In case you've been living under a rock, or every time you begin to look you get interrupted by Kanye West, Stephen Strasburg is the best pitching prospect in baseball. Selected number one overall in this past June's MLB draft out of San Diego State, Strasburg has the stuff to immediately step into a Major League rotation -- especially one as poor as the Nationals'.
Just recently Strasburg made his professional pitching debut, working two innings in the Instructional League versus Detroit's affiliate. While I was unable to see Strasburg's pro outing in person, I was able to catch four of his starts for the Aztecs this spring.
The first thing that jumps out at you about Strasburg is the electricity which flows from his powerful right arm. Anyone who strikes out 23 batters in a game, as Strasburg did as a sophomore, has good stuff. His college strikeout totals are legendary (195 in 108 innings last spring) and that trend should continue at the sport's highest level.
The showstopper is Strasburg's four-seam fastball. Radar gun readings are often misreported and taken out of context. Let me state clearly Stephen Strasburg does NOT throw 103 mph (as Peter Gomez "reported" on ESPN) or 102 or 101. In the four full games I saw Strasburg pitch this spring his fastball topped out at 99 mph and usually sat in the 95-97 mph range. He may occasionally touch triple digits, but it is usually in the mid to upper 90's. Strasburg likes to elevate his four-seamer, blowing it by hitters slightly out of the zone. While his velocity is often exaggerated, Strasburg's four-seam fastball is true plus-plus pitch.
While the four-seamer gets the hyperbole, Strasburg's two-seam fastball is his primary offering. Sitting 90-93 mph Strasburg's two-seam fastball acts like sort of an off-speed pitch when hitters have to gear up for upper 90's heat. The two-seamer has terrific late movement and bites like a hard sinker. While fans and prospect wonks tend to focus on Strasburg's ability to rack up K's, he should also be a strong ground-ball pitcher -- 58.5% of his batted ball outs came on the ground last spring. Working off his two-seamer, Strasburg may not break any radar guns but he induces lots of weak contact, keeps the ball in the yard, and keeps his pitch count down. Strasburg's sinking fastball is a plus pitch, at least.
Strasburg calls his primary breaking ball a slider, most scouts call it a curve, but batters call it nasty. Sitting in the low 80's the pitch has very late 11/7 or 12/6 break. The breaker looks like a fastball until very late in it's flight path and has big-time movement. Strasburg's slider/curve was the most inconsistent of his three primary pitches, as he had the most trouble commanding it and would miss with it most often. Still, the good breakers out-numbered the poor ones and the offering has definite swing-and-miss ability.
Strasburg also throws a change, but sparingly. He usually commands his three-pitch mix very well, which adds to the effectiveness of each pitch. Overall, Strasburg has about as good pure stuff as you could hope for in a young pitcher. He projects to be able to get plenty of strikeouts and ground balls while walking few. You can't really ask for anything better.
Imperfect pitching mechanics are the only reservation I have about Stephen Strasburg's long-term potential.
Strasburg begins his windup with a high leg kick that brings his knee up to the middle of his chest, right underneath his glove. He then lowers his leg, beginning his stride to the plate. Strasburg separates his hands (ball from the glove) near his waist and takes the ball slightly behind his back (adding some length to his delivery). Strasburg also "picks the ball up" with his elbow, instead of having the ball above the elbow early in the windup, this creates some potentially serious timing problems.
At foot plant, Strasburg's pitching forearm is nearly horizontal with the ball and his elbow both at shoulder height. (Ideally the ball should be in the drive line at this point and the body applying force on the ball towards home plate. Not applying force towards home plate at this point means that extra forces are applied inside the arm, as the rest of the arm is forced to play "catch up" in order for the ball to be projected towards home. In pitching, extra forces and extra stresses mean injuries.) At this point Strasburg also brings both elbows well behind his back in a rather extreme example of scapular loading. This places a lot of stress on smaller, weaker muscles in the upper back and shoulder.
As his hips and shoulders fully open, Strasburg's pitching arm goes through severe reverse forearm bounce (where the ball and the pitching elbow, basically go in opposite directions. In Strasburg's case the ball goes from towards third base to first and his elbow goes from towards first to third). Reverse forearm bounce is a major risk factor for elbow injuries including UCL tears which require Tommy John surgery to fix.
Strasburg usually finishes his motion by falling off to the first base side and his pitching arm will bounce back up to shoulder height after release -- a sign of energy still in the arm and is not transmitted to the ball.
As someone who throws upper-90's with command, Strasburg does so some things well. He keeps his hips and shoulders closed very well, which helps generate power and is a primary reason for his outstanding velocity. Strasburg also seems to pronate well on release, which helps reduce much of the stress he puts on his elbow.
While I don't think Strasburg will dominate for 10-15 years as a workhorse starter, almost no one ever does that. Strasburg is good enough right now to get big league hitters out. He's almost assured to be the Nationals' best pitcher next year. For a franchise with as little going for them as the Nationals, Strasburg should be in the big league rotation. Every pitch Strasburg throws is one closer to his arm exploding; those pitches shouldn't be wasted in the minor leagues. Due to his strong pronation, Strasburg should be able to perform at his current abilities for four or five more years at least. Every year he stays healthy Stephen Strasburg should be a Cy Young contender.
Lincoln Hamilton can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.