Patrick Reddington: Can Strasburg become Nationals’ “Big Train”?

Walter Johnson was born in Humboldt, Kan., in November 1887. In 1905, the future Washington Senator and his family lived in southern California, where, as Los Angeles Times writer Chris Dufresne noted in a 2008 article, the Fullerton Union High Indians pitcher first made a name for himself. “Johnson attended Fullerton Union High long enough to have, in 1905, struck out 27 batters in a 15-inning game against Santa Ana High,” Dufresne wrote. Two years later, after he’d moved to Idaho and been discovered by a scout, a 19-year-old Johnson made his major league debut with the Senators. The Senators faced the Ty Cobb-led Detroit Tigers that day, and Johnson made an immediate impression on the then-20-year-old Cobb.

As Cobb wrote in his biography co-written with Al Stump, he and his Tigers teammates looked forward to facing Johnson. “Manager Pongo Joe Cantillon of the Nats had picked a rube out of the cornfields of the deepest bushes to pitch against us,” Cobb recalled. Then Johnson took the mound. “The first time I faced him,” Cobb recalled, “I watched him take that easy windup. And then something went past me that made me flinch. The thing just hissed with danger. We couldn’t touch him. ... Every one of us knew we’d met the most powerful arm ever turned loose in a ball park.”

The first three seasons of his career weren’t easy ones for the sidearming right-hander or the Senators, who lost a combined 199 games. Johnson, however, posted impressive numbers with a combined 1.94 ERA and 395 strikeouts (5.36 K/9) in 663 innings. Health issues slowed Johnson at the start, however, with an ear infection delaying the beginning of his 1908 season and “severe cold” doing the same in 1909. As Johnson’s bio notes, Cantillon, the Senators’ skipper, pitched him on short rest repeatedly leading to “a sore arm that kept him out of the lineup for three weeks and scared Cantillon into using giving him more rest for the remainder of the season.”

Back at full strength in 1910, Johnson dominated the American League, posting a 25-1 record with a 1.36 ERA in an AL-leading 370 innings, over which he threw an league-leading 38 complete games with an AL-best 313 Ks and 7.9 K/9. Johnson went on to have a Hall of Fame-worthy career, pitching for 21 seasons and leading the Senators to their one and only World Series win in 1924.

One hundred years after Johnson entered the majors, another southern California-based right-hander burst onto the national baseball scene with a dominant strikeout-filled performance spread via a YouTube video, in which San Diego State University starter Stephen Strasburg “struck out 23 batters in (a) win over Utah on April 11, tying for the third-most ever in a college game and the most since the 1981 season.” That start, Strasburg’s SDSU bio notes, “marked the second of six consecutive starts in which he reached double figures in strikeouts.” Over those starts, Strasburg, “allowed only two runs (one earned) over 55 innings (from March 20 to May 8).”

In 2009, the year he would eventually be drafted with the No. 1 overall pick, Strasburg was 13-1 in 15 starts with a 1.32 ERA and 195 Ks (16.10 K/9) in 109 innings. Strasburg signed late that summer, so his professional career didn’t begin until the next spring. His first start against big league competition came against the Detroit Tigers.’s Jayson Stark quoted Tigers’ slugger Miguel Cabrera in an article that March, describing the experience of facing Strasburg for the first time. “What you read about, it’s true,” Cabrera told Stark, “It’s real. He’s the kind of pitcher you don’t see every day. When he throws the ball,it’s like an explosion.”

The Nationals’ top pitching prospect started his first pro season in the minors but was called up to make his major league debut in June 2010. Strasburg struck out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates in an electric performance in the nation’s capital that announced his arrival on the national baseball scene in a dazzling display of power and control. Even then, however, he had a good idea of how he wanted to eventually pitch at the major league level, and it wasn’t all about racking up strikeouts.

“I just want to go out there and execute the majority of my pitches out there the way I can,” Strasburg said, “and the strikeouts are more of an accident than anything. You want to go up there pitching to contact, wanting them to put the ball in play, and it happens some games, but not all the games are going to be like this.”

Strasburg wasn’t overworked and taxed like Johnson had been early in his career, but a shoulder issue cropped up that summer, causing the Nationals’ right-hander to miss a start. Later in his first season, disaster struck: a torn ulnar collateral ligament. Tommy John surgery, a lost 2011 campaign and a 2012 season in which he was on an innings limit followed. Strasburg is back at full strength now, and though he’s struggled to find himself on the mound early this season, last night he turned things around and put together one of his strongest performances as a starter at the major league level.

Strasburg struck out just four batters. He induced 13 groundballs outs and went eight innings for the first time in the majors on 117 pitches.
Like Johnson early in his career, Strasburg is just starting to figure things out. Fans in the nation’s capital can only hope something like the career Johnson put together lies ahead for this century’s D.C.-based ace.

Patrick Reddington blogs about the Nationals for Federal Baseball and appears here as part of’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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