Tuesday June 8th, 2010

The best ever.

That's the description I've most often seen of Stephen Strasburg. The best college pitcher ever. The best pitching prospect ever. The best young arm one scout has ever seen. The best prospect another writer has ever covered.

The descriptions of his stuff are mouth-watering: 100 mile-per-hour fastballs with movement, unhittable low-90s sliders, and a changeup that rivals the first two pitches. Some thought the Nationals would stick him straight in their major league rotation last summer as soon as they had drafted him with the No. 1 overall pick. Some have said he could be an ace the moment he sets foot on a major league mound.

Starting tonight, we'll find out whether the hype that has been so deafening is justified when Strasburg makes perhaps the most eagerly anticipated major league debut, well, ever. That he's doing it against the Pirates, a team that has scored just 3.28 runs per game on the season, more than only the miserable Orioles and Astros, works in his favor, but even for a pitcher as talented as Strasburg, making the leap to the major leagues can be both intimidating and challenging.

With that in mind, let's take a look at the major league debuts of six of the most-hyped (and most expensive) rookie pitchers in major league history. In doing so, we'll set aside those who made their debuts in relief (such as $10,000 farm boy Bob Feller, Brooklyn bonus baby Sandy Koufax, and $75,000 country boy Jim "Catfish" Hunter) as well as established pitchers from foreign/parallel leagues (Satchel Paige, Hideo Nomo, Orlando Hernandez, etc.), and emphasize pitchers who arrived in the majors not only on a wave of hype but with strong minor league track records, however brief they may have been. What we find is a variety of results and career paths, the worst of the latter coming from the one pitcher below without a minor league track record, the worst of the former coming from a pitcher who ended up in the Hall of Fame. What we don't find are long outings or scoreless starts. With Strasburg on a pitch count, we won't get a long outing in his debut, either, but while instinct and experience tell us to temper our expectations, we could well be in for a treat tonight, even if it is an abbreviated one.

Team: New York Giants Opponent: Cincinnati Reds Date: Sept. 25, 1908 Line: 5 IP, 7 H, 5 R, 0 HR, 2 BB, 1 K, 1 HBP, L

In the midst of one of the great pennant races in baseball history, best remembered for Fred Merkel's season-altering baserunning error which negated a key Giants win, the Giants won a bidding war for Richard William Marquard, a 21-year-old left-handed stud from the American Association who had posted a 1.69 ERA in 367 innings for Indianapolis that year. The $11,000 the Giants spent to sign Marquard was a record at the time, and his debut came just two days after the infamous Merkel game. When Marquard took the mound, the Giants were clinging to a one-game lead over the Cubs with 13 left to play (not counting the eventual re-playing of the Merkel game), but Marquard was either in over his head or, just as likely, spent. Unable to match a sharp performance from Cincinnati's Bob Spade, Marquard took the loss in what would be his only game for New York that year. The loss dropped the Giants a half-game behind the Cubs, and New York would never regain its lead, losing the pennant by a single game after losing the Merkel make-up the day after the original schedule expired. Marquard's proper rookie season of 1909 was underwhelming (he went just 5-13), and in 1910 he was benched for long stretches due to wildness, but things turned around in a big way after that. From 1911 to 1913, Marquard won 73 games, including a record 19 in a row to begin the 1912 season, while the Giants won the pennant each of those three years. Marquard was inducted into the Hall of Fame by the Veteran's Committee in 1971, though there are many who believe he didn't deserve the honor.

Team: Philadelphia Athletics Opponent: Boston Red Sox Date: April 14, 1925 Line: 3 2/3 IP, 6 H, 5 R (4 ER), 0 HR, 4 BB, 0 K, 1 HBP, ND

Purchased from the International League's Baltimore Orioles after the 1924 season for a record $100,600, the 25-year-old Grove was handed the Athletics' Opening Day start on the strength of his 111-39 record over five minor league seasons. Though the A's rallied to win the game in extra innings, Grove was overmatched that day and struggled for most of his rookie season, finishing with a 4.75 ERA that would be the worst of his career. His struggles ended there, however, as he led the American League in ERA in 1926 and went on to have one of the finest pitching careers in the game's history, winning 300 games and being elected to the Hall of Fame.

