By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, February 24, 2010; D01
VIERA, FLA. Before his bullpen session here on Tuesday, Stephen Strasburg glanced to see who'd be his catcher of the day. In his first work of spring training Sunday, it was minor leaguer Derek Norris. This time he saw Iván Rodríguez, 14 All-Star games, 13 Gold Gloves.
"The first couple of pitches, I lost focus when I saw [whom] it was," said Strasburg, who hit Pudge in the toe with his first pitch. "It was unreal, throwing to a [future] Hall of Famer."
For 10 minutes, the 21-year-old who has been called -- maybe prematurely but not necessarily incorrectly -- the best pitching prospect ever, pounded Pudge's mitt with four different pitches.
By the end, it was Pudge who thought the day had been unreal. "Amazing," he said to me later. Then clammed up.
No one understands the quality of a pitcher's stuff as well as a great veteran catcher. He feels it in his hand. His reflexes inform him; if he can barely catch the ball at times, how can others hit it?
So, everybody here in the Nats spring training camp has waited for Pudge to catch Jesus. Yes, that's Strasburg's nickname now, courtesy of Nyjer Morgan who said, "That's what everybody says the first time they see Strasburg throw -- Jeeee-sus."
Scouts matter. Radar guns and videotape are nice. But Pudge is an opinion with a difference. After 10 minutes with Strasburg, I-Rod said only three words. Over his shoulder, he barked to General Manager Mike Rizzo, "Good job, Mike." A line of Nats front office brass let out a group chuckle.
Rodríguez wouldn't gush about the rookie to reporters. Don't jinx him, like Sparky Anderson calling Kirk Gibson "the next Mickey Mantle." But he spilled the beans in private to Nats brass.
"I can't repeat most of what Pudge said. It would put too much pressure on the general manager," said Rizzo, the general manager.
However, pitching coach Steve McCatty did the dishing.
"Is his stuff like [Justin] Verlander?' " asked McCatty, knowing Rodríguez caught the A.L. strikeout leader in Detroit.
"No," said Rodríguez. "It's like Nolan."
So, there you have it. That would be Nolan Ryan of the 5,714 strikeouts and seven no-hitters. Pudge caught him for three years in Texas and handled him in camp the last year he fanned 300 men.
Strasburg may become great. Or like other phenoms, he may get hurt. But, let the record show, the first time he saw him, I-Rod, maybe the best defensive catcher ever, linked his stuff with Ryan.
"He threw real good the other day," said Manager Jim Riggleman. "Today, he was off-the-chart good."
Are the Nats, so bad the last two years, prone to day dreaming? Special assistant Davey Johnson has unusual perspective. He managed Strasburg in the '08 Olympics as well as Dwight Gooden in his supernova rookie season at age 19 in '84. The back field scene -- Strasburg throwing to Rodríguez with ol' sassy Davey watching -- was a spring training moment to savor.
After about 20 Strasburg pitches, Johnson couldn't keep it in anymore. In his Texas twang he snorted, "That [stuff] might be able to win in Double A." Insert your expletive of choice.
That stuff will win anywhere. But it will almost certainly have to win in the minors until about June. Strasburg may start in A ball [Potomac] where the weather is less cold, then move to Class AA where the fast-track talent lurks. But, like Mark Prior, a No. 2 overall pick of comparable size, stuff and baseball maturity, Strasburg may not need more than 10 starts to be ready for D.C.
The comparisons of Strasburg to Gooden strike Johnson as appropriate and unavoidable. "Stephen's delivery is much faster to the plate from the stretch than Doc -- 1.0 to 1.6 seconds. You could run on Gooden," said Johnson. "But Doc turned his shoulder more and hid the ball from the batter better. Gooden could always read the hitters. Strasburg's going to work with veteran catchers. He'll learn to read 'em, too."
Rodríguez and the Nats are impressed by Strasburg's fastball, clocked at over 100 mph in college, and a slider, which is so sharp that -- standing 15 feet away (behind a fence) -- I thought it had hit a bird in flight. But the Nats knew he had those pitches at San Diego State. What stuns them is his command of a 93 mph sinker and an 88 mph change-up that breaks down like a splitter.
Catcher Jamie Burke, next to I-Rod, asked after one pitch, "Split?" Rodríguez just shook his head, "No."
" 'Splitter' is what everybody says when they see it," said Rizzo, who'd never let a kid throw such an arm-eating pitch. "It's just a circle change-up." One that drops almost a foot, like a screwball.
Rodríguez's first info for Rizzo was that Strasburg "hit the glove with every two-seam fastball -- on both sides of the plate."
That pitch will get you to the majors fast. It gets you quick ground outs. "In college, I only pitched once a week and you go mostly one-two punch -- fastball and slider," said Strasburg. "With metal bats, you can only throw a change-up to a left-handed batter. You can't jam a right-handed hitter. . . . But in pro ball, you can use the sinker and change-up more and lower your pitch count."
The Nats try to be skeptical so they won't sound nuts. "In the end, the hitters will tell you about him," said McCatty. "But I have no doubt what's going to happen. As far as his raw stuff, it's all true. I've never seen anything like it. He's as billed. Maybe more."
Nothing in baseball is new. The Orioles had a No. 1-overall draft pick in camp 20 years ago. Ben McDonald, 6-foot-7, threw 32 strikes in 35 pitches in his first game and a shutout in his first big league start. Before injuries and lost confidence, before the league figured out that he only had two pitches -- a precise fastball that touched 97 and a huge overhand curveball -- he looked super. As a rookie in '90, he was 8-5 with a 2.43 ERA in 118 innings.
That spring, we all watched McDonald almost at arm's length, just like Strasburg now. It's not close. Strasburg looks better. He's faster, has more quality pitches, is quicker to the plate and, since he was never a star until his second year in college, Strasburg never developed an entitled attitude.
Now come the questions that can only be answered by time. Is Strasburg durable? No one knows how pitching every fifth day, for months, will impact any 21-year-old's arm. How will he react to failures, since he'll have them? Do 30,000 people focus him or distract him? Is there any negative X factor -- like a temper that flashed a bit in college -- that's not known?
Now, he looks so good that everybody is trying to claim him. Exec Bob Boone now says, "Yeah, I was beating the bushes and I saw him throwing rocks at birds."
And hitting them with all five pitches?
"It's all about the innings now. Only way to learn," said Johnson. "The main outcome is not today. You don't win the world in one day."
But, sometimes, on a bad team that desperately wants to be better, you can stop the world, if only for 10 minutes, and give a glimpse of the future. Or so it seems.