ERIK CASTRO has aWilson A2000 catcher's mitt, black with tan webbing, made of steerhide sosupple it can absorb a 102-mph fastball and barely make a sound. Castro is acatcher for San Diego State, and on the night of March 13, as the Aztecs hostedUNLV, he dropped into his crouch and extended his A2000 into the light fog atTony Gwynn Stadium. San Diego State junior righthander Stephen Strasburg, he ofthe 102-mph heater, aimed for the leather. As horsehide met steerhide, a stringon the glove snapped. The webbing came unhinged. Castro, oblivious to thetattered piece of equipment dangling from his left hand, threw the ball back toStrasburg. The Aztecs ace fired again, and by the grace of God, the pitch wasfouled away. "If not," Castro says, "I think I would havedied." Chances are, his chest protector would have saved him, but his pointis well-taken: Stephen Strasburg has killer stuff.
This is an article from the March 30, 2009 issue
Over a 40-yearcareer a major league scout of amateur talent will raise his radar gun perhapsa million times at high school and college games. And almost every time onlytwo digits will pop up on his screen. So in the rare instance when he sees athird digit, it is like witnessing the elusive green flash that follows aperfect sunset. After Strasburg touched 101 in the first inning against UNLV,scouts behind home plate reacted with a torrent of hyperbole. Or was ithyperbole? "I've never seen anyone like him," said one. "He's aonce-in-a-lifetime talent." "He doesn't need the minor leagues,"added another. "He's ready for the majors right now." "The onlypitcher I could even compare him to is Roger Clemens in his heyday,"offered a third. "This is something you have to see to believe."
Strasburg isfamous for those absurd radar-gun readings, for the friction his fingersgenerate when they rub off the seams, for the hiss the ball makes when it zipsout of his hand. There are a handful of major leaguers who reach triple digits(Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers, Bobby Jenks of the Chicago White Sox,to name two), but few of them have his delicate touch. Says San Diego Padresgeneral manager Kevin Towers, who watched Strasburg in an intrasquad game thisseason, "He was dominating, as dominating as anyone I've seen. He reallyhas no flaws. You see guys throw in the high 90s, but they usually have no ideawhere it's going. He can throw in the high 90s comfortably and locate it."Strasburg fanned 23 batters in a game last season, and at week's end he was4--0 with a 1.57 ERA, but his most startling stat may be his careerstrikeout-to-walk ratio: 254 to 38, in 168 2/3 innings.
Strasburg cuts amenacing figure on the mound—6'4", 220 pounds, in a black hat, blackjersey, black pants, black spikes and bright-red stirrups showing over hiscalves. He has piercing powder-blue eyes, long blond sideburns and arms thatnearly reach his kneecaps. At the top of his delivery he turns his left hipslightly toward third base, as if pulling back a bow and arrow, and thenunloads with a high three-quarter release. "It's so smooth," saysAztecs pitching coach Rusty Filter, "it doesn't look like he's throwing ashard as he is." Strasburg has two fastballs, a riding four-seamer that hasbeen clocked at 102 and a sinking two-seamer that tops out only in the mid-90s.That sort of heat can make good hitters look slow; Strasburg's sweeping slidercan make them look silly. "We were actually sitting on the fastball,"says UNLV designated hitter Ryan Thornton. "I know that sounds crazy,sitting on a pitch that's 100 miles an hour. But it just shows you how toughhis slider is."
Strasburg is theconsensus No. 1 pick in this year's draft—if the Washington Nationals don'ttake him, they might get chased back to Montreal—but he is almost as unaffectedby status as his coach, former Padres star Tony Gwynn. Strasburg was the onlycollegian on the U.S. Olympic team last summer, but when he got the invitation,he assumed he was just going to be a practice player, not the starter of asemifinal game against Cuba. He has declined to take out an insurance policy onhimself, and against UNLV he slid into first base to make a putout, tweakinghis hamstring. After San Diego State home games he does fieldwork with histeammates, sweeping dirt off the mound and using his hands to pack it with wetclay. "I'm just a college kid," says Strasburg, albeit one who isadvised by superagent Scott Boras.
