SAN DIEGO – The radar gun blinks wildly. It's not used to this. No one makes it strain to read out a third digit. It looks like binary code, not the speed of a pitch from a 20-year-old kid: 101.
It keeps showing up, 101 again and again, and as scouts peek at the number, they ask aloud what everyone else in the baseball world wonders: Will Stephen Strasburg someday throw a baseball harder than anyone has before?
Two men holding radar guns as well as his pitching coach said he has touched 103 mph this season. Only three others have done that, and all were major league relief pitchers, not juniors in college. Strasburg is a starter for San Diego State, and his velocity levels off in triple digits, something never seen, not from Nolan Ryan or Randy Johnson or any of the modern fireballers since the advent of the radar gun.
So it's no surprise that Strasburg is dominating college like no pitcher ever has. He has 74 strikeouts in 34 1/3 innings, meaning only 29 outs have come via batted ball. He fanned 23 batters in one game last year, and in seven outings with Team USA last summer, culminating with the Beijing Olympics, he struck out 62 in 41 innings.
And the stories about standing 60 feet away from Strasburg, apocryphal though they may seem, are more of the horror variety even if they sound comedic. His catcher, Erik Castro, tells of the time he thought a changeup was coming and Strasburg went fastball. Decapitation was barely averted.
The day after a recent outing – he had 15 strikeouts in seven scoreless innings against BYU on Friday – Strasburg leaned back in the dugout and marveled at the rapidity of his rise. How he went from an immature, overweight high school senior ignored by every major league team to the most coveted amateur player ever in three short years. How in another three months he'll have super-agent Scott Boras negotiating on his behalf the largest contract ever given to a ballplayer out of the draft.
Executives believe the asking price for the Washington Nationals, who hold the first overall pick, will start at $15 million. It's even been suggested that Boras could pull a fast one and attempt to destroy the draft slotting system by shooting for a deal that essentially would treat Strasburg as a front-of-the-rotation starter before he's thrown a professional pitch.
Just like teams pay for home run power, they pony up huge money for power pitchers who can sniff 100 mph. Strasburg sits there, a red and black cap pulled low on his head, and when asked to contemplate the prospect of throwing a baseball faster than anyone in history, he can't help himself. A smile begins to creep over his face.
Only then he shows he's more than a hard thrower. He's becoming a pitcher, so he delivers a curve.
"No," he said, the smile suddenly gone. "I don't think about that at all."
How can't he? The only pitch ever clocked faster than 103 mph was a 104.8 mph fastball by Detroit Tigers reliever Joel Zumaya on Oct. 10, 2006, in the American League Championship Series. Mark Wohlers and Matt Anderson are the only other pitchers known to have touched 103 mph on a radar gun, and each did it once.
If Strasburg knows anything about Zumaya, Wohlers or Anderson, he doesn't let on. If he realizes that none of them accomplished much more than a record reading on a radar gun, he doesn't say. Zumaya is out again with another injury in a never-ending string. Wohlers lost his control and flamed out quickly. Anderson, the first pick in the 1997 draft, lost his velocity and career to a bum shoulder.
No wonder talking about his fastball is uncomfortable for Strasburg. He knows pitching involves so much more. Besides, what on earth could possibly speak for itself more definitively than his crackling heater? Ambiguous it is not. If one day it becomes a pinnacle of human achievement, something noted by Guinness and baseball historians, the feat won't have required anything more from him than a windup, a delivery and a follow-through. Words would be superfluous.
"The scary thing is he could develop a little more velocity in the next couple of years," said a scout from a National League team. "He absolutely could be recognized as the fastest pitcher ever, at least since pitches have been clocked.
Any hitter bracing only for Strasburg's fastball is set up for failure, however. His breaking pitch – a cross between a slider and curveball – is jelly to the fastball's peanut butter. He often gets ahead in the count with the fastball then puts hitters away with the 86-mph hook.
"It's got curveball action and slider velocity," San Diego State pitching coach Rusty Filter said. "Stephen has an idea how to pitch. He's not a thrower."
