Stephen Strasburg was one of the most talked about prospects in the history of baseball when the Washington Nationals selected him first overall in the 2009 MLB amateur draft. At 20 years of age then, his name was eponymous with velocity and power pitching. His fastball had been noted by scouts to regularly touch 100 MPH. At 6-foot-4, his long, wiry frame played favorably well to the whip action his right-arm could generate during his wind-up and release. Now five years into a heavily hyped career, the hardships of facing big league hitting every five days is proving to be an honest test for Strasburg.
Strasburg’s debut in 2010 as a 21-year-old rookie was exquisite. He pitched seven innings, allowed only two earned runs and fanned 14 hitters. He has not reached that number of strikeouts in a single outing since. What’s more, many people predicted he would be a Cy Young contender at some point in his career. Not so much, as there have been some bumps along the way.
Hindsight is always 20/20, and given his powerful delivery, Tommy John surgery should have been inevitable for Strasburg. And it was, when he was shut down in August after only 12 starts in his rookie season. He went under the knife, and returned in 2011 making only five starts. Then in 2012, he was placed under a controversial innings limit despite the Nats making playoffs and ultimately losing the NLDS without Strasburg making an appearance in the postseason. His average fastball pre-Tommy John surgery in 2010 was 97.6 MPH according to Fan Graphs. Since his procedure, it has gradually dropped every season, now sitting at 94.5 in 2014. Also, Strasburg has not hit 100 MPH since his inaugural MLB season.
The point being, Strasburg now has nearly 600 innings logged in his pro career, but he still struggles on a regular basis. His career K/9 of 10.5 is excellent and his career ERA of 3.15 is also very good. But that number is somewhat askew, as he posted a 2.91 ERA his rookie campaign before getting shut down with the torn UCL. He then made only five starts the following season after coming back from surgery in 2011, posting a 1.50 ERA over five starts and 24 IP.
Heading into Thursday’s action versus the New York Mets, Strasburg’s ERA was 3.68. He pitched well, managing to not allow a single earned run through seven full innings of work. A nice bounce back game, considering he allowed seven earned runs in his previous start, lasting only five innings. Three times in 2014, Strasburg has allowed six-plus earned runs. 17 of his 25 starts have been considered quality ones.
In comparison, Felix Hernandez is only two years older than Strasburg. The likely AL Cy Young winner has 23 of his 25 starts being considered quality ones. Hernandez is playing out of this world in 2014, but if Strasburg wants to one day emulate King Felix’s success — simply put — he needs to allow less base runners.
It’s such a simple, fundamental concept for the pitching position. Strasburg’s career WHIP is 1.11. This year, it is at an all-time high of 1.23 and it shows. Consistency is not yet something Strasburg has a rapport with. Yes he is talented, but he is not yet elite.
Strasburg still has time to get over the learning curve associated with playing in the show. He looks primed to surpass 200 IP and 200 SO for the first time in his career this season. Although it’s fair to say, that many scouts would have predicted those milestones to be long in Strasburg’s rearview mirror after getting his career underway back in 2010. More than one All-Star Game appearance also would have been a popular notion amongst fans and scouts alike back in 2009.