Stephen Strasburg's brilliant, but history suggests he might have growing pains

By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 18, 2010; D01

Washington hasn't won the World Series since 1924, when Walter Johnson, in his 18th season and already beaten twice by the Giants, emerged from the bullpen on one day's rest to shut out New York in the ninth through 12th innings of Game 7. Clearly, mythic symmetry requires that the most aggrieved of baseball's original cities will, when it becomes champion again, do so in a suitably karmic manner with an unmistakable Big Train plot element.

Hence, Stephen Strasburg.

Even so, can we all just calm down, please?

We don't need to curb our irrational exuberance a lot. Every indication, from scouts to stats to our own eyes, cries out that, as long as he's healthy and pitches as he has in the minors, he will be somewhere between very good and magnificent.

But it would be both civil, and sensible, if we let Strasburg, still 21, have a chance to breath when he gets here.

Last week, Curt Schilling said: "I've never seen anything like this. . . . Nothing close. Not at that age. [When] he comes up he'll immediately, potentially, be the best pitcher in the game."

Thanks for the free gorilla, Curt. The kid shouldn't mind adding that monkey to the menagerie already on his shoulders.

It's conceivable Strasburg is that good already. But, since Sparky Anderson said Kirk Gibson was the next Mickey Mantle, no one in baseball with much class has saddled a rookie with so much unnecessary weight before he's even played a big league game.

All this comes on top of last year's headlines declaring that Strasburg was the best amateur draft prospect in history and often threw 100 to 102 mph. So far, that looks like 96 to 98 with good sink, except when he works from the stretch, when his velocity dips a bit.

Since Strasburg may be at Nationals Park by June 4, let's try to formulate at least a semi-rational basis for what to expect of him.

Luckily for Washington's sports sanity, and all baseball fans' ballast, there is an excellent comparison to the Strasburg of 2010 in terms of development, build, raw stuff and control as well as astronomical hype within the industry -- Roger Clemens in 1984.

Clemens garnered just a fraction of the public hysteria Strasburg is receiving, but there was a fraction of the vapid 24-7 silliness on all topics back then. Otherwise, they're the same 6-foot-4, 220-pound animal.

Drafted in the first round from the University of Texas, the Rocket tore up the minors with a 1.47 ERA in 20 starts at classes A, AA and AAA in the Boston organization. He debuted May 15 in breathless Fenway Park amid Cy Young expectations -- not the eponymous award, but the real Cy Young, who won 192 games in eight years in Boston. That's just 24 wins a season. Surely, Clemens could do that.

In the first six starts of his major league career, Clemens control and stuff were wonderful: six walks and 33 strikeouts in 35 1/3 innings, the kind of ratios now anticipated of Strasburg. Roger attacked. No fear. He threw close to 100 mph, plus a sharp breaking ball.

Yet immediately after being called up, Clemens got absolutely crushed. Good teams thumped him, and bad ones, too. Home or away, no difference. He was assaulted with 56 hits and a 7.13 ERA. The faithful were stunned.

After those six punches in the face, Clemens stabilized the rest of the summer, dropped his ERA to 4.32, then was 7-5 with a 3.29 ERA in his first 15 starts of '85. Suddenly, in mid-year, at 22, he blew out his shoulder. Surgery. Season over.

Can you imagine what the next two years will be like if Strasburg has a similar start to his career? First, we'll hear the screams of "overhyped," then the wail will turn to "injury-prone."

Yet, at 23, Clemens went 24-4, pitched the Red Sox into the World Series and won back-to-back Cy Young Awards, the first of seven, and went almost injury-free for the next 20 years.

For a more recent lesson, look no further than the game's flashiest pitcher, Tim Lincecum of the Giants, who might be on his way to his third straight Cy Young Award. His minor league dominance was, if anything, even more ridiculous than Strasburg's this season. In 13 minor league starts, he had a 1.01 ERA with 104 strikeouts in 62 2/3 innings with just 26 hits and 23 walks.

Like Strasburg, who so far has a 1.06 ERA in the minors and has allowed no runs, one hit, two walks in 12 innings at AAA Syracuse, Lincecum actually got more dominant as he sped up the minor league ladder.

Yet when he debuted in May just three years ago, Lincecum was knocked out in his first start -- 100 pitches, 10.38 ERA -- and finished the season with a 7-5 record and 4.00 ERA in 24 starts.

What can we actually say about Strasburg that isn't rose-colored nonsense or cynical debunking?

In Florida, Nats scouts used a classic retort. If you said, "His stuff looks great," they'd answer, "The hitters will let you know." Though Strasburg often makes them look clownish, bush league batters have proved in every generation that they are a test for anybody. Of the pitchers in the last 50 years who've had 250-strikeout seasons, the large majority never dominated in AA and AAA like Strasburg has.

So far, what the hitters have let us know -- after nine starts, three in spring training and six in the minors -- is that comparisons to power pitchers with the best minor league stats of the last 25 years -- such as Justin Verlander (1.29 ERA in the minors), Josh Beckett (1.75) and Mark Prior (79 strikeouts in 51 minor league innings) -- are appropriate. But, like Clemens and Lincecum, none of those mentioned blossomed the year they reached the majors. In their second seasons, they all became stars.

For Nats optimists, what pitchers who became instant stars after eating up the minors does Strasburg resemble? Okay, get crazy -- Vida Blue and Sam McDowell. At 21, Sudden Sam had nine starts in the minors with a 1.18 ERA and 12.1 strikeouts per nine innings. Up to stay in May, he went 11-6, then won the ERA title (2.18) the next season and struck out 325.

There's precedent, and more than a little of it, for 21-years-olds with monster arms and control who can dominate the big leagues from their first day. That could be Strasburg.

But it doesn't have to be. And that's not what should be expected and implicitly demanded of him. If you're tempted to grouse at Strasburg, remember Clemens. And Walter Johnson, too.

The first time Ty Cobb batted against the big Senator, he said, "You can't hit what you can't see."

But as a rookie, the 417-game winner whose statue stands behind the center field fence in Nationals Park had a record of 5-9.

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