Unlike almost everything else young and fast, Strasburg is rarely wild. In 210 innings of college and international competition since 2006, he's walked only 45 batters while striking out 316. He's a strike-throwing strikeout artist, the rarest of commodities.
"A challenge for him is to hit more bats and keep his pitch count down," Filter said. "That should happen naturally as he moves on to pro ball."
Strasburg wasn't always in such fast company. He'd been at San Diego State all of a week in 2006 and he was doubled over in the corner of the dugout, heaving and vomiting after a routine conditioning workout.
Tony Gwynn, the Hall of Famer and the Aztecs' coach, shook his head. The sorry spectacle confirmed everything he feared about the freshman pitcher. Filter had convinced Gwynn to give a scholarship to Strasburg, a local kid nobody else wanted.
One thought kept coming back to Gwynn: How can somebody who throws so hard be so soft?
Sure, Strasburg could throw 91 mph, but he was a good 30 pounds overweight. He couldn't run a few laps without getting sick. He didn't know how to bench press. The school's conditioning coach nicknamed him "Slothburg" and told him he ought to quit on the spot.
Questions arose off the field as well. After five days living in a dormitory, Strasburg moved back with his mother, who had recently purchased a house near the campus to help care for Strasburg's grandmother.
"I wasn't the most mature guy out of high school, and moving to my mom's gave me a place to sleep and relax," Strasburg said. "The dorm was an overload, too much, too soon."
Famed "Guitar Hero" victim Joel Zumaya leads a group of flame-throwing pitchers. Here's an unofficial list of the hardest tosses.
(Dave Sandford/Getty Images)
|Joel Zumaya||Detroit Tigers||104||2006||21|
|Stephen Strasburg||San Diego State||103||2009||20|
|Matt Anderson||Detroit Tigers||103||1998||22|
|Mark Wohlers||Atlanta Braves||103||1995||25|
|Aroldis Chapman||Team Cuba||102||2008||21|
|Matt Lindstrom||Florida Marlins||102||2007||27|
|Justin Verlander||Detroit Tigers||102||2007||24|
|Bobby Jenks||Chicago White Sox||102||2006||25|
|Randy Johnson||Arizona D'backs||102||2004||40|
|Armando Benitez||N.Y. Mets||102||2002||29|
Easily overwhelmed. That was becoming the label. During high school games he would melt down at the slightest provocation.
"I had a hard time handling anything that would go wrong, whether it was a call, a bad hop, an error, a guy hitting the ball hard," he said. "I beat myself up. Anything negative would carry over. High school was the dark ages for me."
Credit Filter with seeing a glimmer of light. Strasburg had a 4.37 grade-point average at nearby West Hills High, so he was a smart kid. He had a live arm despite his woeful conditioning. Filter convinced Gwynn that Strasburg had an upside, that he was worth a gamble.
"After two months on campus he went from 6-foot-3, 255, to 6-5, 225," Gwynn said. "His was killing it in the weight room. His fastball went from 91 mph to 97. It happened that quick."
The ascent hasn't abated. Strasburg was a closer as a freshman, a starter as a sophomore and the only collegiate player on the U.S. Olympic team last summer. His fastball hit 100 mph for the first time last year, and now it exceeds that barrier in nearly every outing.
In a recent outing, Strasburg struck out the side in the first inning, then gave up two opposite-field singles on fastballs to begin the second. Time to adjust: He struck out the next three hitters, all with his breaking ball.
"It's fun to watch a guy out there with that kind of stuff thinking his way through at-bats and having a plan," Gwynn said. "You can see him figuring it out on the mound."
No one ever doubted Strasburg's brains. His GPA is close to 4.0, and even though he's a junior, he'll need only 12 units for a bachelor's degree in public administration by summer because he accumulated so many Advanced Placement credits in high school.
Yet when it comes to numbers, the ones that measure his velocity and academic progress will pale in comparison to those representing the dollars he will ask from the major league team that drafts him.
