By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, July 6, 2010; D01
Each baseball era thinks it is unique. More often, it duplicates past plots precisely. Stephen Strasburg might have been this decade's version of Mark Fidrych, Fernando Valenzuela or Hideo Nomo, rookie pitchers who started All-Star Games in '76, '81 and '95, respectively. But Strasburg, 21, didn't even make the all-star team because the Washington Nationals didn't call him up to the big leagues until June. That's good luck for Strasburg. He probably caught a break.
Strasburg can take a few days off and be glad he's not being worshipped for two thrilling performances and four promising but flawed ones. And he can skip a week-long debate about whether he deserves to be an all-star after six starts and two career wins.
"We were okay with either outcome. On balance, it's probably better this way," said Nats President Stan Kasten after Strasburg made neither the 33-man NL roster nor the five-player Final Vote for fan balloting. "Stephen was embarrassed by it."
Embarrassed may not be a strong enough word. To one National, Strasburg said, "They don't respect the game."
When it comes to Major League Baseball, "they" usually don't respect it. So, if enough National League pitchers get hurt, or Strasburg strikes out enough Giants on Friday, he might still be Anaheim-bound.
Sensible words came from NL Manager Charlie Manuel, who said Strasburg got "quite a bit of consideration but what's he got, like five starts? He's gonna be an all-star for a long time. . . . I felt like, 'Just leave him alone and let him get used to the major league level.' " Will the old Red Devil sing the same tune if his arm gets twisted by Sunday?
The Nats and Strasburg may not realize how fortunate they are. Periodically, baseball endorses a kind of unholy mid-summer child sacrifice for the sake of marketing.
With hindsight, many young pitchers were at, or close to their career peaks on the week they dominated all-star celebrations. A self-reinforcing tornado of expectation, anticipation (and money) tempts the sport, and the player's own team, to use up arms and strain psyches as if they were maxing out somebody else's credit card.
Perhaps because the Fidrych sanctification was the first All-Star Game I covered, I came away convinced that it's rarely good for a 21-year-old pitcher to be the baseball world's obsession for a week. People start to believe the Superman talk, the "best-ever" mythology and, above all, the delusion that the phenom is so special he's indestructible.
On two days rest after his all-star start, Fidrych pitched his third 11-inning complete game of the year. He won, 1-0. But a pattern was set. No, don't take the Bird out of the game. He can do it. So, he pitched complete games in 31 of his first 37 starts. By the '77 All-Star Game he was disabled and won only four more games the rest of his career.
The more amazing the talent, the greater the danger of ruining it by forgetting that the possessor of the gift is just a young man. Baseball sometimes eats its young, especially pitchers, if they make the mistake of being too good too instantaneously.
The attention that the Bird relished and Valenzuela endured were fame-sated experiences that invert any normal life arc. Over the years, other youngsters were only slightly less adored. The impact on their arms or characters was seldom positive whether it was Dwight Gooden at age 19 or Mark Prior at 22. Even Nomo, who was 26 when he made his debut, never duplicated, and seldom approached, the first half of his first season.
For Strasburg, the aggravations of the next week would've topped any previous hot rookie. His selection would've made perfect modern controversy -- a trivial issue inflated to a lovely fuss. With rosters expanded to 34 players, about four more than needed, we'd have been asked to feel outrage that Strasburg took the place of somebody who would not even have merited consideration in any other year since 1933.
A comparison between Strasburg and Valenzuela may be helpful and sobering. Strasburg isn't being wronged, nor fans denied, by waiting to anoint him an all-star. The Nat may become one of the best pitchers of his era. But Valenzuela raised the possibility that he was already the best pitcher who ever lived. There were no clicks or hits to measure in '81, but Fernandomania topped Strasmas for capturing "mind-share."
In Valenzuela's first eight starts (8-0) -- seven complete games, five shutouts -- he had a 0.50 ERA. To add to the silliness, he was batting .360. In time, he came back to earth -- if you consider pitching the Dodgers to a world title as a rookie part of this planet.
So far, Strasburg hasn't held a team without a run. In part due to a pitch count, he's left two games in mid-inning and lasted only five innings in another. Twice, he's walked men in bunches. He's been mortal against lefthanded hitters (.702 OPS), especially slap hitters, and has been quite vulnerable with men on base (.319/.803). That March concern that he was too quick from the stretch, a reason for seasoning, may not be fully solved.
On the other hand, nobody throws as hard as Strasburg does -- average fastball 97.5 mph, ahead of Ubaldo Jimenez (96.4) and all-star reliever Neftali Feliz (96.3). Nobody's changeup is as goofy fast (89.8). When it comes to strikeouts-per-nine-innings or percentage-of-swings-and- misses, Strasburg is ahead of any current starter and, at least so far, compares to Randy Johnson in his prime.
In the stat ratios that reveal monster stuff, the only pitchers Strasburg resembles are the top power-pitching closers -- like Jonathan Broxton, Billy Wagner and José Valverde. But those relievers only have to blow up a storm for one inning. Strasburg can keep up the hurricane winds for 95 pitches and presumably 10 to 20 more by '11-'12.
The truth is that, compared to the best young rookies of the past, Strasburg isn't quite ready for an All-Star Game. He's still kicking at the mound in Cleveland, getting caught in a five-run inning in Atlanta and looking vexed at an umpire on Saturday. He didn't start with complete games and shutouts like Fernando. He hasn't matched Kerry Wood, who at 21 pitched a nine-inning, 20-strikeout, one-hitter and was 8-3 with 149 strikeouts by all-star selection time. Yet Wood wasn't on that '98 team.
Strasburg has perhaps the best all-around stuff in baseball and, often, exceptional command. But, just as important for his long-run place in the sport, Strasburg actually seems to respect the game. That, and a healthy (knock on wood) arm, may take care of any all-star debates involving the Nationals right-hander for quite some time.