Strasburg pushes limits in rehab assignment

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

The camera looking down into Municipal Stadium sent out a pixilated version of reality. All of Stephen Strasburg's(notes) pitches looked linear: no bend, no dip, no dive, no tilt. Just fast and slow, a miserable way to judge any pitcher, let alone baseball's biggest phenom making his return from when his elbow blew up 11 months ago.

Witnesses of Strasburg's 1 2/3-inning stint Sunday filled in the details the camera couldn't capture. He sat around 97 mph and once reached 98 with his fastball. His breaking ball looped with its usual ferocity. His changeup dove with relish. Strasburg struck out four hitters for Class A Hagerstown and allowed one run on an opposite-field home run to Jacob Realmuto, a 20-year-old catcher who decades from now can tell his grandkids he went yard off a mythical creature.

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Stephen Strasburg delivers a pitch for Class A Hagerstown against Greensboro in a South Atlantic League game on Aug. 7.
(AP)

That, for now, is Strasburg: a patchwork of what can be, what may be, what yet isn't. To be anything else, he needs more than 12 major league starts, many of which were dominant and foretold a career that could rival the greatest of his generation, certainly, and maybe that of the best ever.

For now, it was just 31 pitches, one above the ascribed limit, Strasburg still doing his best to exceed what seems possible. He'll taper up his pitch count over the next month, along the way ensuring his velocity stays true, his arm action clean, his new elbow ligament pliable. And if everything goes according to plan …

1. Stephen Strasburg could book start No. 13 in September. It would infuse baseball with something to watch alongside pennant races and the Washington Nationals with another reason to dream and modern medicine with another check mark in the success category.

The wisdom of Strasburg returning so quickly filled the gossip in major league clubhouses Sunday. One official asked a rhetorical question: "Do they really need to bring him back this season?" Coaches for another team bandied it about, too, only they answered it: No.

And they're right. Of course he doesn't have to come back. That doesn't preclude him from doing so, and it certainly doesn't make Strasburg's return short-sighted. The Nationals understand he's a once-in-a-generation talent, the last person with whom they'd trifle. The team is worth $417 million, according to Forbes, and its operating income of $36.6 million ranked second in the game last year. Which is to say: The team is not rushing him back to make a couple million dollars on ticket and concession sales for a handful of starts in September.

The Nationals are doing so because he is ready. Strasburg says so. More important, their doctors say so. This is not David Clyde, the 18-year-old phenom Texas drafted first overall in the 1973 draft only to bring him up as an attendance boost and watch his arm deteriorate. It better not be, at least, because a healthy Strasburg can mean to the Nationals what …

2. Justin Verlander(notes) means to the Detroit Tigers. Of all the pitchers in baseball, Strasburg best resembles Verlander, the 28-year-old in a duel with Jered Weaver(notes) and CC Sabathia(notes) for Cy Young Award supremacy in the American League. Each throws around 100 mph with a devastating breaking ball and changeup made even filthier by excellent control and command.

Strasburg lacks two imperative things Verlander owns: health – "Knock on wood," Verlander said and did – and experience. And the latter took years for Verlander to appreciate. Now in his sixth full season, Verlander has won an ALCS, a Rookie of the Year Award and plaudits from around the sport. But it wasn't until this year, he said, that he appreciated what his previous seasons gave him.

"Guys used to tell me I wouldn't understand pitching until I had been around for a while, and I thought they were full of [expletive]," Verlander said. "They were right. I read a quote about me recently. I never really thought about this, but it made sense when I read it. Somebody said it seemed like in the past, I was throwing a bullpen. If I threw something and it didn't quite come out right, it was like, 'Oh, let me throw another one.' Not really paying attention to what's going on in the game. Just paying attention to what I'm doing. Not taking things into context."

Now, Verlander noted, he's never even seen Strasburg pitch other than highlights, so he's speaking more generally than anything. But only twice last season did Strasburg even reach the seven-inning mark in a game, and 100-pitch limits weren't always to blame. Excluding the outing in which he injured his elbow, Strasburg averaged a little over 5 2/3 innings per start on 92 pitches.