IN THE modernsports world it is hard to find a phenom who comes out of nowhere. Professionalscouting is too organized, amateur athletics too sophisticated. But Strasburgwon just one game as a junior at West Hills High outside San Diego, wentundrafted after his senior year and failed to impress Gwynn. "To me, hedidn't have a lot of confidence," Gwynn recalls. Strasburg was 250 pounds,had never lifted a weight in his life, and after practice every day went toEstrada's Taco Shop and scarfed down a California burrito, packed with carneasada, and french fries. He could throw 90, but he was so out of shape that hisknees would occasionally buckle during games, forcing coaches to help him offthe field. "He would just collapse," says his high school coach, ScottHopgood. "It was scary. His knees couldn't support his weight." Whenscouts asked Hopgood to name his best pitcher, he pointed them to a polishedlefty named Aaron Richardson.
"I knoweverybody now is asking, 'How did you miss on Stephen Strasburg in highschool?'" says a major league scout. "But we didn't miss. He was softin every way." Strasburg would bark at infielders after errors and atumpires after bad calls. If he gave up a couple of hits and the opposing dugoutstarted to chirp, he had a tendency to overthrow his fastball, which would thenflatten out and get smacked even harder. "I told scouts not to draftme," Strasburg says. "I wasn't ready."
Filter saw thoseradar-gun readings, that swimmer's wingspan, and persuaded Gwynn to take him.During Strasburg's first night on campus it became clear he was a littledifferent. He was living in a dorm at University Towers and was asleep at 10:30p.m. when his roommate stumbled in with five female students. Strasburg wasaghast. A few days later he moved in with his mother and grandmother, who sharea nearby house. Then by the end of Strasburg's second week, when conditioningbegan, he was ready to drop out of school altogether. "I was thisclose," he says, holding his thumb next to his index finger. "I wasgoing to find a job. We have a Home Depot and a Lowe's near our house."
The manresponsible for almost driving Strasburg away, and then for whipping him intoshape, is Dave Ohton, the Aztecs' barrel-chested strength coach. When MarshallFaulk was playing football at the school, Ohton called him "a visitor"because he was so extraordinarily gifted and physically mature, he had to be analien life force. Strasburg was no visitor. When the baseball team convened inSeptember 2007 for preseason workouts on the football field, Ohton had theplayers warm up by running from the goal line to the 50 and back. Strasburgcould not get through four sprints without vomiting. "Is there somethingwrong with you?" Ohton asked. "Do you have a medicalcondition?"
Strasburg bowedhis head, his chubby cheeks a bright red. "Just out of shape," he said.Ohton nicknamed him Slothburg, which he later shortened to Sloth. "Idemoralized this young man," Ohton says. "I didn't even want him aroundthe other players. I had never seen a college athlete who was as far behind ashe was. I didn't think it was possible to be that bad." After two weeks ofconditioning and purging Strasburg passed Ohton on the stairs in the weightroom. "I appreciate your staying on top of me," Strasburg said. Ohtonpaused at the top of the staircase. "Sloth," he said, "you reallyshould consider quitting. You're not going to make it."
Recalling thatexchange, Ohton shakes his head. "Well," he says, "I guess heshoved those words up my ass." Strasburg thought about the scouts who hadignored him, the strength coach who had slighted him, and decided he was notready to mix paint at Home Depot just yet. Not only did Strasburg stick withOhton's conditioning program, but he also added Bikram yoga classes to improvehis concentration and flexibility. His mother, Kathleen Swett, a retireddietitian, taught him how to cook his own burritos. When Strasburg arrived atSan Diego State, he could do one bench press at 115 pounds; now he can do 21reps at 135 pounds. He leg-pressed 560 pounds; now he leg-presses 1,200 pounds.His vertical jump was 24 inches; now it is 35 inches. His gut turned into asix-pack, then into an eight-pack. "He'd come in the door and lift up hisshirt and say, 'Check it out,'" says Swett.