The largest guaranteed contract for a draft pick was a $10.5 million, five-year deal the Chicago Cubs gave USC pitcher Mark Prior in 2001. First baseman Mark Teixeira – a Boras client – got a $9.5 million contract that same year. Tampa Bay Rays pitcher David Price, the first pick in 2007 out of Vanderbilt, signed a six-year, $11.5 million deal that included an $8.5 million guarantee. Sour economy notwithstanding, Boras will try to shatter those numbers.
The Nationals, with the first pick, have scouted Strasburg extensively. Acting general manager Mike Rizzo plays coy, suggesting that the Nationals could pick someone other than Strasburg, but the consensus among executives is that Washington has little choice but to cough up the exorbitant sum Boras will demand. The team lacks a drawing card. The Nationals were outbid for Teixeira during the offseason. Last year's first-round pick, Aaron Crow, didn't sign because of a squabble over a few hundred thousand dollars.
The Nationals have told San Diego State officials that their scouts have clocked Strasburg at 103 mph. Yet they won't say so publicly, perhaps fearing the information will only inflate his price. Asked to confirm the 103 mph readout, a Nationals spokesman checked with top brass and replied via email, "We're gonna take a pass on this one. Thanks for reaching out."
If the Nationals don't take Strasburg out of sheer Boras-phobia, the Seattle Mariners, who pick second, certainly will. The San Diego Padres draft third and they've already come to terms with having no shot at the hometown boy.
"There's no guarantee drafting pitchers, but barring injury, he is as close to a surefire top-of-the-rotation starter as I've seen," one scouting director said. "And that's the hardest role to fill without going out and paying $100 million on the free-agent market."
The leverage is with Strasburg. He could create more by holding out until moments before the Aug. 15 signing deadline or threatening to play in an independent league or returning to San Diego State, classic Boras tricks. For now, he'd rather just continue to rear back and fire.
"It's tough to get it out of my head when people bring it up all the time, but it'll take care of itself," Strasburg said. "I'm going day to day and trying not to think about that stuff."
Strasburg knows he's the heat of the moment, that his velocity is on the minds of every batter he faces. Don't get him wrong. He understands the allure of velocity, the bigger, better, faster, stronger ethos that runs professional sports. Knock 5 mph off his fastball and knock $5 million off his asking price.
Strasburg understands, too, that velocity alone will not lead to enshrinement in the Hall of Fame alongside his coach. The list of pitchers who have had fastballs recorded 102 mph or higher confirms that flamethrowing often equates to flaming out.
Only Randy Johnson and Justin Verlander are major league starters. There are eight relievers and 21-year-old left-hander Aroldis Chapman, who pitches for the Cuban national team and hit 100 mph in a World Baseball Classic loss to Japan. Chapman was clocked at 102 mph earlier this year.
Radar guns never caught Ryan faster than 100.9 mph. Walter Johnson and Bob Feller are considered the hardest throwers of the pre-gun era, and it's impossible to quantify their fastest pitches. Feller once threw a pitch alongside a speeding motorcycle that was approximated at an impossible-to-verify 104 mph. The pitcher widely acknowledged to have thrown harder than anyone in modern baseball history, Steve Dalkowski, never made it to the big leagues because of wildness.
The hardest throwers pitch from a precipice. They are always one delivery away from a catastrophic injury, something tearing in their shoulder or elbow, a direct result of their singular prowess. Mark Prior, the last golden-armed, can't-miss product from San Diego, hasn't pitched in more than two years because of injuries.
If Strasburg thinks about any of that, it doesn't show in his day-to-day routine. He loves golf and unwinds at night by putting into a glass in his bedroom. Although his diet has improved since high school, he devours fast-food chicken sandwiches. And he cracks the books more than a player soon to become an instant millionaire needs to.
Strasburg, it seems, wants to separate himself. Not just from every other college pitcher – he's already done that. No, he wants something beyond the Zumaya, Wohlers and Anderson numbers. Something beyond their fate.
"When I came here I wanted to prove I wasn't soft, that I was a bulldog," he said. "Now I want to leave behind a tradition, that this school is somewhere a player can come to develop, and to win.
"I'll have more to prove later. I understand that. Maybe if I keep the same approach and just pitch, just get batters out and not worry about the other stuff, I can keep doing this for a long time."