations are so high for this 21-year-old that you can never be sure. Maybe he just flapped his pitching arm all the way from San Diego.

Everyone associated with the Nats said that Strasburg was not the "savior of the team" or the "face of the franchise," but rather just another fine young piece of the puzzle. Don't rush him. Don't injure his arm. Have patience. Nevertheless, religions have been founded on guys who got less attention.

Ever since Strasburg appeared on our radar, he's presented one analytical conundrum after another. What is a No. 1 overall draft pick worth if he happens to be a pitcher? Hitters are predictable. Kid pitchers aren't. They get hurt, break your heart. Some become good. But almost none become great.

I'm one who thought Strasburg merited a record contract, but not an astronomical one, because he was a pitcher. Fine, now that he has a $15.1 million contract, we have another rich baseball debate on our hands. How quickly have elite prospects like Strasburg reached their pitching peak. Should he be brought along slowly? What should fans expect and how soon?

I hit the history books. I didn't get the answer I expected. Strasburg is an unusual case. If you want to figure out how pitchers "like him" have progressed, you have to be precise about who fits in that category. It's a mighty small sampling.

Strasburg throws at least 98 mph and perhaps 101-102. His breaking ball is even more feared than his fastball. Unless everybody is wrong, he has good control. And he's 6 feet 5, 210 pounds with filling out still to do.

How many pitchers have ever met those parameters, assuming that scouts are not blind and Strasburg really meets the criterion? Make a list from the last 50 years: threw close to 100, had a killer second pitch, began his career with good control and has physical presence, too. You get quite a selection.

And it's not a list of failures, that's for sure. Plenty of them got hurt. Maybe half of them were only stars for a handful of years. But almost all of them lit up the sky very quickly, reaching their pitching peak at 21-22-23.

History says that the pitchers who fit the rare Strasburg prototype arrive very fast. By the second half of next season, or almost certainly by 2011, Strasburg, so long as he's healthy, will probably show who he truly is. By 23 at the latest, it's usually clear if you're Roger Clemens, Tim Lincecum or Justin Verlander. Or, if you are that rarity -- an enormous talent with invisible cracks -- then a hint of hidden mediocrity will be evident early, too.

Who does Strasburg, who turned 21 in July, resemble? Knock on wood. Here a sampling, from several generations, all at the height of their abilities at 21-22-23, if not sooner: Mark Prior, Tom Seaver, Vida Blue, Clemens, Dwight Gooden, Steve Carlton, Kerry Wood, Bert Blyleven, Herb Score, Jim Palmer, Dontrelle Willis, John Smoltz, Frank Tanana, CC Sabathia.

You may note an unsettling rhythm to the names in that list: Pitchers who burned out too early alternate with all-time greats. Care must be taken with pitchers such as Strasburg who could end up in either category. The new Nat should not pitch in the big leagues this year, and he should probably have 10 starts in the minors next year to get his feet wet. But after that, if all's going well, turn him loose, though with pitch counts and innings limits.

Recent power pitchers, none perhaps as flashy as Strasburg, all have arrived between 21 and 23, too, including Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels, Félix Hernández, Clayton Kershaw and Josh Johnson.

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