Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The 10 Roadblocks Separating Stephen Strasburg from the MLB Hall of Fame

Stephen Strasburg (L), the top selection in the 2009 First Year Player Draft, holds his jersey after he was introduced as the newest member of the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park in Washington on August 21, 2009. With Strasburg is Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. UPI/Alexis C. Glenn Photo via Newscom

Tonight, one of the most hyped rookies in major league history launches his career. Stephen Strasburg makes his big league debut for the Washington Nationals when he takes the ball to pitch against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The attention and interest focused on him is unprecedented. Besides playing in front of a capacity crowd in the nation's capital, the MLB Network will broadcast the game nationally with their "A" team of Bob Costas, Jim Kaat, and John Smoltz calling the action.

After being chosen with the first pick in last year's draft, Strasburg has dazzled in the minor's, displaying the dominant stuff that has had the baseball world buzzing since early in his college career. While scouts and baseball pundits drooled over him, the Nats had the courage to select the Scott Boras represented prospect and pony up a record four year, $15.1 million contract.

And, make no mistake, the hulking right-hander looks and acts the part. The 21-year old phenom stands 6' 4" tall with a solid 220 pound frame capable of registering triple digits on the radar gun.

Besides his explosive 100-mph fastball, Strasburg possesses a classic, hard-breaking curve ball and a change-up that has already been labeled a "Lincecum" as its deceptiveness rivals that of the signature pitch of the Giants two-time defending Cy Young Award winner. And, importantly, the rookie displays a demeanor and command more typical of an accomplished veteran hurler.

Rave Reviews and Spectacular Results

In an age of combine stats and radar guns, Strasburg has been more than a workout warrior and figurative phenom as he has backed up the hype between the white lines with a 7-2 record and 1.30 ERA in his brief minor league career. These numbers are strikingly similar to those he posted at San Diego State over his final two seasons (21-4, 1.43 ERA) on his way to winning the hearts of big league scouts.

He has been so impressive that former bloody sock World Series hero and aspiring politician Curt Schilling recently said that Strasburg could be baseball's best pitcher upon arrival. No pressure or anything.

The unprecedented exhuberance of Schilling and a host of baseball experts seemingly has the Nationals rookie headed to Cooperstown before he has fired his first big league pitch.

Watching Strasburg's spectacular stuff and grounded demeanor, it is easy for many to jump on the band wagon- but there is a considerable distance between tonight's major league debut in DC and the historic New York baseball shrine.

With no intent to diminish the possibility of that happening, there are many obstacles that Strasburg will need to overcome in the process. So what could stand in the way of the upstart pitcher eventually being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame?

1. Adjustments

With technology, advance scouting, and specialized coaching— Major League Baseball continues to be a game of adjustments. From bullpen binoculars to base coach stop watches to digital video breakdown, every move and idiosyncrasy of a player is meticulously studied.

Teams and hitters will search for weaknesses and clues to help them combat Strasburg's amazing arsenal of pitches. They will look for tendencies and little pitch tipping mechanisms such as where he stands on the rubber, how he grips the ball, and more.

A batter may struggle to hit a curve when guarding against a 100-mph fastball, but might square it up if he is reasonably certain that is what's coming.

Hitters will continually make adjustments to improve their chances. No matter how good his stuff, Strasburg will need to do the same.

Jimmy Rollins and Matt Stairs served up proof positive against Jonathan Broxton in the last two NLCS series that big league hitters can catch-up to the heat. Despite a blazing fastball and sharp hook, maintaining unpredictability will be a key for Strasburg.

2. Command/Location

Great stuff alone is rarely enough to succeed at the big league level without good command. The baseball history books are littered with hard throwing phenoms that never achieved a success level commensurate with their fan fare.

Perhaps the most famous comparison is the Texas Ranger's top selection in the 1973 draft. David Clyde was a can't miss 18-year old Texan who turned out to be an out and out flop. In his defense, he was immediately rushed to the bigs and never developed any of the fine art of pitching.

