There is no professional American sport where it is harder to make the leap from top prospect to star player than baseball. Just the recent history of the sport is littered with the dead careers of Brandon Wood and Matt LaPorta and Chad Mottola, top draft picks and highly touted prospects who couldn't make the fine adjustments to dominate the majors as they did every other level. The further you go back, the more names there are that simply couldn’t cut it, despite all expectations to the contrary.
Though prospects by their nature are suspect, we can’t help but expect big things from guys with big minors numbers, especially from high draft picks. Yet much more often than prospects in other sports, they fail. That failure takes many forms, not always that of Wood or LaPorta. Sometimes it's about failing to be what you were "supposed to be". Sometimes it’s just about being a bit disappointing. Across baseball, few encapsulate the struggle of expectation versus reality more than Stephen Strasburg.
In late 2012, if you met a Nationals fan and told them that by 2017 they would have a pitcher who had won two Cy Young Awards, had thrown a 20-strikeout game and two no-hitters, they would probably be happy but somewhat unsurprised. That's because 2012 was the year their phenom hurler Stephen Strasburg had a 3.14 ERA and struck out 197 batters in 159 innings in his first season back from Tommy John surgery. The team shut him down in late August, ostensibly to preserve his long-term health and a future of dominance. Obviously, this fan would think, the front office was right in that move, and they had a star for a decade and it was worth the what-ifs that followed the Nats' playoff flameout that October.
This hypothetical fan might be gobsmacked that their team's most awarded and accomplished pitcher was in fact Max Scherzer, who wouldn't even join the team until 2014. Scherzer has been excellent as a Nat, sure. But this was supposed to be what Strasburg became.
It’s odd to consider when you take a step back. Strasburg has been pretty excellent in his career with the Nationals. In a vacuum, having a pitcher who is still just 27, who is under team control until 2023 (sort of, there are opt-outs after 2018 and ‘19) at a pretty team-friendly rate, and who can casually touch 98mph after 100 pitches, is a great thing. The lean righty has earned nearly 20 WAR in his eight major-league seasons, already more than the average career total for number one overall picks. He’s never had an ERA over 3.60, never had an FIP over 3.27, and has struck out at least 37.6 percent of hitters every year. Quite simply, he’s been a great pitcher by almost any measure. And again, he’s still just 27.
The problem is, we don’t operate in a vacuum. Remember when Strasburg debuted against the Pirates back in 2010? It feels like just yesterday when he mowed down 14 batters in seven innings of work, allowing a pair of runs and giving Washington baseball a jolt it hadn’t felt since what, the late 60’s? More than Ryan Zimmerman before him or Bryce Harper later, this was what put the Nationals on the map. Strasburg was a total rock star and sent shockwaves through the baseball world. It was appointment viewing every time he took the mound, until his elbow blew up. Even that didn’t defuse expectations; it just delayed gratification and heightened the excitement for Nats fans and any other people who enjoy a pan-generational talent.
And when Strasburg came back, he was really good again, stringing together three seasons with 92 total starts, a 3.10 ERA, a 3.00 FIP, and finally cracking the 200-inning mark in his age-25 season. He did nothing to reduce the lofty perception of and expectations for him by earning Cy Young votes in 2014 and leading the NL in starts and strikeouts. Nobody really shakes the specter of the injury bug, especially guys with elbow surgery. But he looked so good, and was so durable, one had every right to believe (or at least hope) that Strasburg had gotten past the limitations of injury.
Then, making us all look like fools for hoping, came two years of injury-riddled trips to the DL and back, interspersed with rank excellence. In the 275 innings he pitched in 2015 and 2016 he held a 2.81 FIP, struck out 30.1 percent of hitters while walking only 6.2 percent, basically pitching like the ace he was supposed to be when he could take the mound.
But there was still an expectation of something greater to come. He started on Opening Day three years in a row before turning 25, and as Washington Post writer Barry Sverluga put it in 2015, he got this role “not so much for what he had done but for what he might do”. That is a perfect summation of Strasburg to this day.
In 2017, he’s doing it again. Strasburg is second in the NL with a 3.01 FIP, he’s striking out 28.5 percent of hitters he faces, and he’s forcing a 46.2 percent ground ball rate, his best since 2013.
And he finds himself in an even stranger place in the public sphere. Despite his success, it’s obvious Strasburg is not the best pitcher on the staff anymore. The only player in the NL with a better FIP is his decorated teammate Max Scherzer. Strasburg still throws hard, but even that’s lost some of its luster now that seemingly everyone is a fireballer. He’s on pace (assuming health, which of course is a foolish enterprise for any pitcher) for a 6 or so WAR season, which for various reasons would be his best yet. And yet somehow — perhaps because of the presence of Scherzer, perhaps because of the stature of the Nats these days — it’s just not enough. Strasburg can’t just be great. He needs to be amazing.
Baseball is the sport, as said before, that’s hard to master early. It's perhaps easier for pitchers than hitters, since they get to be the aggressor and set the tone. But even great pitchers generally struggle when young. Randy Johnson didn’t find himself till he was nearly 30. Sandy Koufax was slightly above average, until suddenly he was gifted with the left arm of God. Strasburg is the outlier, just as Harper is and to a degree Mike Trout was. He was instantly great. Most star pitchers debut when they're approaching their mid-20’s. Strasburg was too good, too quickly to be judged normally.
It could be worse. Strasburg could just be totally terrible, just another footnote, a player to be cited as a cautionary tale each June as the draft approached. If we can divorce ourselves from expecting no-hit outings and record-setting strikeout totals (basically, not expect him to be Scherzer), and just see him as merely a standout pitcher in an era of pitching excellence, we'd all be better for it.
That likely won't happen. Which will make Strasburg’s (hopefully) inevitable Cy Young awards and October feats feel simply par for the course, rather than properly incredible. It's tough when you're supposed to be a minor god, and are merely superhuman. This is the minute pain of being Stephen Strasburg.
All stats through June 14.
Merritt Rohlfing writes for Beyond the Box Score, Let’s Go Tribe, and other, more secret websites. The cat is still small. Ask for updates @merrittrohlfing.