Monday, August 23, 2010

The Strasburg Saga

(Editor's Note: My new setup with a single, weekly post will be scheduled to appear on Mondays whenever possible from this point forward.)

Update 8/27: The Washington Nationals are saying that Stephen Strasburg will need Tommy John surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right elbow. Traditionally, Tommy John surgery takes 12-18 months to recover and for a hard thrower like Strasburg, will probably require another year of pitching on top of that before the velocity and command returns. I don't imagine I'm the only fan of baseball today that woke up to disappointment (and that was before I found out that Albert Pujols will be at the Glenn Beck rally tomorrow in D.C.). Maybe we should have expected this.
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If you would have told me a year ago that I would write two posts this baseball season about rookie phenom Stephen Strasburg (here's the first), I would have laughed in your face.

First of all, why would I, lover of most things baseball, have laughed in your face? Believe it or not, what I perceive to be my growing interest in the Strasburg saga has nothing to do with the fact that I am a devoted Atlanta Braves fan and therefore follower of all things NL East (the National League's Eastern Division, for those of you who are not up on baseball terminology). So, prior to Strasburg making his debut this season, the main reason why I would have perceived Strasburg as a non-issue in the time I spent thinking about baseball would have come down to this: Pitching has never been the most interesting thing about baseball to me. Yes, I know... I was a catcher, but what I'm talking about is pitching in Major League Baseball.

Prior to the Washington Nationals placing Strasburg on their active roster this season and him striking out fourteen batters in his first game in the big leagues, Strasburg wasn't really even on my radar. Sure, I knew that he was the first player picked in last year's draft by the perennial last-place Washington Nationals. Sure, I knew that his signing with said Nationals broke the record for the highest paid player in the history of his particular draft. Sure, I had heard about his brilliant pitching under the tutelage of hall-of-famer Tony Gwynn at San Diego State. I'd heard everything about Strasburg, but I hadn't actually seen Strasburg.

You don't have to have the privilege of seeing Strasburg pitch in person, though I'm sure it adds to the legend of Strasburg, to be amazed at what Strasburg can do. Even on television, there is no limit to the amazement that comes with watching Strasburg pitch. He throws as hard as Sandy Koufax, he can place a pitch just as well as Greg Maddux and he's in his first season. In his Major League debut, he threw 34 pitches at or above 98 mph. He has a 5-3 win-loss record thus far with a team that doesn't put up much in terms of run support (the Nats are 25th in runs scored among the 30 major league teams). His stats don't say enough about him, unfortunately.

When Strasburg signed his $15.1 million contract with the Nationals, little did he and the rest of the nation know that his arm would be under more pressure than any other arm in all of baseball. He's been hyped, not something I would dare describe as over-hyped, and he has been under the pressure of a losing team who needs nothing more than they do a reliable arm they can send the mound every fifth day. And in his first three starts he took to the hill and lived up to every bit of that hype. Even after that third start he continued to pitch better than anyone in Washington's rotation has all season and everyone was buying a ticket to see him pitch. The pressure on this young man is extreme, the like of which has probably never been seen in professional baseball before.

The pressure, stress and hype have not come without a price and the young phenom is headed to the DL (disabled list) for the second time in his young, professional career.

While everyone has been keeping tabs on Strasburg and hoping for the best, the Washington media seems hell-bent on prescribing a course for the Nats pitcher. After Strasburg reeled in pain after an unusual pitch the other night, some have called him weak and some have pleaded with the Nationals to bench him for the sake of his arm and their franchise. There are those who say that the Nationals are handling him with kid gloves and overreacting to the drama, but what you will not hear from the chorus of critics is an inkling of denial in his talent. Nobody thinks Strasburg is without talent and everyone seems to think his arm is worth preserving.

When you hear people talk about Stephen Strasburg's health, a name you will often hear is that of Kerry Wood. I have watched Kerry Wood since he made his much-hyped debut in baseball and I have watched, sadly, as he has made fourteen trips to the DL. It is always awful to watch when a player with pure, raw talent is on and off the DL. Dodgers fans see it daily with Manny Ramirez in L.A. Cubs fans watched the revolving door with Kerry Wood for far too long. As a Braves fan, I have watched this with Chipper Jones in recent years. It happens too often.

Fans of the sport will often mention the Baseball Gods. If they do exist, may they smile on the arm of Strasburg, if not for the sake of a young man who could have quite a career in the game, for the sake of the game itself that has been frequently tarnished in recent years by those who cheated both the game and the fans.
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(Here's two bonus links unrelated to Strasburg: First, Marc Johnson sums up Lou Piniella's career nicely...without Lou and Bobby Cox, where are we to look for genuine, on-field hissy fits? The bases are certainly safe in the ground, now. Second, "Could Omar Infante Win the NL Batting Title?" I don't know, but he sure deserves a prize for keeping my fantasy team afloat.)

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