Strasburg is older, more seasoned, and seemingly better prepared to enter the major league cauldron, but the Clyde experience highlights that success is not built on electric stuff alone.

3. Priorities/ Overconfidence/ Complacency

A non-stop torrent of accolades and gratuitous special treatment have taken down other promising careers in a number of professional sports. Overconfidence and complacency can surely derail an athlete regardless of his physical tools and superior skills.

Sports Center has unfortunately been filled with stories about fallen stars who have taken bad turns or fallen prey to their own press clippings. Although in no way wanting to taint Strasburg, recently fallen heroes such as Tiger Woods and Ben Roethlisberger have highlighted how their sense of entitlement changed them and led them down an unfortunate path.

Many professional athletes through the years have suffered diminished performance after signing a large contract and perhaps losing the drive that lifted up their market value. Additionally, an abundance of players who started to buy into their own accolades or lost focus to the many distractions surrounding them have dropped back to the pack— or worse.

All indications are that Strasburg has remained grounded and driven despite signing a record contract. It will be important that he surround himself with the right people to help him keep that intact.

4. Longevity

As father time takes its toll, it becomes increasingly difficult for an aging pitcher to maintain the same velocity that propelled him early in his career.

There have been some notable exceptions such as Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, but his ability to maintain his overpowering velocity into his 40's is clearly an aberration. Other pitchers such as Roger Clemens who were able to maintain at an advanced age have also been tainted by performance enhancing drugs allegations.

With MLB's clamp down on PED's, Strasburg will have to maintain longevity the old fashioned way. It would be unreasonable to expect that he will be lighting up the JUGS gun with triple digits as his career wears on, so success is going to require the subtle transition to the finer art of pitching.

Many Cooperstown inductees have been able to do just that, relying on improved location, command, and guile. Will Strasburg lean too heavily on his raw skills or continually evolve to make this same transition?

5. Defense Behind Him

A key reason that the Washington Nationals landed Strasburg with last year's top pick is that they were the worst fielding team in the National League (and perhaps all of baseball) in 2008.

Last season, they were clearly the worst in the game— by a long shot. Their 143 errors were 19 more than the next futile team and 48 more than the league average. And, that does not even speak to the number of missed cut-off men, throws to the wrong bases, outs that were played into hits, double plays not turned, etc.

The good news for the rookie pitcher is that he joins a Nats team in 2010 that is improved defensively. The bad news is that they are still the worst statistically in baseball.

In fact, they are on a pace to exceed last season's fielding futility. Again, on the plus side though, the team has clearly improved its range up the middle with Nyjer Morgan, Ian Desmond, and Ivan Rodriguez.

Poor fielding has the potential to drag down the results, if not the overall performance, of an excellent pitcher. Win totals go down and ERA's go up.

Additionally, players not making plays behind a pitcher— especially systemically— can frustrate to the point of lost focus. It has the potential to create a downward spiral of performance.

6. Run Support

Career victories is the statistic most heavily weighted factor for starting pitchers by Hall of Fame voters. Additionally, annual win totals translate into resume building recognitions such as All-Star appearances and Cy Young Awards.

Simply put— lack of run support equals diminished victory totals.

After a strong start offensively, the Nationals currently sit 11th in the NL in runs scored.

Besides playing for a lower scoring ball club, Strasburg might also have to deal with a couple other phenomenon's. Teams often score less behind their top starting pitchers.

Some of that can be attributed to the human psyche that whispers to hitters that this pitcher does not need as many runs. Surely a key part of it, though, is that No. 1 pitchers tend to match up against each other.

This means that in order to register wins, Strasburg will have to be a little bit better than his fellow starters— and a little bit better than the aces he faces.

Help could be on the way with the Nationals selecting Bryce Harper with the first overall pick in last night's draft, although he will need more time to develop than Strasburg. The 17-year old catcher (soon to be outfielder) is being billed as baseball's "LeBron" and figures to anchor the Nats line-up with his prodigious power.

