There has, quite literally, never been anybody in baseball history like Stephen Strasburg. No starting pitcher has struck out batters with the frequency of Strasburg. Nobody has combined power and finesse – a 100-mph fastball commanded as though under hypnosis – so seamlessly. No limb has been as deeply analyzed – and, for that matter, well-coddled – as his right arm. And no career so destined for a smooth ride has turned so early into city driving, a stop-and-go annoyance.
"I still haven't pitched a full season in the big leagues," Strasburg said last week, following his first start of the spring, and it was one of those statements that prompted an internal: Really? It's true, of course. This is his fourth spring with the Washington Nationals. During his first year, his elbow blew out. Most of his second season was spent rehabbing. Last year, the Nationals saw him dominate for five months, then shut him down for the sixth.
This year, more than anything, is about Stephen Strasburg learning to be like everyone else – and learning whether his body will allow him such a privilege. During his second start of the spring tonight against the New York Mets, he'll make the typical on-the-surface adjustments of every starter at this juncture: honing his off-speed offerings more than in his first outing, when he threw almost exclusively fastballs, and trying to throw strikes. Beyond that, the incremental step of Strasburg figuring out how to pace himself over a full season will continue to define whether he can be more than gaudy strikeout rates and crazy stuff and a test case on Tommy John surgery rehabilitation – whether he can be, as once seemed his destiny, not just the finest pitcher in baseball but one of the greatest ever.
"I want to be one of the best in the game," he said. "I've still got a lot of work to do."
Compared against his predecessors, Strasburg has kept some awfully good company over his first three seasons, incomplete though they were. Last season, when he put up a 3.16 ERA over 159 1/3 innings, he became just the eighth pitcher to hit that inning mark with an ERA that low in his age-23 season. His peers: Chris Sale, Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Jake Peavy, Sam McDowell, Jim Maloney and Herb Score.
And then there are the strikeout numbers. Last season, Strasburg struck out 11.13 batters per nine innings, the most by far for a 23-year-old. The only others over 10: McDowell, Scott Kazmir and Sandy Koufax. Just five others have posted strikeout rates anywhere close to Strasburg's 11.21 over the first three years of their career: Tim Lincecum, Oliver Perez, Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and Hideo Nomo are the only five with K/9 above 10.
The general trend on these lists is not promising. While a freak accident ended Score's career and alcoholism is believed to have ruined McDowell's, Maloney's arm left his career in shambles, and Peavy and Billingsley in recent years have battled arm issues. Kazmir's career flamed out at 26 and Koufax's at 30. Lincecum, just 28, is coming off the worst year of his career, Perez resurrected himself last year as a lefty reliever, Prior threw his last major league pitch at 25, Wood was resigned to a relief role by 30 and by 28 Nomo was no more than a middling starter.
The career paths of the highest-strikeout pitchers are generally not indicative of prolonged success. Granted, Nolan Ryan and Justin Verlander and plenty of others are counterexamples. But the great work of Russell Carleton at Baseball Prospectus and Jeff Zimmerman at FanGraphs correlating future injuries with previous injuries doesn't exactly explain why pitchers get hurt but shows that those with such a history find themselves at increased risk going forward.
All of this puts a potential damper on the idea of Strasburg, 200-plus-inning machine, an idea into which the Nationals are buying anyway.
"He's our horse," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "That's what he wants to be. He obviously carries that. He wants to be that guy. If that's what you want to be, here you go. He's proven his ability at the big league level. Now it's about durability."
Added center fielder Denard Span: "He's the workhorse for this team. He's the ace. And it's not like we need that kind of help, because the other four guys can more than hold their own, but to have him for a full season isn't gonna hurt us."
Players often conflate excellence with sturdiness, even though they're entirely different skills. Nobody ever will confuse Mark Buehrle with Strasburg. He doesn't throw his fastball as hard as Strasburg does his changeup. And yet year after year, he pumps out 200-plus innings, with the timeliness of a bird popping out of a cuckoo clock with a chirp.
For 12 straight years now, Buehrle has thrown 200 innings. That's not just good for today. Only 26 other pitchers ever have thrown more 200-inning seasons. Strasburg, in a backward way, is jealous of a soft-tossing left-hander.
"Last year I was preparing for a full year, and it was unfortunate they decided to make it shorter than I hoped," he said. "I'm not really doing anything different this year. All the experience I got last year is going to help me prepare for the mental grind more than the physical."
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After the injury, Strasburg needed to rein himself in, to learn that pitching over a full season does not require all-engines-go ferocity at all times. He is a very bright man, and learning that balance between mind and body has been the sort of challenge he embraces.
At the same time, until his arm proves otherwise, the fears will exist that Strasburg is too good to be true – that this tantalizing package of stuff, brains and drive happens to be housed by a body that simply can't hold up its end of the bargain. Two hundred innings beckon, and baseball will watch Stephen Strasburg like it always does: amazed, worried, excited, fearful and, most of all, hopeful, a tangle of conflicting emotions that only time, and plenty of it, can cure.
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