"My stuff was so good, I wouldn't want to get guys out," Verlander said. "I'd want to embarrass them. And occasionally, I'd be able to do that. But that leads to 100 pitches, and you're out in 5 1/3 innings."

The best pitchers learn that innings do matter and that they're not mutually exclusive with stuff. And …

3. Clayton Kershaw is this year's best example. While the 23-year-old increased his National League-leading strikeout total Sunday to 184 – two behind Verlander – his game earlier in the week far better exemplified why he's the primary threat to Roy Halladay(notes) for the NL Cy Young.

Coming off a 6 2/3-inning, 125-pitch outing, Kershaw ramped down the strikeouts (four), induced 15 ground balls (his second-highest total of the season) and needed 108 pitches to throw his fourth complete game of the season. He came into the year with one in 83 starts.

Kershaw and Matt Kemp(notes) are in the running with Verlander and Miguel Cabrera(notes) as the best pitcher-hitter teammates in the game this season, no small feat considering the misery of the rest of the Los Angeles Dodgers' season. When Kershaw hits arbitration this year, he'll be in line for a huge raise, likely more than $5 million. It won't exactly match the money …

4. Carlos Beltran(notes) wants this offseason, though if he keeps it up, Carlos Beltran isn't going to match the money Carlos Beltran wants, either. In 11 games with the San Francisco Giants, Beltran has looked nothing like the dynamic player for whom the Giants gave up top prospect Zack Wheeler: .244/.261/.356 with one walk and 11 strikeouts.

Now Beltran's right hand is hurting. Though X-rays showed no structural damage, it forced him from Sunday's game, only the Giants' third win since he arrived. And it's not his individual lack of production that can hurt him so much as his team's misfortunes.

Beltran does deserve some blame for the Giants' offensive woes. They traded for him to defibrillate a dead offense. He hasn't. It's the sort of thing no free agent needs on his ledger. Scott Boras will put together a fancy binder full of facts that make Beltran sound like Zeus with a bat, but Beltran must produce and, more important, the Giants must hold off the Arizona Diamondbacks for him to fully cash in.

He's got another six weeks to do so, which may be more time than …

5. Jose Reyes has. He left his game Sunday, too, his troublesome left hamstring locking up once again. The last time it did, he landed on the disabled list for a couple weeks. Mets GM Sandy Alderson told reporters it was the same injury as last time.

Reyes' hamstring may well be the everyday players' equivalent to Strasburg's elbow. It is a multi-million-dollar question mark. If intact, it fuels a baseball machine. Out of sorts, it renders that machine worthless.

And as Reyes seeks a seven-year contract worth upward of $20 million a season this winter, every general manager will ask himself: Whither the hamstring? (OK, maybe it'll be more like: Can we actually trust this guy to stay healthy for seven days, let alone seven years, and if not, how the hell is the discussion at seven years when no reasonable person could possibly give him that?)

Free agency, of course, makes reasonable people silly, as …

6. David Ortiz(notes) will attest. Big Papi is mad the Boston Red Sox have yet to discuss a contract extension with him, according to an ESPN Deportes report. And it would make a lot more sense if it were June 20, and the next six weeks hadn't happened.

On that day, Ortiz's OPS was 1.006. Since then, it's .687. He's still walking, and he's not striking out a ton, and it could just be a slump for a hitter whose reincarnation over the past year has been one of the game's great stories.

But let's be honest: Ortiz is going to be a 36-year-old designated hitter next season, and the market for 36-year-old DHs is about as robust as the Dow Jones Industrial Average. The Red Sox certainly won't extend Ortiz for more than one season, and with Ryan Lavarnway slugging .640 at Triple-A and any number of options available via free agency and trades, there's no sense in locking up Ortiz at this point, no matter how much he bellyaches.