Team: Texas Rangers Opponent: Minnesota Twins Date: June 27, 1973 Line: 5 IP, 1 H, 2 R, 0 HR, 7 BB, 8 K, W

The first pitcher ever taken with the top overall pick in the amateur draft (Strasburg was the 14th, 12 of whom were drafted out of college), hard-throwing lefty David Clyde went directly from his Houston high school to the major league mound in Arlington, making his major league debut just 22 days after the draft. Though Rangers' manager Whitey Herzog protested, team owner Bob Short was more interested in his gate receipts than the proper way to develop a gifted 18-year-old, even one he had paid $150,000 to sign. Short was rewarded with the team's best attendance of the year as 35,698 turned out to see the phenom in his debut and nearly as many came out to see the rookie's second start, but Clyde's drawing power eroded quickly as it became apparent that he alone couldn't pull the Rangers out of last place. Worse yet, Herzog's initial objections were proven right. Clyde didn't pitch a minor league game until 1975, and he suffered for the lack of development time, struggling in his first two major league seasons before his arm began to hurt in his third. After going 7-17 with a 4.66 ERA as a teenager, Clyde pitched in just one major league game between the ages of 20 and 22. His last appearance in the bigs came when he was just 24, and he was out of professional baseball before his 27th birthday.

Team: New York Mets Opponent: Houston Astros Date: April 7, 1984 Line: 5 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 0 HR, 2 BB, 5 K, W

The fifth-overall pick in the 1982 draft out of Tampa's Hillsborough High School, Gooden struck out 300 men in 191 innings in A-ball in his full-season debut in 1983, and in 1984, he broke camp with the Mets as a 19-year-old who had never pitched as high as Double-A. Gooden was sharp in his debut and, after a hiccup in his second start (3 1/3 IP, seven hits and six runs, all earned, while taking the loss against the Cubs), he went on to enjoy one of the best starts to a pitching career in major league history. In 1984, Gooden won the Rookie of the Year award on the strength of a 17-9 record, 2.60 ERA, and a league-leading 276 strikeouts (in 218 innings!). In 1985, he won the NL Cy Young award and the major league pitching triple crown, leading the majors in wins (24 against just four losses), ERA (1.53, second only to Bob Gibson's 1.12 in 1968 since the arrival of the live-ball era in 1920) and strikeouts (268). Things went downhill from there, in part because of the 744 2/3 innings Gooden threw over three seasons prior to his 22nd birthday, but also because they couldn't go up. The impossibly high expectations Gooden created for himself led to a vicious cycle of self-destructive behavior including alcohol and drug addictions which continue to disrupt his life to this day.

Team: Chicago Cubs Opponent: Pittsburgh Pirates Date: May 22, 2002 Line: 6 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 1 HR, 2 BB, 10 K, W

The parallels between Prior and Strasburg are plentiful. Both are San Diego natives. Both were drafted out of southern California colleges (USC for Prior, San Diego State for Strasburg). Strasburg was the top pick in the 2009 draft. Prior, who went second in 2001 and likely would have gone first had St. Paul native Joe Mauer not been such a perfect fit for the Twins at the top spot. Both signed record-setting major league deals (Strasburg's $15.1 million, four-year deal breaking the $10.5 million record set by Prior's five-year contract). Both made their regular-season professional debuts at Double-A the April after being drafted and were quickly promoted to Triple-A. Prior made his major league debut at the age of 21 and made quick work of a weak-hitting Pirates team. The Nationals are hoping Strasburg will do the same against Pittsburgh tonight.

Prior was just short of dominant as a rookie, striking out 11.3 men per nine innings and 3.87 men for every man he walked while posting a 3.32 ERA. He was even better in 2003, posting a 4.90 K/BB while going 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA for a Cubs team that came heartbreakingly close to the franchise's first pennant since 1945. That last was Prior's undoing. Though his mechanics were considered flawless, Prior was unable to withstand the riding he took from manager Dusty Baker down the stretch that season. In his last six starts of the 2003 regular season, Prior threw 131, 129, 109, 124, 131, and 133 pitches, each of those outings coming after he had exceeded his inning total from the previous season. Prior then threw 133 in his first postseason start and worked past 110 pitches in each of his next two as well. Prior spent the first two months of 2004, as well as parts of the next two seasons, on the disabled list before an endless series of arm problems effectively ended his major league career shy of his 26th birthday. Fortunately, the Nationals are among the many teams to have learned from the Cubs' mistakes.

Team: San Francisco Giants Opponent: Philadelphia Phillies Date: May 6, 2007 Line: 4 1/3 IP, 5 H, 5 R, 2 HR, 5 BB, 5 K, ND

The last highly-touted pitching prospect to dominate the minor leagues as completely as Strasburg has this year was Lincecum, another college product. The 10th pick in the 2006 draft out of the University of Washington, Lincecum dominated low- and high-A ball that year, then started 2007, his first full professional season, by going 4-0 with a 0.29 ERA and 13.4 K/9 in five Triple-A starts before making his big league debut on May 6. It's thus informative to see that the 22-year-old Lincecum struggled in his debut, though one must also consider that he was facing the best offense in the league, not one of the worst. Lincecum was solid as a rookie, but didn't show his true greatness until his sophomore season in 2008, when he won the first of two consecutive NL Cy Young awards.

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