The Debut of the Baseball Jesus

June 8, 2010

As most baseball fans probably know, tonight will be the debut of Stephen Strasburg aka The Greatest Baseball Prospect Ever aka The Baseball Jesus aka The Man Who Will Save Baseball in Washington.

For those who aren’t familar with him, Strasburg is believed by some to be the most talented pitcher ever.  He can throw his fastball over 100 MPH and has good secondary pitches to supplement it.  He has blown away hitters in both college and the minor leagues.  And tonight, he finally shows what he can do against major leaguers.  (Or at least against a reasonable fascimile in the Pittsburgh Pirates)

How did the Washington Nationals get such a talented prospect?  By being really bad in the 2008 season.  Due to their league worst record, they were awarded the first pick in the draft.  Strasburg seemed like an obvious choice, but as often happens in baseball, money turned a sure thing into a question mark. 

Strasburg’s agent is Scott Boras who is known for trying (and usually succeeding) to get every possible dollar for his clients.  There was some speculation that the Nats, worried about not being able to sign him, would select a different player. 

Doing so would have essentially killed the remainder of the Nats’ fan base.  After four years of mostly horrendous baseball, the fans needed a sign of hope.  For the team to not select the best prospect in years, it would have sent the message that the team wasn’t committed to building a championship team, and they were more concerned with money than winning.

When draft day came, the Nats made the right move.  They selected Strasburg, and then eventually signed him to a record deal.  Some criticized the team for overspending, but they really had no choice.  By not signing him and letting him re-enter the draft the following year, it would have been a bigger blow to the fans had they not drafted him at all.  And some team would have given Strasburg the money he wanted.  In baseball, there’s almost always a team willing to give a player the money he wants.

Immediately, there was renewed interest in the Nationals.  The team had finally gotten attention for something besides constant losing and misspelled uniforms.  Despite the fact that Strasburg wouldn’t debut for another season, at least the Nats now had a potential franchise player and a tangible piece of a brighter future. 

Some speculated that Strasburg might actually debut in the majors at the beginning of the 2010 season.  But that didn’t seem to ever really be a consideration for the Nats, and he started out in the minors.

One concern was that Strasburg needed some time to adjust to professional baseball.  He had never before been part of a set pitching rotation where he would pitch every five days.  He also needed to get used to constant life on the road, and the new challenges that a professional player faces.

Of course, the more pressing concern for the Nats was the financial side.  By delaying his debut until June, the Nats have pushed back when Strasburg is eligible for arbitration and free agency.  I’m not going to get into too much detail about the baseball arbitration process, but it essentially means that Strasburg is locked into his current deal (which by no means is small) for another three years.

By delaying his debut, the team has received some much needed mid-season buzz.  Normally, most people wouldn’t have cared that much about the Nationals right now.  But because of Strasburg’s debut, the focus of the baseball nation is squarely on Washington.  They’ve sold out tonight’s game, and can probably expect large crowds for his next few home starts as well.

Now that he’s here, what can we expect from Baseball Jesus?

He has been built up so much that some people expect him to be an immediate star.  They figure that since he dominated both college hitters and minor league hitters, he should be able to do the same against major leaguers.

They have to remember that major leaguers aren’t going to be fazed by him.  I’m guessing that many of the batters he faced in the minors were a bit starstruck, since they had never before faced a pitcher of his caliber.  On the other hand, major league batters are used to facing Cy Young Award winners like Tim Lincecum, Roy Halladay, and Johan Santana.  If they’ve faced those guys, why should they be intimidated by a rookie?  And yes, he may throw 100+ MPH, but so do other pitchers in the majors.

On the other hand, popular belief states that a pitcher typically has the advantage the first time he faces a batter.  Even a heavily touted rookie like Strasburg doesn’t have nearly as much video footage on him as most major league pitchers.  And since Strasburg hasn’t pitched in a major league game before, it’s more difficult to know how he will react in any given situation.  Plus, it is difficult for a hitter to know exactly what a pitcher’s pitches look like until he’s faced him.

And even though major league hitters have seen great pitchers before, it doesn’t mean that they’ll have any success against him.  If Strasburg’s stuff is as good as reported, he will surely be able to get big league hitters out.

One thing we definitely shouldn’t expect is a long outing.  Strasburg, like most young pitchers, is on a very restrictive pitch count.  With so much money invested in these pitchers (and Strasburg in particular) teams don’t take any chances with them.  They strictly limit the amount of pitches they throw so as to minimize the chances of injury.

Personally, I feel that strategy is almost counter effective.  I’d rather build up a young pitcher’s arm as much as possible.  At some point in his career, a good young pitcher is going to see a large increase in innings pitched.  Usually, this does take a toll on the pitcher the following season (See Cole Hamels in 2009 for an example) but wouldn’t you rather this adjustment period take place earlier in his career rather than later?

So unless Strasburg is especially efficient with his pitches, he’ll probably only last about six innings at the most.  And for those of you who are hoping his arrival will help fuel a Nats playoff push, I have bad news for you.  The team will probably shut him down at the end of the season (Once again, trying to “preserve” his arm) regardless of his or the team’s success.

You can also expect lines at the team’s merchandise stands in the sixth inning.  I believe that team’s aren’t allowed to sell merchandise featuring a player until they’ve played an official game.  Once five innings are complete, the game is official, and the team will be permitted to sell Strasburg merchandise.  I’m thinking that more than just a few people will walk away with Strasburg T-shirt jerseys tonight.

In the past, the Nats haven’t handled it very well on the few occassions when they get large crowds to the stadium.  I guess it is to be expected since they don’t often draw well, which means when they need extra staff, those workers are going to be mostly untrained.  So, don’t expect things to run that smoothly, and you should give yourself some extra time when heading to the concession stands.

You also shouldn’t necessarily expect to see the game in high definition in the Washington area.  The Nats and Orioles rotate their games between the MASN and MASN2 cable networks.  While both stations have HD equivalents, many local cable companies only carry MASN HD, and not MASN2 HD. 

Of course, the Nats would naturally be scheduled to be on MASN2 tonight.  It is sure to be the most watched Nats game in four years, and most local viewers won’t even be able to see it in high def.  Nationally, the MLB network is broadcasting the game in HD, but that will be blacked out locally.

And so the Stephen Strasburg era begins.  Will he live up to the hype and be a star who carries the Nationals franchise to success?  Or will he end up as another touted prospect who couldn’t match the expectations placed on him?  Only time will tell.


One comment

  1. The game is also on the MLB network in high def. I get MLB, and both MASNs in HD.

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