On Saturday, Stephen Strasburg failed to back up home plate on three plays in the same inning. He stared at the ground, went walkabout, then reacted too late, sometimes even getting in the way of Washington Nationals trying to make plays. His blunders cost two teammates unnecessary errors and gave the Phillies extra bases and runs.
The pitcher who read a Top 10 List to baseball nut David Letterman in 2010 after his 14-strikeout debut looked lost and demoralized. Where was the pitcher of whom Letterman said, “Many think he’ll be the greatest who ever lived”?
On Sunday, Nats Manager Matt Williams said the Strasburg brain locks had “been addressed.” End of subject. Strasburg will take his rotation turn Friday.
Multiple Nats say Strasburg’s arm, shoulder and entire being are in excellent health, that he is “throwing the [heck] out of the ball” and that nothing needs to be done about his horrid spring — a 6.50 ERA in nine starts — except to “keep giving him the ball” because he’ll get it sorted out soon. Brutal game, they say; we all go through it, have some empathy then watch Strasburg prevail.
Advanced metrics say Strasburg’s ERA should be about 3.66, that he has been unlucky and is off to a poor start but not an alarming one. PitchF/X says he has lost no velocity since last season. Check out spin rate, vertical and horizontal break: They all say, “Mechanics may be a little off but calm down.”
Such sanity. Where do I buy some? I’d even rent or lease.
Sometimes, Strasburg just makes people, including me, go temporarily insane. For example, in my online chat Tuesday, I wondered whether sending Strasburg to Class AAA, like Drew Storen in 2013, might be helpful tough love. (The Nats aren’t even considering it.) What would he be worth in trade?
As for repeatedly failing to back up the plate, I said he was actually “looking for four-leaf clovers.” If, in your pity party, you think your failure is bad luck, not bad pitching, then finding a lucky four-leaf clover might be just the answer.
Why does Strasburg make us crazy? Are we being fair? And what would “fair” mean when looking at his career so far?
First, some context. Some pitchers can’t develop an off-speed pitch. Jordan Zimmermann tried for five years and, for now, has given up. Others have control trouble because they can’t visualize, then adjust their mechanics. Gio Gonzalez just got a tip from Storen that helped straighten him out. Others, such as Doug Fister, lack raw pitching power and must work around it with command, variety and guile. Some, such as Max Scherzer, throw 100 mph at 20 but need five pro years just to become good. Then a few more to win a Cy Young Award, and, at 30, they are still improving.
Nobody criticizes them much for such limits of ability or development. They’re told to try to improve those areas. But they aren’t vilified for mere flaws.
Strasburg is treated differently — and often cruelly. In six years in the majors, it’s clear he’s not a person who is — by temperament or ability to change his disposition — ideally suited to being a pro baseball player. Oh, he can pitch well. But it’s always a struggle because his mental makeup and his physical gifts are not in sync to the degree usually found in his profession.
But few, including me, are able to view him with the generosity of spirit — and the absence of mockery — that we automatically grant to pitchers of his general level of productivity — for example, the rest of the Nationals’ rotation.
Scouting reports grade a prospect for “makeup.” Does he compete or sometimes quit? Does he blame others or look for excuses? No scout can define “mental toughness.” Yet they certainly think they know it when they see it. Unlike many fans and media, they grasp that you might have an “80” (highest grade) fastball but a “50” for effective competitiveness. So what? You work to improve your athletic temperament, just as you would try to lower your body fat index.
It’s not fair that a mediocre grade in “makeup” often gets eviscerated. But that’s also the way it is and has always been in sports. Few of us can forgive a highly gifted athlete — even a dedicated, smart, self-critical one such as Strasburg — who is, by traits of personality, an imperfect competitor.
The attack pattern started early. Nats announcer Rob Dibble was fired in 2010 after saying, “Suck it up, kid. This is your profession. . . . You can’t have the cavalry come in and save your butt every time you feel a little stiff shoulder, sore elbow.” Strasburg had a torn elbow ligament, missed a year and lost a foot off his fastball.
In 2012, Jim Kaat said Strasburg should have demanded to pitch when the Nats shut him down for the playoffs to protect his recovering elbow. Others amplified the rant: The Nats might never make the playoffs again. (They returned in ’14. Strasburg led the league in strikeouts.) Use him while you’ve got him; he might disappear as fast as injury-prone Mark Prior. (Since 2012, Strasburg’s 101 starts make him one of MLB’s 30 most durable pitchers.)
This month, Mets announcer Ron Darling, a Yale star and 136-game MLB winner, said, “It helps to be a grown man when you pitch” and compared Strasburg to “Alibi Ike.” PTI’s Tony Kornheiser just calls Strasburg a “hot-house plant.”
Yet if you took Strasburg’s name off his record at age 26 — 46-35, 3.24 ERA — you would say Mr. X was doing pretty well. He’s statistically most similar to careers such as Roy Oswalt, Tim Lincecum, Chris Sale, Josh Beckett and Darling himself, plus a couple of early burnouts such as Prior and Jim Bouton.
When I watch Strasburg pitch on his funk days, a dark cloud passes across my mind. I feel the same mean desire to say, “Million-dollar arm, ten-cent head” that swept over me when I watched the early years of other young underachievers: Nolan Ryan, Bert Blyleven and Randy Johnson. In moments of lucidity, I would realize that their “makeup” — in different ways — was blocking peak performance. Plenty of their early managers and teammates saw them as “head cases,” too. All got ripped for years. None were cut slack. (Now they’re all in the Hall of Fame.)
At the moment, Strasburg doesn’t appear headed to Cooperstown. But he deserves to be viewed in his entirety, not simply by his weakest suit.
The Oldest Scout might look at the Nats’ rotation and see places where all their grades could improve in some category. That scout would not judge their souls but only note “still needs a change-up. Maybe someday.” The eyes of experience might look at Strasburg and say, “ ‘Makeup’ improving. A ways to go yet. Still has time.” If only it were easy to be wise.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.