The first I saw of Stephen Strasburg was grainy footage from his start against Utah in April 2008. He was only seven games into his career as a college starter, his undistinguished high school career nearly seeing him drop out of the sport together before a surprise turnaround installed him as San Diego State’s closer in 2007. But by game seven it was clear that the pudgy kid throwing in the 80s that scouts remembered from high school was gone, replaced by something that was, frankly, terrifying.
It’s impossible to scout a player (or even get particularly close) from a 2008-era Youtube video. But it’s also impossible to miss just how good Strasburg was in that game. A shapely, unhittable curve complemented a fastball so vicious several Utes seemed to swing after that ball was already in catcher Erik Castro’s glove. Which, when you saw the sort of readings Strasburg was getting from the radar guns that year, makes sense. He was hitting 100 mph multiple times every game, and he was going up against hitters from the Mountain West.
Strasburg logged 23 strikeouts that night, a number which hadn’t been touched in almost 30 years. He allowed one hit, a weak chopper over the mound. And while it was a standout display for him — he never got very close to 23 strikeouts again — the really scary thing was that it wasn’t out of the norm for his 2008. Strasburg was just about the best pitcher NCAA baseball had ever seen. And then he got better.
In his draft year, Strasburg struck out 195 batters in 109 innings. He walked 19, and put up an ERA of 1.32. According to Utah shortstop Michael Beltran, when they had to face Strasburg a year after their demolition, their coaches replaced the normally-detailed opposition scouting report with a succinct and futile ‘good luck’.
Strasburg was perhaps the best prospect in draft history when the Washington Nationals picked him first overall in the 2009 draft. Baseball America raved, ranking his fastball and breaking ball top of the draft class and claiming that another prospect of his calibre might not come around for 30 years.
As it turned out, Strasburg wasn’t even the best prospect taken in 2009. That honor belongs to Mike Trout, then a relatively unheralded and under-scouted high schooler from New Jersey, taken 24 picks later. But he was a transcendent talent nonetheless. Rushed to the majors, he struck out 14 Pirates against no walks in his first start, less than a year after being drafted. He stood poised to claim what felt — especially to those of us who’d been following his career from close to the beginning — like his rightful role as the top pitcher in the game.
And then he didn’t. A combination of injuries and fatigue and fatigue from injuries kept Strasburg stubbornly in the second tier. An ace, yes, and one teams would be happy to have, but not exactly marquee viewing. Sharing a team with Max Scherzer, who’s picked up two Cy Youngs and finished second once in five seasons with the Nats, hasn’t helped either. While Strasburg has undoubtedly been a very fine pitcher for a very long time, there a sense of unfulfilled destiny hung over him for a long time.
In the 2019 playoffs, Strasburg dragged Washington to their first ever World Series victory. He didn’t do so alone, of course: Scherzer was with him every step of the way, as was Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto and Howie Kendrick. But it was Strasburg who took centre stage. He helped pull the Nationals back from the brink when they were on the verge of losing the wild card game to the Milwaukee Brewers, making a three-inning relief appearance which stabilized the situation for long enough for the bats to mount a comeback.
In two starts against the LA Dodgers in the NLDS, Strasburg struck out 17, allowing four runs. When the Nats swept the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS, he took the hill for Game 3, and promptly struck out 12 for no walks in an 8-1 win. And in the World Series, against the best offense in baseball, Strasburg ground out two key victories, including a Game 6 win with Washington pushed to the brink. His reward? A World Series MVP.
Strasburg may never be the best pitcher in baseball, as he threatened so menacingly a decade ago. But during this playoff run, he was probably the most important. This might not have been quite the Strasburg we were promised, but it’s pretty damn close.