They know he's too proud and too smart to pull a Manny, and they're certainly not averse to ugly divorces. Nor are the New York Yankees, who may facilitate one as soon as …

7. Jesus Montero arrives at the Bronx. He's coming to take Jorge Posada's(notes) job next year, certainly, and maybe even this season. Posada's woes are getting no better, and the 21-year-old Montero is wasting his time in Triple-A.

Whether he's a full-time DH or can manage as a catcher eventually depends on the pair of eyes watching him. One scout believes the 6-foot-3, 235-pound Montero can manage behind the plate. He clocked his pop time – throws from behind the plate to second base – at around 1.95 seconds, which is slightly above average, and believes Montero's body is more thick than fat. Another scout is more blunt: "He's a DH. He's a DH. He's a DH."

Which is also to say: He's a hitter. Montero's power has lagged this season – he's slugging just .437 – but scouts see enough thunder in the bat that they don't doubt his impact. Between the return of Alex Rodriguez(notes) and Montero's imminent promotion, the infusion of right-handed power into the Yankees' lineup only will fortify the game's second-best offense. It's exactly the sort of thing …

8. Dan Uggla(notes) finally is providing for the Atlanta Braves. It certainly took him long enough. For the first three months of the season, Uggla's batting average was trolling in Adam Dunn(notes) territory (which, by the way, sits at .163, 16 points lower than Rob Deer's record worst full-season average).

Uggla is now up to .220 thanks to a 28-game hitting streak, during which he's finally starting to throw in some crooked numbers to balance the long string of one-hit games early on. He's at .476 in August with four home runs and eight RBIs, and as crazy as it is to think, Uggla is only four home runs off the NL lead.

The lesson: No matter how bad it gets, it can get better, the sort of wisdom …

9. Aroldis Chapman would be wise to dispense. Chapman spent a chunk of this season in the minor leagues. "Everything was wrong," he said, a pretty simple way to describe a three-game stretch in which he threw 54 pitches, 41 balls, walked nine batters and recorded one measly out.

Today Chapman is the best relief pitcher in baseball not named Craig Kimbrel(notes), and he certainly is giving the Braves rookie a run for his money. Since Chapman's return from the minors on June 25, here are their stat lines:

Chapman: 20.1 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 6 BB, 37 K, 1.33 ERA
Kimbrel: 18 IP, 7 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 4 BB, 29 K, 0.00 ERA

And that doesn't even include Kimbrel's previous six games, in which opponents went hitless over six innings with three walks, 10 strikeouts and no runs.

Kimbrel is 23. So is Chapman. All due respect to Mariano Rivera(notes) – and Sergio Romo(notes), who has retired 31 straight hitters and carries a 52-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio – they are the two scariest pitchers alive. And yet they understand that if …

10. Stephen Strasburg returns to form, he'll inherit that title almost immediately. The Greensboro Grasshoppers witnessed it Sunday, and a few other minor leaguers will as well before he unleashes himself back on the major leagues.

Even if he's not a better pitcher yet, Strasburg believes he is a wiser one. He told the overflow crowd of media that he's in better shape now, convinced that "the biggest reason I broke down is because I just got tired." It probably isn't true. But if it motivated Strasburg, that's enough for now.

The big questions will come once pitching again begins to wear on his arm. Strasburg has not changed his delivery, a thing of beauty in the same sense Mark Prior's was: the symmetry of it, the perfect – or, depending on your biomechanical leanings, dreaded – inverted W his arms make as his motion crests. It's an aesthetic marvel. More important is its long-term viability.

The most positive sign Sunday was Strasburg's control. Of his 31 pitches, 25 went for strikes. Tommy John survivors say control and especially command are the last two things to return. The stuff is usually there. That was evident. Six of Strasburg's strikes were swings and misses.

He said all the right things after the game and made sure to talk about next month. "My goal is to pitch in the big leagues in September," he said, and if the Nationals accede, it will feel just like last time, when he struck out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates in the most dazzling debut anyone could remember. The lights shine brighter. Dozens of cameras record his every move, each with sharp focus.

All to capture one man who can be and may be and isn't quite. Soon enough, Stephen Strasburg will take his star turn. Again.

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