There are two fronts on which Stephen Strasburg’s first meaningful game must be evaluated, and Nationals player development director has no problem identifying and separating them. The first is the actual performance - how Strasburg’s mechanics were, what he did in situations against hitters, etc. On that front, Harris had only minor teaching points; Strasburg’s lower half was too quick through the gathering phase of his delivery in the first two innings, when adrenaline was governing more of his movements than it should have.
That’s the technical side of it. Then there is the more abstract, but no less important, side of Strasburg’s day; how he handled the attention from the standing room-only crowd and the 75 media members that made this possibly the most hotly-anticipated debut in minor-league history.
For Harris, that’s where Strasburg really stole the show.
“People have been waiting a long time for it. He handled it exceptionally well,” Harris said, “A lot of things have been asked of him. For a 21-year-old, we’ve put a lot on him. I can’t say enough about how he’s handled it. He was really professional.”
Strasburg’s debut was part baseball game and part spectacle; the Altoona Curve, like most minor-league teams in the sense they’ll never miss a chance for a promotion, actually put Strasburg on the press passes despite the fact he was pitching for the visiting Harrisburg Senators. ESPNews televised Strasburg’s innings, and reporters from numerous national media outlets crammed into Blair County Ballpark’s tiny press box, all to see a 21-year-old throw 82 pitches.
His results were solid, if not symbolic of a new world order: five innings pitched, four hits, four runs (though just one was earned), two walks and eight strikeouts. He forgot to back up home plate while a run scored in the first inning, and gave up a couple early hits when his adrenaline got the best of him, but sat between 98 and 100 mph, depending on the gun.
Mechanically, Harris said the notion that Strasburg’s delivery needs to slow down is incomplete. He tends to lose velocity while he’s in the stretch, and the Nationals timed him between 1.0 and 1.1 seconds to the plate in spring training (anything under 1.3 seconds is acceptable). So he has room to slow down and gather more arm speed, but Harris said it’s only part of Strasburg’s delivery that needs refinement.
“I don’t think slowing down is the proper barometer,” Harris said. “Regardless of whether it’s 1.0, 1.1 or 1.2, the question is: Is he getting to his back side? We want him to get to his back side and give himself time to maximize his stuff.”
Essentially, the Nationals want Strasburg to slow down the load phase of his delivery ever so slightly, allowing him more time to gather arm speed before throwing home. Once he starts shifting his weight back to his front side, his delivery is fine.
“If he’s capable of getting to his back side and delivering in 1.0, 1.1, that’s great,” Harris said. “We’re just trying to get him to his back side. He’s well above-average (in his time to the plate).”
Harris said Strasburg will continue to build on this start, though the Nationals aren’t trying to stretch him out to the point of being able to pitch a complete game in the minors. They’ve got a set innings limit for him, and they’d prefer he spends more of those innings in the majors or Triple-A Syracuse than at Harrisburg.
Asked about a Sunday report that the Nationals had agreed with Scott Boras, Strasburg’s agent, to only use the right-hander for 100 innings this year, Harris said, “I’m not sure that holds water. We’re looking for an incremental increase on what he’s done in the past.”
Strasburg threw 109 innings at San Diego State last year before going on to the Arizona Fall League; Harris said he envisions Strasburg throwing between 150 and 160 innings this season, though “there are variables that come into that.”
“It’s easy to take for granted - and I’ve been guilty of this as a scout - when you see a guy that’s got such an exciting tool set, you hold him to a higher standard,” Harris said. “You expect so much out of him, and you forget he hasn’t gone through a lot of these things yet. Our goal is not to run him to the big leagues in three minutes.”