It’s worth noting that some of baseball’s biggest flops might have achieved greater fame for being a cautionary tale than if they had put together a solid big-league career. Oh yes, sometimes we celebrate failure as much as we immortalize success.
Try this out for size: Ever hear of the pitcher Ed Figueroa? From 1975 to 1978 he won 71 games, including 20 for the World Champion Yankees in ’78. Twice during that span Figueroa finished in the top seven in the Cy Young balloting though he was overshadowed by more well-known pitchers on the Yankees staff like Ron Guidry, Catfish Hunter, Sparky Lyle and Goose Gossage.
Still, from 1976 to 1978, three seasons in which the team went to the World Series, no Yankees pitcher won more games than Figueroa. Obviously, he was a solid pitcher for some really good teams.
Now, how many people have heard about Brien Taylor, the overall No. 1pick in the 1991 draft? Of course you know Brien Taylor. He was the lefty with electric stuff who signed for a $1.55 bonus with the Yankees and appeared to be on the fast track to the big leagues until he tore the labrum in his pitching shoulder in a fight. Taylor pitched in a handful of games in his final five seasons and never made it past Double-A. These days, according to reports, he was working for a beer distributor.
No, we’re not comparing Stephen Strasburg to Brien Taylor. By all accounts Strasburg has been treated as if he were a Ming vase since he signed with the Washington Nationals after being selected as the top overall pick in last June’s draft. When the right-hander with the triple-digit fastball and a knee-buckling curve showed up at First Energy Stadium on Tuesday night with his Double-A Harrisburg teammates, a veritable entourage of press folks also took over the quaint, old ballpark.
Scribes from The New York Times and Washington Post came out to watch Strasburg while members of the Nationals’ PR staff strung the velvet ropes around the 21-year old. Moreover, the fans that turned out on a chilly night caught a glimpse of something. Strasburg retired the first 13 he faced before losing the perfect game with one out in the fifth on a strikeout/passed ball. Regrouping and working out of the stretch, Strasburg got a pair of ground balls to get out of the inning.
“My command of my pitches allowed me to [throw more off-speed pitches],” said the pitcher after throwing fastballs on approximately 60 percent of his 64 pitches. “If I don’t have command of my pitches, why would I throw off-speed? That’s the big thing I was able to do.”
Well, that wasn’t the only big thing he was able to do. All told, Strasburg did not allow a hit in five innings, picked up six strikeouts and allowed just two fair balls to leave the infield. And just to make it seem like he wasn’t just some freak throwing fastballs past everyone, Strasburg singled home the first run of the game.
Outings like the one on Tuesday night in Reading have been closer to the norm for the phenom. In four professional starts, Strasburg has allowed one run in 17 1/3 innings (0.51 ERA), with three walks and 23 strikeouts. In those four starts he has allowed just 11 base runners. On Tuesday, he topped 96 on the stadium radar gun, but it was more than enough to overpower Double-A hitters.
In other words, he hasn’t been tested.
So how good is the kid? Or better yet, why is he pitching for Harrisburg?
“He’s pretty impressive. If he’s able to pitch in effectively to Major League hitters, then he’s going to be really tough,” said Brad Lidge, who also was a first-round pick after a solid college career. “He has command of his changeup and curveball and that kind of arm doesn’t come around very often. It’s not often to see a guy with that kind of fast ball and with a good idea of what he’s doing with his off-speed pitches. Hopefully our hitters will figure him out when he gets called up this year.”
This year, huh? Clearly Strasburg has the stuff to pitch in the Majors now considering his heater likely got closer to triple-digits than the stadium gun indicated. Better yet, because he was able to throw his fastball for strikes, he got a better workout than expected.
Still, it’s difficult to determine how good Strasburg is until he moves up. Then, of course, expect to hear names like David Clyde and Todd Van Poppel ticked off the first time the kid gets roughed up. Clyde and Van Poppel? Yeah, like Strasburg they were both can’t-miss No. 1 picks in the draft who went on to have very poor big league careers. Combined, the former top picks went 58-85, which, of course, is 58-85 better than Brien Taylor did.
Nevertheless, Strasburg seems to have prepared himself for everything. He knows just as many people will be rooting for another flop as much as a Hall-of-Fame career. Since he grew up in an age where media encompasses just about every facet of life, Strasburg is better prepared than perhaps anyone before him. Plus, his college coach was Tony Gwynn—one of the big leaguers well known for being great.
Well schooled, Strasburg seems grounded enough to not let it all get ahead of him. He’ll be in the big leagues eventually, so until he gets the call he has no control of his situation.
“It’s obviously not a normal situation for a guy in his first year of pro ball, but it goes with the territory and I’ve accepted that,” he said.
Besides, they have the minor leagues for a reason. Lidge pitched in 53 games over four seasons in the minors after he left Notre Dame and made it to the big leagues for good. This experience will be good for Strasburg, Lidge says.
After all, Clyde went from his high school graduation to his Major League debut in the same month when he was just 18, while Van Poppel made his debut when he was 19 after one season in the minors. Clearly those guys needed a little more seasoning.
“I think it’s a good idea because at the very least it’s going to get him used to being on that clockwork of the rotation and pitching every five days,” Lidge said. “If nothing else, he gets to experience the minor leagues a little bit. That’s a good thing for guys. But clearly he’s showing he’s ready to move on from Double-A and I’m sure he’ll have the same results in Triple-A.”
As for the Majors, we’ll probably find out about that soon enough.