Let's Not Get Carried Away

Washington's Stephen Strasburg lived up to the hype in his first major league outing, but that's not good enough to put him in the Hall of Fame - yet. There's still a lot for him to accomplish if he's going to have the career he's supposed to have.

Seemingly everyone, from Jayson Stark to Bill Chuck, from Matt Coyne to hacks who write for The Sporting News and the AP, is drooling over Stephen Strasburg today. Some have already punched his ticket to Cooperstown , without bothering with little details like completing a major league career. Yes, he had an impressive major league debut, 14Ks in seven innings is impressive for anyone, anywhere, but let's not get carried away. Let's, to turn Chuck's headline around, Curb Our Enthusiasm, for at least, oh, a few… years.

Yes, a few years. Not starts, not weeks, not months, years. Because in baseball, to quote a pretty good pitcher, Joaquin Andujar, you just never know. And you particularly never know about young pitchers. Even without looking at historical precedents for Strasburg's debut, consider these codicils to his first start, and his first season.

One: It would have been more impressive if he'd done this against a major league team. The Poughkeepsie Pirates are now 23-35, and have run off  17 straight losing seasons, with the odds of making it 18 looking better by the minute. The lineup that Strasburg faced last night included such household names as Neil Walker (and he had the highest OPS of the bunch), Andy LaRoche, Ronnie Cedeno and Jason Jaramillo. In other words, he was basically facing just another Triple A lineup.

Two: Strasburg never struck out more than nine batters in any of his 11 minor league starts. The number of pitchers who can dominate on the major league level more than they did on the minor league level is very small.

Three: The lineup behind Strasburg, excepting Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham, is not going to make anyone forget the 1929 Athletics. In other words, he's got to be close to this good to win many games with a lineup behind him that lost more than 100 times last year.

So there are three good reasons to curb your enthusiasm. Baseball history provides five more. Strasburg became the seventh pitcher to strike out 12 or more batters in his major league debut. Looking back at the record, five of the other six give good reason to pause before jumping on the Strasburg bandwagon.

Leading the list are two pitchers who each struck out 15 in their debuts… two of the more ill-fated pitchers in major league history. The Dodgers Karl Spooner struck out 15 members of the New York Giants on Sept. 22, 1954. The Astros J.R. Richard struck out 15 members of the San Francisco version of those Giants on Sept. 5, 1971.

Spooner, although pitching against a pennant-winning team, was also pitching to a pennant-winning team that had already clinched the pennant. More significantly, the 23 year old Spooner hurt his shoulder in Spring Training the next year, and ended up pitching just 117 major league innings, going 10-6 with 105 strikeouts and a 133 ERA+. He's one of the great "ifs" of major league history, but, the point is, that's exactly what he became – and "if," not a "star."

Richard made it a little further, ending his career in the middle of his 10th season in 1980, when he suffered a stroke from which he never recovered sufficiently to return to the majors. He was on his way to a Hall of Fame career; a 107-71 record with 1493 Ks in 1606 innings, two strikeout titles with more than 300 Ks in each, and four-and-half absolutely dominant years, when it all came crashing down. He might have been one of the greatest pitchers ever, but, the point is, that's exactly what he was, a might-have-been, not a Hall of Famer.

After Strasburg's 14 comes a 13 strikeout game in 1937 by Cliff Melton. Maybe you know him better by his nickname, "Mickey Mouse." (He had very prominent ears, Don Mossi ears.) Melton struck out 13 Braves on Apr. 25, 1937. His career lasted just eight years (although he was somewhat older than the other pitchers mentioned herein – he was 25 when he broke in) and produced an 86-80 record with just 660 Ks in 1454 innings. His ERA+ was a decent 109. He was a left-handed pitcher with a crossfire pitch who was apparently what they call "sneaky fast," and he must have indeed snuck up on the Braves, who obviously had never seen him before. However, for his career, he was your average, journeyman major league pitcher.

A similar story can be told about Elmer Myers. Pitching for an absolutely awful 1915 Philadelphia Athletics team at the very end of the season (Oct. 5, to be exact), he fanned a dozen Senators, even though this was an era when there weren't many strikeouts. Like Melton, he wasn't really that good a pitcher, and, like Melton, he threw hard without seeming to do so, and, like Melton, he probably used his opponents' unfamiliarity with his pitching style to fool a large number of hitters that day. He finished his eight year career (only five seasons as a regular) with a 55-72 record, only 428 strikeouts in 1102 innings, and an ERA+ of just 80.

Then there was Steve Woodard. A fifth round draft choice of the Brewers, he struck out a dozen Blue Jays on July 28, 1997, and pretty much never had a day like that again, although he lasted in the majors until 2003 and was even pitching briefly in the minors as late as 2008. His seven year major league career ended up with a 32-36 record, 464 strikeouts in 667 innings, and an ERA+ of 92. It is also worth noting that he only struck out 690 batters in 904 minor league innings. As noted, pitchers are seldom more dominant in the long haul in the majors than they were in the minors. Outside of that one game, he was hardly a dominant pitcher, in either the minors or the majors.

The one exception in this group is the pitcher who struck out a dozen Phillies on July 19, 1960, in one of the more noted debuts by a future Hall of Famer. Juan Marichal (although oddly he never won a strikeout title) did indeed go on to use his baffling delivery – throwing four or five pitches from a variety of angles; everything from over the top to sidearm – to pitch his way to the Hall of Fame. And, maybe Stephen Strasburg will too… but let's have him do it for a couple more years before we anoint him as such, OK?


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