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Stephen Strasburg Dominates in Debut

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The greatest prospect of all time just became the greatest story in Major League Baseball. Let the superlatives and lofty comparisons fly: Stephen Strasburg has arrived and he has immediately made his presence felt.

As the 21-year-old took the mound on Tuesday night, it seemed impossible that he could live up to the massive hype heaped upon his shoulders by the expectations of fans, coaches, and analysts alike. But as he has done at every level that he has pitched, Stephen Strasburg simply dominated his opponents, blowing away major league hitters in the same ruthless fashion in which he did as a San Diego State Aztec.

His stat line alone is enough the warrant the comparisons to Nolan Ryan and the illusions to his status as the greatest Washington pitcher since Walter Johnson. In the seven innings Strasburg was allowed to work, he gave up two runs on four hits with both runs coming on a Delwyn Young golf shot on a solid changeup that was nearly in the dirt, but caught slightly too much of the plate.

That was Stephen’s only mistake as the rookie racked up an eye-popping 14 Ks in his debut without walking a single batter. Of the 94 pitches Strasburg threw, 65 were for strikes. He set down the final 10 hitters he faced — the last 7 by way of strikeout — before manager Jim Riggleman let caution overtake enthusiasm and pulled his starter with a 4-2 lead over the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates, on the way to the first win of his career.

But the statistics in this case, no matter how gaudy, cannot come close to duplicating the violent beauty in watching Strasburg work on the mound. His fastball tore through the zone, reaching triple digits at times, as a gruesome combination of speed and movement that is uncommon in the most seasoned major league hurlers.

His curveball, compared by Bob Costas to that of Kerry Wood, broke more like that of Bob Gibson, tumbling hard and baffling players from both sides of the plate. Add in a two-seamer that held consistently in the mid 90s while diving more like a sinker and a changeup that moved, stayed low, and caressed the corners of the strike zone all night, and Strasburg was pure baseball poetry. The only thing missing was the voice of James Earl Jones providing narration about the humming of the ball out of the pitcher’s hand and the thundering snap of leather in the catcher’s glove.

The reaction to Strasburg’s ascension to the center of the MLB-sphere will likely be twofold. Some will anoint the young pitcher with a greatness that there is no guarantee that he will eventually earn. Others will consciously temper the ballyhoo, preaching caution and citing the high failure rate of past phenoms like Ben McDonald and Todd Van Poppel. But Stephen Strasburg is very obviously in a rare class. And barring the always present variable of injury, Strasburg has been on the road to greatness long before he struck out 14 batters on Tuesday night in Washington.

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About Anthony Tobis

  • http://www.futonreport.net/ Matthew T. Sussman

    Bob Gibson and Walter Johnson comparisons are the ones he wants. But there have been many others to Kerry Wood, Frank Tanana, Fernando Valenzuela, and Vida Blue.

    But right now I think the most sensible comparison, if not uber-topical, is Ubaldo Jimenez.

  • Tony

    Statistically based on this season you could go Ubaldo but up until this season Jimenez has had some serious control issues. Just two seasons ago he walked over 100 batters.

    Based on his age and the fact that he is a rookie, Mike Leake might be a better current comparison.

    Kerry Wood had the curveball and fastball but not the command and not the 2-seamer or the changeup. And he also had some control issues, walking 85 batters in 166 innings his first season and 87 in 137 innings the next.

    Frank Tanana struck out a lot of people early on and had better control but he still gave up 262 hits in 268 innings his first season. This isn’t a bad comparison; Tanana just blew out his arm. And even still, he re-invented himself into a very solid pitcher after he was hurt.

    Valenzuela put up great stats but walked a lot of people, leading the league in walks twice by age 26.

    And Vida Blue would have been dominate if they the A’s hadn’t pitched him 312 innings in his first season. While he was still great for a period and very good for the rest of his career he never duplicated that 1971 season when he was 21 like Strasburg. Somehow I don’t think Stephen is going to hit the 300 inning mark this season.

    So there might be elements of all those pitchers at their best in Strasburg but what it really breaks down to is that none of them — maybe not even Johnson or Gibson — commanded four pitches, threw as many strikes, or threw as hard as Strasburg. Nor did they have the mechanics he possesses.