Steve McCatty has a dilemma. It occurs when he flips on the television and hears another disparaging rant about Stephen Strasburg, or when another reporter wants to know what is wrong with him. McCatty’s ire rises. The Washington Nationals pitching coach senses himself staging a defense, the very thing he wishes to avoid.
He wants to scream Strasburg’s career numbers, black and white and unassailable. He wants to point to all the other pitchers who behave like Strasburg on the mound, only without the scrutiny. He wants to describe the behind-the-scenes habits of the pitcher teammates say is the hardest worker on the team. And then he stops himself, mad all over again, dismayed at the cycle repeating.
“Why am I defending him when I don’t feel like I should have to?” McCatty said. “He hasn’t done anything wrong.”
On June 8, 2010 — precisely five years ago Monday, so far removed from his toil this season — Strasburg roared into the major leagues with uncomplicated brilliance. In his maiden performance, a major league debut built up with virtually unprecedented hype, Strasburg struck out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates, walked none and tipped his cap on the home dugout steps at feverish, brimming Nationals Park. Strasburg read the “Top 10” list on Letterman the following night. Concession booths hawked his jersey before his second start — at Progressive Field in Cleveland.
For a moribund franchise, Strasburg was a talisman.
Five years later, the franchise is now a powerhouse, and Strasburg stands as a vexing case.
He is derided, if not outright disdained, by the fan base that once viewed him as a beacon in the abyss. He is on the disabled list because of a left trapezius strain, his ERA stuck at 6.55 while he plays early-afternoon toss as part of rehab. The Nationals tabbed him to start the season’s third game. He also entered the year with a career 3.02 ERA and an all-star appearance.
Try to describe the state of Stephen Strasburg five years after his still magical debut, and you start to feel McCatty’s pain. Strasburg throws with less menacing velocity than his rookie season, but he led the National League in strikeouts last year. He carries a reputation for fragility, yet he made every start and logged 215 innings last season. His outward demeanor makes it a challenge for fans to adore him, but he is a devoted husband and father. A statement of facts feels like both a defense and an excuse. There is a caveat to every compliment, an exception to every discredit. Always a complication. Always a “but.”
“He hasn’t been the best pitcher in the game, but hardly anyone ever is,” Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “But I definitely would want him on our team.”
Strasburg made himself scarce this past week in the Nationals’ clubhouse while reporters were allowed inside. Since he became a professional, Strasburg, naturally shy, rarely has opened up to the public. It is a perfectly fair stance, a natural outgrowth of a personality he didn’t choose. But it also colors the way outsiders, fans especially, view him.
“I think since Day 1, people anticipate a guy that thinks he’s this big-time guy,” reliever Drew Storen said. “In reality, it’s the opposite. He doesn’t quite understand who he is and what a big deal he is and all that. I think he’s done a great job in handling that. He’s a quiet guy. He’s a low-key guy, and he’s not somebody who’s dying to tell you his side of the story, which can be taken the wrong way when you have such a dynamic talent put with that.”
The subject of Strasburg can be fraught for the Nationals. Amiable and cooperative with the press, McCatty held a reporter at bay for two days before he consented to an interview. More than when he answers questions about other pitchers, McCatty has to consider how what he says will be perceived.
“There’s been people that say, ‘You’re just protecting him,’ ” McCatty said. “Trust me: I’ve been pretty hard on him at times. It’s not hard to talk about. I just accept that if I say something publicly defending him — yeah, he knows when he doesn’t back up bases. He knows there’s a lot of things. He’s been talked to about it. But there’s been a lot of other people that have done it, too. Who knows? Maybe sometimes I can be a little more aware or sensors are up when he pitches. I think that’s only natural.”
Zimmerman, long the face of the franchise, shrugged at the end of a 10-minute conversation regarding Strasburg. “I don’t know,” he said. “It’s a tough subject. Good luck.” He burst into laughter.
On May 3, 2009, Kevin Reiss scrolled through his Twitter feed and noticed a piece of expected news: The Nationals planned to choose Strasburg with the first overall pick in the draft the following month. Reiss, a Nationals fan since the franchise relocated to Washington, retweeted the bulletin and added his own spin. “Strasmas is coming,” he wrote.
Unwittingly, Reiss coined the term that came to represent Washington’s giddy anticipation of Strasburg, first his arrival and then his appearance every time through the rotation. On the day Reiss first used “Strasmas,” the Nationals stood 6-17, 71/2 games out of first place just a month into the season. The previous season, they had lost 102 games. The next night, they would host a shade more than 14,000 fans at a ballpark barely one year old. Nothing on the field mattered. Throwing triple-digit fastballs at San Diego State, Strasburg represented hope. He promised to give the Nationals not merely respectability but a force the rest of baseball would envy.
