What Took You So Long?

June 07, 2010
June 07, 2010

Table of Contents
June 7, 2010


What Took You So Long?

A year after he was the No. 1 pick, Stephen Strasburg is ready to join the Show. Memo to those who think he can't possibly live up to the hype: Wait till you see him pitch

This is an article from the June 7, 2010 issue

Joe Altobelli stands in the press box at Frontier Field in his adopted hometown of Rochester, N.Y., and he looks through the windows, down at the field, as a sellout crowd pours in. Altobelli—he's a week away from his 78th birthday—retired as a television announcer before the year began, but he cannot miss this. Yesterday's thunderstorm has rushed through, and blue skies cover upstate New York, and the Triple A Red Wings are about to host the Syracuse Chiefs. And Stephen Strasburg is pitching.

Altobelli cannot help himself. He starts to tell Herb Score stories. Altobelli knew Score back at the beginning, back when they were both starting out in Cleveland. They were close friends—Altobelli a gritty young first baseman, Score a brilliant young pitcher. Well, brilliant does not quite cover it. Score in those days had pretty much the greatest arm anyone had seen. He threw impossibly hard. In his rookie year for the Indians, 1955, he became the first starter in baseball history to strike out more than one batter per inning over a full season. Altobelli is telling the stories for anyone to listen, but then he stops and looks back on the field.

"Herb Score had some kind of arm," he says dreamily. "Like this kid."

This is what Stephen Strasburg does. He makes old baseball fans reminisce. He makes young fans dream. He makes scouts reach for ever grander words of praise. Strasburg has been the talk of baseball since the Nationals made him the top pick in the draft last June, and he is not yet 22 and has not thrown a single major league pitch. That will soon change: The Nationals haven't made an official announcement, but Strasburg is expected to start for them soon, perhaps at home against the Pirates on June 8. Whenever it is, it will be the most hyped pitching debut the game has ever seen.

This is not only because of Strasburg's near-comic-book pitching powers: a 100-mph fastball, a terror-inducing curveball, a changeup that former major league pitcher Glen Perkins, now with Rochester, simply calls "a Lincecum" after changeup wizard and two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum of the Giants. Nor is it only because Strasburg has shown control and command far beyond his years. Or because, as Rochester manager Tom Nieto says, "the kid's a horse." Nor is it only because Strasburg has proved to be almost unhittable in the minor leagues after being almost unhittable at San Diego State after being almost unhittable at the 2008 Olympics.

No, the biggest reason Strasburg makes everyone who sees him starry-eyed is this: He's as good as the hype. He might be even better. Strasburg has simply blown through minor league hitters. He started the season with the Double A Harrisburg (Pa.) Senators and dominated: In five starts he went 3--1 with a 1.64 ERA, 27 strikeouts and only six walks in 22 innings. On May 4 he was bumped up to Triple A, and he has been even better with Syracuse than he was in Harrisburg. He didn't allow a run until his fourth start, and after five outings he was 3--1 with a 1.27 ERA.

Mechanically, Strasburg arrived in the minor leagues as basically a finished product. He has been using his time on the farm to concentrate on being consistent with his command—to "pour strikes," he says—and work on little details such as pitching out of the stretch and fielding his position. But on the mound, the pitcher who's been embarrassing professional hitters looks a lot like he did on draft day. As Twins catching prospect Jose Morales said after facing Strasburg in Rochester, "We heard a lot about him ... and he more than lived up to it."

By now everyone knows Strasburg's story: He won just one game as a high school junior at West Hills, outside of San Diego. He was not drafted after his senior year. He disliked college life at San Diego State so much that he moved out of the dorms and back in with his mother and grandmother, and he was thisclose to quitting school and getting a job at Lowe's or The Home Depot.

Then he emerged—magically, it seemed to scouts and fans, though Strasburg says he just dedicated himself to conditioning and to baseball. "I'm a serious guy when it comes to pitching," he says, and that part of him came out at San Diego State. He was throwing 100 mph by his sophomore season. He was the best prospect in the land before his junior year even began. By the end of that season he was being called by some the best pitching prospect in the history of the game. He signed with Washington for a draft record $15.1 million over four years.

And then, if anything, the hype raged even hotter. The Nationals have tried their best to shield Strasburg: They want him talking to the media only on days he pitches, and they have kept him on a strict pitch count. In early May he was pulled from a Triple A game after throwing 80 pitches—even though he had a no-hitter going through six innings.

The Nats, in other words, aren't taking any chances—and no one can blame them. Not a lot has gone right for Washington baseball in, well, 75 years. So, no, the Nationals are not going to rush Strasburg to the big leagues. They will not talk about their Strasburg plan, but it's pretty clear that one of the reasons they are being so cautious is that they want to delay the start of Strasburg's arbitration clock: If he gets enough service time this year, he could be eligible for arbitration after the 2012 season rather than the 2013 season. That could cost the Nationals several million extra dollars. They will wait.

The interesting thing is that while the careful handling of Strasburg is meant to ease the pressure on him, it has only increased the hype around him. His minor league starts have become major events: He has pitched in front of sellout crowds in Harrisburg and Rochester and in front of the two biggest crowds ever to watch baseball in Syracuse. STRASBURG T-shirts were sold in Rochester. There was an eBay frenzy over a Stephen Strasburg Bowman Chrome "Superfractor" baseball card; the winning bid was $16,403. Former major league ace Curt Schilling said he had never seen anyone quite like him. Strasburg, Schilling said, could be the best pitcher in the bigs the day he arrives.

When rumors swirled that Strasburg would make his debut on June 4, tickets for that game were gobbled up by hungry Washington fans. When word then leaked out that, no, he would probably pitch later in that homestand, there was some anger about the money spent on June 4 tickets— followed by another flurry of ticket buying.

Strasburg is at the heart of D.C.'s sports hopes. He seems equipped to handle it. He's quiet, distant. He calls himself a homebody (his wife, Rachel, travels everywhere with him), and he seems strikingly unimpressed with himself. "I haven't proven anything yet," he says when asked how it felt to get a standing ovation from his opponents' fans in Rochester.

"I know I still have a lot to learn," he said after making his third Triple A start without allowing a run.

"All that stuff will take care of itself," he says when asked if he's impatient to get to the big leagues.

That stuff will take care of itself, yes, and soon. Until then, Stephen Strasburg travels around on minor league buses and strikes out minor league hitters and inspires memories and optimism and tall tales wherever he goes.

"You know why there's so much talk about this kid?" Altobelli says. "It's because they don't make them like him anymore. He comes right at you. That's how people used to pitch. He's like the old days."

Now on

For more from Joe Posnanski on Stephen Strasburg's minor league tour, go to

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PHOTOPhotograph by CHUCK SOLOMONCOMIN' AT YA Strasburg will attack big league hitters with a 100-mph fastball and with a changeup that some compare with Lincecum's.PHOTOPhotograph by CHUCK SOLOMONCHIEF ATTRACTION Strasburg has drawn record crowds during his short but scintillating minor league stint.