Tuesday, June 08, 2010

It's Strasmas, but don't go celebrating just yet

Tonight marks the long-awaited debut of pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg -- well actually it's only been about 10 months since he officially signed so I don't know if long awaited is entirely accurate. Unfortunately I will not be there, as the Virginia girls' lacrosse state semifinals beckon.

But I just wanted to quickly comment on the unprecedented hype (at least since I've been following sports) that the Stras is experiencing. Frankly, I just don't get it. Now don't get me wrong, I'm excited Nationals Park will be sold out with bonafide DC fans for the first time since the stadium opened in 2008. This is a historic sporting event in the history of DC professional baseball, and anything short of a sellout would be disappointing to me.

But to have Baseball Tonight broadcasting live on location? Or for Nationals officials to hand out close to 250 media credentials? For there to be wall-to-wall coverage as if this were the World Series? Hell, the town of Strasburg, Virginia (pop. 6,200) has even offered to change its name to Stephen Strasburg, Virginia if the pitcher makes his way down there for an appearance. I just don't get it.

This isn't the first pitcher to throw 100 miles per hour and he won't be the last. To me, we're just setting this kid up for failure (and he is a kid in my book since he was born in 1988 and is therefore younger than me). I didn't see people getting their panties in a bunch (not including the Bay Area of course) for the debut of Tim Lincecum a few years back. He's only become a two-time defending Cy Young winner by the age of 25, a feat I think would be remarkable for Strasburg to achieve.

Here's my question, though. What if all this pressure gets to Strasburg? Nobody in the media seems to want to acknowledge this. Here's a kid who has probably never pitched in front of 40,000 people before -- not to mention the hundreds of camera lenses that will be focused in his direction. Say he comes out and throws a dud tonight -- something like four or five earned runs in four or five innings. Not disastrous, but nothing like the savior he was billed to be.

Or what if he's just terrible this year -- not fully ready to handle the rigors of pitching to hitters that won't be blown away by a 100 (or more like 98) mph fastball? What if the Nats are forced to send him back to the minors for some fine tuning? It's not likely, but it happens even to the best of baseball's prospects now and again.

In this "what-have-you-done-for-me-lately media circus, we need results now. We form opinions without contemplation, disregarding the fact that opinions do change over time. So as I sit here at work, anticipating the Strasburg debut but also aware that I will miss it for some enthralling girls' lacrosse action, I want to leave you with a case study Tom Boswell of the Washington Post likes to use when discussing the Strasburg.

In Rogers Clemens' first six starts for the Boston Red Sox back in 1984, here's what his pitching lines looked like:

May 15, 7-5 loss at Indians: 5.2 IP, 11 hits, 5 runs, 4 earned, 3 BB, 4 K, 0 HR
May 20, 5-4 win at Twins: 7.0 IP, 7 hits, 4 runs, 4 earned, 1 BB, 7 K, 1 HR
May 26, 11-7 loss vs. Royals: 6.2 IP, 10 hits, 5 runs, 5 earned, 1 BB, 8 K, O HR
June 2, 6-3 win at Brewers: 6.2 IP, 7 hits, 3 runs, 3 earned, 0 BB, 3 K, 2 HR
June 7, 6-3 loss vs. Brewers: 5.2 IP, 13 hits, 6 runs, 6 earned, 0 BB, 4 K, 0 HR
June 12, 9-8 win vs. Yankees: 3.2 IP, 8 hits, 6 runs, 6 earned, 2 BB, 2 K, 1 HR

At the conclusion of those first six starts, Clemens had a 2-1 record and a 7.31 ERA. But he got progressively better as his rookie year went along, finishing the season with a 4.32 ERA and a 9-4 record. The next year, 1985, he was 7-5 with a 3.29 ERA after pitching just 98.1 innings due to a shoulder injury.

As we all know now, though, while those first two seasons were decidedly average, Mr. Clemens went on to win the 1986 Cy Young (24-4, 2.48 ERA) and eventually turned himself into arguably the greatest power pitcher of all time (that is until he started messing around with PEDs and underage country singers).

So let's try to avoid rushing to judgment after this one start. Whether Strasburg pitches a no hitter or gives up nine runs in two innings, he's not going to make or break his career or this franchise in one night.


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