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
, 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…
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
version of those Giants on Sept. 5, 1971.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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?