The Nationals are flying high, winners of eight straight series, all alone in first place, 2 1/2 games up on the New York Mets in the National League East. But it seems all the fans want to talk about is Stephen Strasburg’s pitching troubles.
On talk shows, Internet message boards and Facebook groups, there’s no shortage of opinions about why Strasburg (3-5, 6.50 ERA) is struggling and what the team should do about it. The main complaint about the first overall pick in the 2009 draft is that he has not lived up to his potential.
Most of these folks, however, have no concept of Strasburg’s actual potential and capabilities, because they really can’t be told. Lots top overall draft picks have flamed out without even a hint of success in the major leagues, let alone what Strasburg has done so far. All pitchers have difficult times in their careers. Some get over them, some don’t. The Nats right-hander will need to work through his troubles, and the team and fans alike will need to be patient with him.
Now in his sixth major league season, Strasburg is 46-35 overall with a 3.25 ERA. Last season, he tied for the NL strikeout lead with 242 and pitched effectively in starting the National League Division Series opener against San Francisco.
But this season has been rough for the 26-year-old. In three of his last four starts, he has failed to make it out of the fourth inning, losing each time. He has labored through high pitch counts and been hit hard, often while ahead of hitters, or worse, with two outs. He has surrendered four homers in his last three starts.
On Saturday against Philadelphia, Strasburg started strong in the first and pitched his way out of a jam in the second inning before getting knocked around in the third and fourth for five hits, five earned runs and Maikel Franco’s second homer of the season. He also failed to back up home plate, costing the team, and himself, at least one run. Manager Matt Williams told reporters after the game that Strasburg’s problem was leaving pitches up in the strike zone, especially with two strikes on the batter.
Talk show callers and message board posters are blaming everything from his shutdown at the end of the 2012 regular season to pitching coach Steve McCatty. They have questioned his health, his mental toughness and his manhood. Suggested solutions have included trading him, sending him to the minors, putting him on the disabled list and even releasing him outright.
Fortunately for Strasburg and the Nationals, none of these folks are running the team. Strasburg is going through a rough time, but it’s a stretch to say that he’s underachieving.
Ever heard of Luke Hochevar? He was the first overall pick in the 2006 draft by the Kansas City Royals. After going 43-61 with a 5.13 ERA over his first seven seasons, Hochevar was injured in 2014 spring training and is recovering from Tommy John surgery.
What about Bryan Bullington, the first overall pick of the 2002 draft by Pittsburgh? He struggled through five injury-plagued seasons with the Pirates, Cleveland, Toronto and Kansas City with a career mark of 1-9 with a 5.62 ERA, and is now pitching in Japan.
Matt Anderson (1997, Detroit), Kris Benson (1996, Pittsburgh), Paul Wilson (1994, New York Mets) and Brien Taylor (1991, New York Yankees) were all overall No. 1 picks, but washed out for various reasons. None came close to the success Strasburg has seen so far in his big league career.
No. 1 overall draft selections have no guarantee of becoming invincible. Since the draft was instituted in 1965, a few first-round pitchers, including Strasburg, have become All-Stars. None of them currently have Hall of Fame credentials, though.
The most optimistic observers have compared Strasburg to Sandy Koufax, the former Dodger who struggled through his first six big league seasons and almost quit in 1960 before blossoming into a three-time Cy Young Award winner, NL Most Valuable Player and eventual Hall of Famer.
The most pessimistic have compared him to Ben McDonald, the 1989 overall No. 1 selection by the Orioles, who showed flashes of brilliance in an injury-filled nine-year career and retired with a 78-70 overall mark.
Here’s a more apt comparison: Sidd Finch - a man who never was. Sports Illustrated writer George Plimpton dreamed up the fictional phenom as an April Fool’s Day joke in 1985. Finch was supposedly a prospect who was raised in an English orphanage, practiced yoga and had a 168 mph fastball. He was, in fact, a legend who had potential that no one could hope to achieve.
Strasburg’s harshest critics have expectations that are just as high. In a career where he has dominated at times and seemed distracted at others, the only thing Strasburg has proved so far is that he is human.
Strasburg may well work though his problems. The good thing now is that he has the luxury of being on a very good team, with other excellent pitchers. He does not have to carry this staff, and the team likely won’t fail if it doesn’t get a brilliant performance from him every fifth day.
Let’s be patient, folks. It may well be worth it.
Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. Follow him on Twitter: @martyball98. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.