ALTOONA. Pa. – For all you instant-gratification junkies furious that Stephen Strasburg(notes) didn't throw the second pitch on opening day for the Washington Nationals (President Obama threw the first, sort of), take a look at this line:
Not bad. Not great. Yep, the Altoona Curve gave Strasburg a tussle in his first professional start Sunday in a Double-A game for the Harrisburg Senators. The most highly touted, highly paid first-year pitcher ever gave up his first pro run in his first pro inning on a solid single that followed a solid double. He settled down the next two innings, and then in the fourth let an error by his shortstop mess with his mind. Strasburg gave up a two-run single with two out, failed to back up the catcher in time on a play at the plate and surrendered an RBI single to the opposing pitcher.
Then, like any budding prospect ought to do, he took a breath and battled. In the fifth, Strasburg hit a double over the right fielder, scored a run and went back to the mound and finished with a strong inning. No doubt the Curve had never seen a curve break as sharply as Strasburg's, but overall, the competition was what he could handle.
The Philadelphia Phillies' opening day lineup that crushed the Nationals went Jimmy Rollins(notes), Placido Polanco(notes), Chase Utley(notes), Ryan Howard(notes) … you get the idea. Might have been a little much. For now, anyway.
Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo was widely ridiculed for saying that Strasburg began the season in the minors to work on slowing his delivery from the stretch position. But anyone in the know realizes the 21-year-old right-hander didn't go directly from San Diego State to the Nationals because of an obsolete service-time rule that will enable the team to keep him under control through 2016 rather than 2015 and pay him about $18 million less. The rule doesn't exactly rule – as my colleague Jeff Passan rightly points out, it's an unfair abomination and ought to be stricken in the next collective bargaining agreement – but it will serve Strasburg well.
When the Nationals sent him to minor league camp a month ago in Viera, Fla., Strasburg was openly disappointed. After Sunday's outing, he seemed to understand that he'll be better for experiencing growing pains in quaint minor league parks like in Altoona, where a roller coaster sits just beyond the right-field wall, 8,000 fans constitute a sellout and the mascot is named, naturally, Al Tuna.
"Obviously as a baseball player you'd like to say you are playing at the highest level possible, but right now there are things I need to work on and things I need to improve on," he said. "I'm going to focus on that now and hopefully my time will come."
Rizzo ought to be grateful for the service-time rule for a reason other than the pile of cash the Nationals will save. Without it, he surely would have been tempted to start Strasburg in the big leagues, caving to media pressure and short-term economic gain. Instead, dispatching him to Harrisburg was a no-brainer. The plan is for Strasburg to make about five Double-A starts, do the same at Triple-A Syracuse and then make his major league debut in late May or early June. It's an altogether sane pace, especially because it's not as if the woeful Nationals would contend in the NL East with a few early wins from Strasburg.
Therein lies the difference between Strasburg and hitting phenom Jason Heyward(notes), who started the season in the Atlanta Braves' lineup. The Braves rightly believe they can contend for the playoffs, and putting Heyward in the minors for two months to push back his service time could have cost them crucial victories. That may have been the case last year when the Braves waited until June 7 to promote pitcher Tommy Hanson(notes), who went 11-4 the rest of the way. A difference between Hanson and Strasburg is that Hanson had already spent three seasons in the minors, while Strasburg is straight out of college.
The logic behind the timing of a player's debut can be subtle. The Cincinnati Reds hurried Mike Leake(notes) from the Arizona State campus to the major league rotation while leaving 100 mph-throwing Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman(notes) in Triple-A. Leake's scouting report indicates that while he might be major league ready, he probably will be no better than a middle-of-the-rotation starter, making his service-time clock less of an issue. Chapman is raw, yet has more upside, prompting the Reds to be more deliberate with him.
Getting a taste of the bush leagues will only help a pitcher whose résumé lacks nothing except experience. Strasburg's fastball has been clocked at 103 mph and sits at 99 mph. Against Altoona, a Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate, he admitted that anxiety and adrenaline caused the rough first inning. In the rocky fourth inning, his pitches indeed were 3 mph slower from the stretch than the windup. He touched 100 mph with one pitch and his fastball was consistently at 99 from the windup. From the stretch, it fluctuated from 94 to 97. According to Inside Edge, most big league pitchers maintain the same velocity with runners on base.
"You get so amped up out there, you really have to harness it," Strasburg said. "A lot of it has to do with the atmosphere you are pitching in. I've been able to pitch in some big games before and this was taking it to a different level."
See? This qualified as a big game to Strasburg. Let him climb the ladder one rung at a time. He pitched for the U.S. in the Beijing Olympics, although it wasn't truly a big stage because nobody in Beijing cared about baseball. He pitched in the NCAA regionals last year and was defeated by Virginia. The Arizona Fall League and three spring training starts for the Nationals are his only experience facing big league hitters.
The Altoona Curve was the next logical step in Stephen Strasburg's learning curve. Take comfort, Nats fans, because there's something to be said for delayed gratification. Maybe before he faces the likes of the Phillies, Strasburg will take the mound a little less "amped up," he'll back up home plate before a throw from center field rolls to the backstop and he'll respond better to an infielder's error.
"You move on and build off it, and that's exactly what I'm going to do," he said. "I'm looking forward to the next one. It'll be at home, at Harrisburg, against New Britain."
As it should be.