Of course, givenbaseball's recent history, all radical changes in body type are viewed withsuspicion. But Strasburg did not get bigger. He got leaner. "I take a lotof pride in doing this naturally," he says. "It's hard work that'spaying off—not cheating the game."
AS THE poundsdropped, the velocity rose. He went from the low 90s in the fall of hisfreshman year to the mid-90s in the spring. He was clocked at 98 in the summerwith the Torrington (Conn.) Twisters of the New England Collegiate BaseballLeague. In the fall of his sophomore year he hit 100 for the first time, and bythe fall of his junior year he was at 101. Such spikes are unusual, but notunheard of. Chicago Cubs righthander Rich Harden went from 95 to 100 in oneyear—between 2002 and '03, when he was in the A's minor league system—duemostly to better conditioning and a couple of changes to his mechanics. "Atthat age a lot of people are still maturing physically," says RickPeterson, who was Harden's pitching coach with the A's. "You might have aguy who was shaving once a week and is now shaving every day." Indeed,Strasburg said he only started getting facial hair in his senior year of highschool. Now he has a goatee.
Given that he isonly 20, Strasburg may have a couple of more miles per hour left in his rightarm, but nobody with his best interests at heart wants to see him throw anyharder. "It's better to throw 105 than 95, but it's better to throw 95 andbe on the field than be in a trainer's room telling people you used to throw105," says Glenn Fleisig, a research director at American Sports MedicineInstitute in Birmingham who studies pitching. "The harder you throw, themore success you have, but you're pushing your body to higher demand."Strasburg is already stretching his limits. A person throwing a 90-mph fastballrotates his arm at a rate of 22 times per second. The more rotations, the morestrain. As Stephen's father, Jim, a real estate developer, puts it, "I'mhoping he's maxed out." No one understands better than Gwynn what's atstake. He only uses Strasburg once a week and limits him to about 115 pitches."I won't let him leave his arm here," Gwynn says.
Recession or not,assuming Strasburg is represented by Boras, he should clear $10 million when heis drafted in June, and he could conceivably be in the majors by September. TheSan Diego area has produced some pitching treasures in the past decade—BarryZito, Aaron Harang, Mark Prior, Cole Hamels and Joel Zumaya—none of whom landedwith their hometown team. Missing out on this one would sting the Padres evenmore. When Strasburg turned two, he wore a Padres helmet and Gwynn wristbandsto his birthday party, where he was presented with a Gwynn poster. Two yearsago, when Gwynn was inducted into the Hall of Fame, Strasburg took a day offfrom summer ball to be at the ceremony in Cooperstown, N.Y. His favorite playeris San Diego ace Jake Peavy, and after beating UNLV, he wore a Padres hat whilesigning autographs. If the Padres had lost four more games last season, theywould have the first pick and could snag Strasburg. Instead, they pick thirdand have to hope that the Nationals and the Seattle Mariners get spooked byBoras. "A lot of things can happen before the draft," says WashingtonG.M. Mike Rizzo. "There is a chance of injury. Other players come to theforefront. But we are scouting him diligently. He is a very impressivepackage."
The scouts onlyhave one question left: How might Strasburg cope with failure in the bigleagues? Will he bark at an infielder or scream at an umpire or overthrow hisfastball? When Strasburg has given up hits—which isn't often, considering hehad whiffed 74 batters in 34 1/3 innings through Sunday—he usually just lashesout at himself, and he does it in the dugout rather than on the mound. Thathigh school kid with the chubby cheeks and rabbit ears is gone, replaced by thebest amateur pitcher in the country and perhaps one of the best ever, with a102-mph fastball and so much else. At San Diego State, there's a name for aperson like this.
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