Should Stephen Strasburg resist the urge to become a strikeout king?

By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 16, 2010; D05

Eventually, there'll probably be hundreds of approaches to analyzing Stephen Strasburg's career. But after his first 16 starts as a National -- three in spring training, 11 in the minors and two in the majors -- one largely unexpected, and not entirely welcome trend seems likely: Strasburg will be a strikeout king.

From the first inning they saw him against the Tigers in March, when the polished vets of Detroit seemed to hit the top half of every ball they swung at, the Nats were delighted that Strasburg's sinker was far better than they'd known and seemed to elicit a high ratio of weak groundballs.

Wonderful, the brass concluded. That could, in theory, lead to lots of quick groundball outs, fewer pitches per inning, better total productivity and less arm stress. They'd just have to prepare the pitcher's fans for the reality that he wouldn't break Nolan Ryan's season record of 383 strikeouts or the mark of 20 in a nine-inning game.

Before his first start, Nats Manager Jim Riggleman said: "Don't expect to see double-digit strikeouts too often. He's going to be more of a groundball pitcher, like Ubaldo Jiménez, than a strikeout pitcher like Roger Clemens or Kerry Wood [who both fanned 20 men in a game]. It's better to get three outs on 12 pitches than three strikeouts on 18."

But things haven't worked out that way so far. They may. But 16 pro games, at whatever level, is not a meaningless sample and the quality of Strasburg's stuff, and his results, seldom seem to vary much. Here's the mythic magic and the paradox: He has four pitches and, basically, nobody can hit any of them, including the sinker that he now seems to be throwing almost 100 mph. On Sunday, in Cleveland, one of his change-ups was clocked at 93.

As a result of his overpowering arsenal, including a fastball that veteran ump Brian O'Nora said Sunday was the best he's seen in the majors this season, Strasburg's results have been similar from Viera to Harrisburg to Syracuse to the Show. In all, Strasburg has fanned 99 men in 76 2/3 innings. By coincidence, that's one-third of a 230-inning season -- typical of current top pitchers.

So, if you want to multiply that 99 by three, it's not hard to envision Strasburg, by 2012-13 when he'll be mature enough for such an innings load, fanning about 300 men in a year.

Only 14 hurlers have ever fanned 300 batters in a year.

What's more startling, and perhaps even a touch alarming, is the way Strasburg's fastball has jumped a couple of miles an hour in the majors, presumably from bigger crowds and adrenaline, so that he's fanned 22 men in his first 12 1/3 innings, presumably an unsustainable nonsense rate. Why "presumably"? Because, so far, Strasburg has gotten 59.5 percent of his outs by strikeout.

If he maintained that pace for a 234-inning season, he'd strike out 410 men and demolish every known strikeout record while pitching 100 fewer innings than Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax, Walter Johnson and Randy Johnson did in their prime season.

Because nobody in the Nats organization, including Strasburg, ever wants to see the number "400" mentioned beside his name -- or probably even "300" -- a method will probably be sought to avoid it. Try to be more like Jim Palmer, who only went for strikeouts when the game situation dictated. But there's a problem.

Since his first pro pitch, he's fanned 43 percent of all the hitters he's gotten out. When batters do make contact, it's often a foul, usually adding a strike. Against the Indians, Strasburg walked five men -- two more than he ever did in a college or pro game -- and battled a hole in the pitching mound all game, twice having the dastardly slope re-landscaped. Yet, of the 23 batters he faced, only one "squared the ball up" solidly on any of his 95 pitches.

In fact, the Indians made less quality contact than the Pirates did last week. The lone exception was Travis Hafner, who hit a homer on (honest) a 100 mph fastball that moved in (like a cutter) instead of tailing away (like a sinker).

So, Strasburg's "off" game in Cleveland only underlined the trend. Half of his 16 outs came on strikeouts. Again, that's big magic or, perhaps, big mischief, because such a percentage takes you into the 350-strikeout-a-year range. If you really want to root for Strasburg on Friday at home against the White Sox, maybe you should pull for seven innings on 100 efficient pitches with a dozen groundball outs and only a few measly strikeouts.

Oh, you don't plan to do that? Somehow, I didn't think so. Those ovations on every strike, with the crowd standing on two strikes, are pretty tough stuff to resist. Cub fans can tell you. It was hard for Kerry Wood and Mark Prior to resist. Of course, it didn't bother The Express or the Big Unit for more than 20 years each.

Just to show how remarkably "untouchable" Strasburg's stuff has been so far, I reviewed all 314 starts of Koufax's career. How many times, in a nine-inning game, do you think he fanned more men than the 14 that Strasburg punched out in his debut?

Only four times.

"The Left Arm of God" fanned 18 twice and 16 twice, all in nine innings. He had extra-inning games in which he fanned 16, 15, 15 and 15. But that's the grand total: Mr. K had only eight games in his life with more Ks than Strasburg had in his debut.

And Strasburg threw only seven innings last Tuesday. What if he'd gone nine innings, as he surely will? In Cleveland, Strasburg struck out four men in the first two innings, thus starting his career with 18 strikeouts in his first nine innings on 124 pitches.

So, with a certain tilt of the head, Strasburg did in his first nine innings what Koufax was only able to do twice in his career -- strike out 18 men in nine innings.

Also, in his first game, Strasburg had 14 strikeouts and no walks. In his whole career, Koufax, known for superb control in his peak years, had only one game with a 14-0 ratio and none better. That 14-0 ratio may be the true tip-off as to Strasburg's true comparables. Only four rookies have ever had a game with 14-or-more strikeouts and no walks: Clemens, Dwight Gooden, Wood and Strasburg. Career wins: 354, 194 and 81. Take your pick.

Lest we go crazy after 16 peeks at Strasburg, and only two in the big leagues, note that Ryan struck out 19 men three times in one season and the Big Unit, from 1999 to 2002, when he averaged 354 strikeouts, fanned more than 14 men nine times.

So, even with the rosiest-colored glasses, Strasburg isn't unique. But it is starting to look -- just starting, mind you -- like his style may be most akin to the 11 pitchers in modern history who've fanned more than 310 men in a season -- Ryan, Johnson, Koufax, Bob Feller, Rube Waddell, Sam McDowell, Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, J.R. Richard, Steve Carlton and, yes, Walter Johnson.

Will this ultra-high-strikeout pattern, one that nobody -- even the Nats and Strasburg themselves -- anticipated just one week ago, continue? Should we even want it to? No one knows. But you can bet we'll be waiting, every five days, to find out.

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