“The idea is, basically, it’s like if someone would give you a jet pack, this ridiculous toy you could play with,” Reiss said. “His minor league games were televised. His debut was insane. The atmosphere at the park was the closest thing to a playoff atmosphere before the playoffs. I don’t want to say it was inspiring, because it sounds stupid to say that about sports. But it was inspiring.”
Twelve starts into his career, which included a precautionary trip to the disabled list, Strasburg snapped the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow and had Tommy John surgery. Two years after the operation, the Nationals shut him down in the middle of a playoff race over his protestations. Neither was his fault. Both turned him into a talking point.
By 2013, his body language on the mound became a closely watched subject. After errors behind him, his shoulders tended to slump and his performance sometimes imploded. Once must-view events, Strasburg’s starts became as likely to elicit groans as jubilation. In Strasburg’s most recent home start, the crowd booed him off the mound after a succession of hits in the fourth inning.
“As a fan, I think if they let him walk, the way he is right now, if Strasburg stays the way he is, I don’t know if there would be a tear shed,” Reiss said. “Personally, if there’s a way to keep [Jordan] Zimmermann if they let Strasburg walk, that’s a deal I would make. There’s a disillusionment with Stephen Strasburg.”
Struggle is inherent to big league baseball. Bryce Harper hit .218 with no power over a 31-game span last year playing through a busted thumb. Jayson Werth hit .233 his first year in Washington. Zimmerman sporadically lost the ability to throw the ball across the diamond for several seasons and switched positions. Storen was demoted to the minors two years after saving 43 games. And so Strasburg’s dismal beginning to this season is viewed less as a disaster in the Nationals’ clubhouse than as an inevitable occurrence.
“Guys in there, no matter who you are, the game is going to test you,” Storen said. “It really tests you when you fail for the first time. When things aren’t going the way you want and you’re under a lot of pressure and scrutiny, you tend to try to fight back harder. I can’t speak for him and what he’s going through. I know personally speaking, it’s tough when he knows the expectation is to go out there and have a dominant outing every time. It’s tough, man, when you’re under the microscope like he is.”
Strasburg’s horrendous first two months stemmed from an unseen moment in spring training. He rolled his ankle during a bullpen session, which forced him to miss a start. The sprain turned out to be worse than initially expected, and it lingered even as Strasburg entered the regular season. Strasburg still throws high-90s fastballs. But the velocity belies the way his mechanics changed to accommodate his ankle sprain.
“People are like, ‘It’s not your arm,’ ” Storen said. “Well, it’s all part of it. When something is a little off, you start compensating one way or the other. He might be throwing hard and stuff, but especially now, guys have seen him. Guys know the scouting reports. Guys know what his breaking ball is going to do. So he’s got to pitch. And when something is a little off, that little room for error, you pay for it. This DL stint for him, hopefully it kind of gets everything tuned up and ready to go.”
On the day the Nationals signed Strasburg, McCatty told him, “Don’t be what people think you should be. Be as good as you can be.”
Strasburg’s career, fair or not, has never been so simple. When Zimmermann endures a bad start, it is a bad start. When Strasburg submits a clunker, it tends to become a referendum on his career.
“More people probably knew Stephen Strasburg’s name nationwide before he threw his first pitch than know half the pitchers who will be on this year’s all-star squad,” said broadcaster Bob Costas, who called Strasburg’s debut for MLB Network. “So it’s not unfair. It just is.”
Strasburg, who will turn 27 in July, probably still has the majority of his career ahead of him. Five years now are behind him. Strasburg’s immense raw talent combined with a historic debut led to stratospheric expectations. His surgery and shutdown added scrutiny. His standoffish public persona and aloof demeanor on the mound robbed him of the benefit of the doubt.
“The stuff was and is so good; the expectations are really high,” McCatty said. “Some people never see him do it enough. I’m not crying double standard. I’m just saying, you got to look back, and the numbers he’s put up in the big leagues, they’ve been outstanding.”
Strasburg can be maddening to watch, but McCatty is right: Five years into his career, he has been great, demonstrably so. Statistically, he has been one of the best 15 or 20 pitchers in baseball. Without the hype, he might stand like any other productive pitcher, one with good traits and weak points. But after delivering on all those Strasmas dreams, he is viewed with a different lens. Is that fair or unfair? It just is.
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Box score: Cubs 6, Nationals 3