7. Bullpen

Unless you have a workhorse with superior command like Roy Halladay, today's game necessitates a strong bullpen to win. Roughly 3 percent of games are completed by the starter.

In order to compile big win totals, Strasburg will almost assuredly need to be backed by a solid relief corps. His team's ability to hold and close out a hard earned lead will be instrumental in his own ability to compile the statistics that voters use as a compass.

The Nationals currently sport the major's leader in saves. Matt Capps, who signed a one-year contract in the offseason, has already successfully closed out 18 games. Overall, the club's bullpen has been solid, ranking 10th in baseball with a 3.73 ERA.

With Capps under contract for only 2010, and last year's other first round pick and closer of the future, Drew Storen, already in the bigs— there could be a changing of the guard in the near future.

Storen could make an immediate splash and aid Strasburg. Or, as a similarly young player, he could take his lumps and potentially hurt Strasburg's results.

8. Organizational Handling/ Coaching

Thus far, the Nationals have taken a cautious approach with their rookie phenom despite considerable sentiment that he was major league ready. They have limited innings and pitches while executing a deliberate developmental plan.

How they stick to that once he joins the big club remains to be seen. Part of the discipline they have shown relates to the economics of not triggering the pitcher's arbitration rights.

Once the club finds itself fighting to make the playoffs or when the financial issue is gone, will they take the same cautious route?

And, what guidance and support will Strasburg get from the Nats coaches and staff regarding training, injury prevention, and development?

Lastly, how will the young pitcher be handled? Will he be pulled before he has a chance to undo a strong performance in order to build confidence? Will the pitcher eventually rack up high pitch counts and innings to the point of burn out, or even injury?

Right now, the Nationals are protecting their investment and pushing out the next big pay day. Will their handling of Strasburg change when they shift into trying to extract as much value as they can from a presumably large investment? This is not to say they will mishandle the situation, but surely other organizations have done exactly that with budding stars.

9. Mental Toughness

A Major League Baseball season is a marathon with many ups and downs. The game's top players typically possess a common trait that contributes to that stature— namely mental toughness.

Teams can vacillate from winning streaks to losing skeins without notice. Hitters can transition from "en fuego" to "cold as ice" in one at bat. And, pitchers can go from making getting hitters out look exceedingly easy to hitting the showers early the next time out.

The best players have a way of staying grounded and maintaining an even keel. They also possess the mental toughness to fight through adversity and ultimately get righted.

At this point in his career through college and the minors, Strasburg has faced little, if any, adveristy. The long season and caliber of competition in the big leagues will surely test him. No one can predict how he will respond.

10. Health

Perhaps the biggest unknown and the largest obstacle will be health. This is especially true for a pitcher pushing the limits, hurling a baseball 60' 6" thousands of times each season.

Shoulders and elbows were not necessarily designed to fire a baseball at maximum velocity and imparting various spins. A large number of athletes at this taxing position have experienced shortened or diminished careers as their bodies have succumbed to the demands of the role.

The Nationals organization has been very cognizant of this reality and have proceeded very carefully with their prized prospect. They will continue to limit his pitch counts and the number of innings that he throws, especially at this stage of his career.

That will help, but it is impossible to predict if, and when, some part of his body might breakdown. The Rangers' Clyde, Athletics' Todd Van Poppel, Orioles' Ben McDonald and Cubs' Mark Prior were top picks that all entered baseball with "can't miss," rave reviews— and all suffered arm ailments that contributed to very disappointing careers.

The Final Word

When Stephen Strasburg takes the mound tonight to launch his major league career, an unprecedented number of eyes will be on him.

Considering that both teams are buried in the standings, it is clear that the sell-out crowd and national television audience are drawn to watch arguably the most celebrated pitching prospect in history.

Curiosity to see how this extraordinary young player fares against major league competition is tremendously abundant. Many believe that they will be witnessing the launch of a Hall of Fame career.

By all accounts, it appears that Strasburg has the talent.

In order to realize his perceived potential, though, the pitcher will need to personally navigate many possible roadblocks— and get some help along the way.

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