Commentary

The rest of the Stephen Strasburg story

It starts with his fastball, but the rest of his game is what will set him apart in the bigs

Originally Published: June 8, 2010
By Johnette Howard | Special to ESPN.com

Put aside the radar gun readings for a moment, difficult as that may be. It's easy to get preoccupied with the 102 mph fastball that Stephen Strasburg throws, and forget everything else the rookie right-hander will bring to the mound for the Washington Nationals in what's being hyped as the most celebrated major league pitching debut ever.

But try paying attention to the way Strasburg nicks the corners and locates his pitches in impossible-to-hit spots. Watch how he almost cruelly changes speeds, how he makes a hitter swing right through a 99 mph fastball so violently he'll need a good chiropractor, then how he pulls the string on a preposterous 77 mph off-speed pitch that sends the hitter back to the dugout pining for a hug.

"Why is he [still] here?" Buffalo skipper Ken Oberkfell asked with a laugh after Strasburg's last Triple-A start for Syracuse last week.

If you want to know the best reason Strasburg is expected to live up to all the hype that has preceded him, this is the answer: He is so much more than a 100 mph hurler, rare as those creatures might be.

[+] EnlargeStephen Strasburg
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireTuesday is his big league debut, but Stephen Strasburg faced big-time hitters in spring training with the Nationals earlier this year.

He's such a once-in-a-lifetime mix of pitching smarts and filthy stuff that even a wizened baseball lifer such as Nats minor league pitching coordinator Spin Williams says he gets "chills" every time Strasburg's first pitch cracks into the catcher's mitt to start another game. Strasburg is already so good, Nats president Stan Kasten made a startling admission the other day: For once, Kasten said, barracuda super agent Scott Boras actually didn't overinflate the talent of his client. Washington forked over Strasburg's draft-record $15.1 million contract and hasn't regretted it a day.

This strange big league season is already shaping up as the Revenge of the Pitchers. Is it just a coincidence that with performance-enhancing drugs and amphetamines supposedly out of the game, batting averages in both leagues are down, perfect games are up, and a lot of new pitchers (not just the usual aces) are hanging up such glimmering stats there's actually griping baseball should lower the mound? Yet it still sounds outrageous to say that this 21-year-old who is debuting Tuesday for the Nationals could "potentially, immediately be the best pitcher in baseball."

But former Red Sox ace Curt Schilling, now an ESPN analyst, has said exactly that.

"I've never seen anything like him," Schilling has raved.

Strasburg not only throws his 100 mph fastball from the first inning to his last, but he also has a knee-buckling curve and a hard slider that tilts toward the plate like a carnival teacup ride. Even his changeup sometimes blurs by batters at around 91 or 92 mph.

"We sit in the bullpen and go, 'That's just not fair & That's [as fast] as my best fastball right there,'" Washington rookie reliever Drew Storen, who was promoted to the Nats the week before his pal Strasburg, recently told The Washington Post.

Strasburg also makes scouts swoon because he seems to have the same, almost comical contempt for hitters that other flamethrowers, from Sal Maglie to Roger Clemens to Pedro Martinez, all shared.

[+] EnlargeStephen Strasburg
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesThe Nats will protect him from the pressure as much as possible.

Clemens loves to retell how he lived by the old mantra that Don Drysdale personally told him: "It's good to brush back a batter twice, just to let 'em know the first one wasn't a mistake."

When St. Louis legend Bob Gibson, another great who seemed to pitch in a chronically bad mood, was asked once why he drilled a rookie he was facing for the first time, Gibson growled back, "Because he looked like he could hit."

Strasburg is no headhunter, but at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, he is an intimidating presence on the mound. Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, his manager for three years at San Diego State, says Strasburg is so hotly competitive that he sometimes behaves as if he has this crazy, wholly unseconded notion that he shouldn't give up any hits or runs. Ever.

The Nats' minor league coaches have noticed the same trait. After Rene Rivera, a 26-year-old journeyman who plays for the Yankees' Scranton/Wilkes-Barre affiliate, touched Strasburg for the only home run he allowed during his dominating 11-start minor league apprenticeship, Strasburg screamed into his glove. Then he later told reporters: "Guys are going to run into it every now and then."

Rivera took no offense.

"His fastball is ridiculous," Rivera said.

As intense as Strasburg is, his off-the-field demeanor is totally different. He's a low-key, almost painfully shy guy who was still so out of shape as a 250-pound high school senior that no big league club bothered to draft him. Even Gwynn had to be talked into taking him by the Aztecs' then-pitching coach, Rusty Filter.

When the Nationals promoted Strasburg to the majors, a Washington Post gossip column reported that the city's hottest new sports star is a committed homebody who mostly likes to spend time with Rachel, his college sweetheart and wife of six months, and their new dog, Bentley, a very imposing & uh & Yorkie? (Wait. The scariest rising pitcher of his generation chose a yip dog that could fit in his shaving kit? There must be some mistake.)

Teammates say Strasburg is a nice guy who purposely affects an aggressively dull personality in most news conferences. He's admitted that parts of his transition to pro ball have felt "a bit overwhelming" and "annoying." The Nats have aggressively tried to shield him, strictly limiting interviews to postgame sessions after he pitches, ruling out most one-on-ones and the sort of casual talks by his locker that are so routine in clubhouses across baseball.

Strasburg has said that in the end, he tries to remember something Gwynn told him: "If you don't like the attention, then be one of those guys that stink."

[+] EnlargeStrasburg
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarHis minor league numbers offer no suggestion whatsoever that he won't be successful in the majors.

Everyone knows that baseball lore is littered with cautionary tales of pitching phenoms who didn't pan out. David Clyde, Todd Van Poppel, Ben McDonald, Mark Prior. Gwynn has warned Strasburg that big league hitters will test him more, massage the count and make him come over the plate. And Washington is smartly promising to proceed with Strasburg very carefully.

Even if the Nationals somehow climb into the playoff hunt, they say Strasburg is scheduled to pitch no more than 110 innings this season, which could put him on the shelf by about Labor Day. The Nats also say he's unlikely to throw more than 100 pitches in any game, and they seem to mean it. He was removed from a start in Syracuse in mid-May even though he had a no-hitter through six.

Strasburg's combined stats in his 11 starts for Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse were just as imposing as his college numbers: a 7-2 record with a 1.30 ERA, 65 strikeouts and only 13 walks in 55 1/3 innings.

All of which only ratcheted up the hype about baseball's meeting its next big thing sometime after 7 p.m. Tuesday before a sellout home crowd and more than 200 reporters.

Strasburg will make the long walk in from the National Park bullpen to take his eight warm-up tosses, send the first pitch of his big league career hissing toward home plate as thousands of camera flashes fire, and then get on with the rest of his baseball life.

Even now, parts of the aftermath seem predictable: Several Pirates will probably say Strasburg threw as hard as advertised. The Nats' Spin Williams will probably again tell anyone who asks that Strasburg's pitching gave him chills. And no matter what happens during the rest of his rookie season -- boom or bust, come what may -- Strasburg has already insisted one thought will carry him all the way to October: He isn't here to fulfill everyone else's dreams or succumb to all the white noise.

"This is something I've dreamed about my entire life," he said.

Getting to The Show, he meant.

Not being The Show himself.

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.

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