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Pitching’s Bright Stars Sometimes Flame Out
June 7, 2009
Pitching’s Bright Stars Sometimes Flame Out
By ALAN SCHWARZ
When baseball’s amateur draft begins Tuesday night, Stephen Strasburg, a right-handed pitcher from San Diego State, is expected to be taken by the Washington Nationals with the first pick. This is because going any earlier than first would require a pretty nifty reversal of time-space, the only power with which Strasburg’s 102-mile-per-hour fastball has not yet been credited.
Scouts have generally called Strasburg the best amateur pitching prospect they have seen. This is the rough equivalent of being rated the world’s No. 1 hydrogen dirigible. For all the promise Strasburg has shown, having names like McDonald, Prior and Taylor in one’s family tree would leave any pitcher digging for adoption papers.
Twenty years ago, Louisiana State’s Ben McDonald was roundly hailed as the best college pitching prospect ever; he won 78 major league games before retiring at 30 with a bum shoulder. No one took McDonald’s consensus best-ever tag until 2001, when Mark Prior of the University of Southern California was such a steely-eyed, bazooka-armed, strike-throwing machine that he was nicknamed Robopitcher. Prior won 18 games for the Chicago Cubs two years later before an avalanche of injuries left him pitching’s Venus de Milo.
Three high school pitchers during this period also were electric enough to prompt best-ever hyperbole: Todd Van Poppel in 1990, Brien Taylor in 1991 and Matt White in 1996. Van Poppel won just 40 games in a meandering career, and Taylor and White descended into the moat of the minor leagues, never to be heard from again.
Strasburg, who turns 21 next month, is in fact the sixth once-in-a-lifetime pitcher of his own short lifetime. But this has barely distracted the raving scouts, whose job is to look forward, not back. This time, they mean it. Really.
“It’s not the scout’s job to be tempered,” said Gary Hughes of the Cubs, who has been scouting players for 43 years. “The odds of this guy being an outstanding major league pitcher are off the chart. He’s Secretariat. He’s gonna pay $2.20 to win. If you don’t get an electric feeling, you don’t have a heartbeat.”
Strasburg does have a mind-boggling package of skills for a draft-eligible pitcher. A solid 6 feet 4 inches and 220 pounds, he routinely throws in the upper 90s and has hit 102 and 103 at times. He shows excellent control of several pitches. He went 13-1 with a 1.32 earned run average this spring for the Aztecs, striking out a staggering 195 batters in 109 innings, with 19 walks.
Strasburg’s hard-bargaining agent, Scott Boras, has called him a unique talent and will almost certainly seek a draft-record signing bonus of $15 million with a guaranteed major league deal on top of it. The almost certainly empty threat of signing with a Japanese team has come up, too. To students of draft history, this all sounds slightly familiar.
Throughout 1988 and 1989, McDonald emerged at L.S.U. as the most enticing college pitching prospect of since the draft began in 1965. He stood 6-7, threw up to 98 m.p.h. and had fantastic control of a hard curveball and changeup.
“He probably has better stuff than anyone on the Baltimore staff,” the Los Angeles Dodgers’ scouting director, Ben Wade, told The Washington Post in 1989. “He’s damn near a complete pitcher right now. I mean, I don’t know the last time I graded a pitcher so highly.”
Like Strasburg, McDonald spent more than a year as the shoo-in to be the first pick of the draft, even when he stumbled at the end of his junior season (Strasburg lost his final start to Virginia in the N.C.A.A. regionals). Boras, then a young and emerging agent, also described McDonald as a unique talent, and even threatened to jump to a rumored third major league. McDonald eventually received a three-year major league contract worth $800,000 — unprecedented for any amateur ballplayer not named Bo Jackson.
“It puts a lot of pressure on a 21-year-old kid,” said McDonald, now 41 and living in his hometown, Denham Springs, La. “You start to believe things. I remember when Frank Robinson, my manager, told me, ‘I think you’re gonna win 20 games.’ I’m like, ‘I don’t even know how to pitch yet.’ I remember walking out of the office thinking, holy cow, that’s a lot of pressure. I worry for Strasburg in that regard.”
McDonald was called up that September — later than Strasburg is expected to be this summer — and threw an 85-pitch shutout in his first big-league start the next July. He won 13 or 14 games each year from 1992 through 1994, but never emerged as a true pitching force before his shoulder gave out. Looking back, McDonald says he thinks his arm used up most of its bullets before he even turned pro.
“In high school, I threw 221 pitches in 13 innings in a state semifinal game, then the next day closed the last four innings of the championship game — and that really wasn’t anything unusual,” said McDonald, who in college would start on one day and relieve the next. “From my sophomore year at L.S.U. through the Olympics and then through my junior season, I threw 352 innings in basically a 14-month period. Obviously, that didn’t help my arm, either. Thank God they aren’t doing that anymore.”
Right after McDonald, Van Poppel (1990), Taylor (1991) and White (1996) were successively called the best high school pitching prospects of the draft era, and all received record-breaking contracts while being represented by Boras.
But Van Poppel’s contract-mandated call-ups to Oakland stunted his growth from the start; a shoulder injury sustained in a fight tore up Taylor’s ticket to Yankee Stadium; and White, whom scouts praised less publicly in part because of Van Poppel’s and Taylor’s failures, never made it to Tampa Bay.
Because they are typically younger, require minor league seasoning and are more susceptible to career-changing injuries, baseball’s top draft picks are far more risky than their counterparts from basketball and football. From 1980 through 2003, the top five selections from the N.B.A. draft played in 299 All-Star games, the N.F.L. 289. Baseball’s top five picks played in only 118, just 24 by pitchers.
One of them was Prior, during his 18-win 2003 season when he appeared to be justifying his best-ever reviews. Prior was rated even more highly than McDonald not just because of his repertory (great fastball with command and secondary pitches) and statistics (a 15-1, 1.69 record with 202 strikeouts and 18 walks in 139 innings, almost exactly Strasburg’s numbers), but also a shockingly solid body with calves like rump roasts. Prior was 6-5, two inches less gangly than McDonald, with superior mechanics, intelligence and movement on his fastball.
Drafted No. 2 over all by the Chicago Cubs — the Minnesota Twins preferred the local catching star Joe Mauer at No. 1 — Prior quickly became an ace. He averaged 126 pitches per start during the September 2003 pennant push, for which Manager Dusty Baker was criticized. Starting in 2004, injuries to Prior’s Achilles’ tendon, elbow and shoulder ravaged him; he has not thrown a professional pitch since August 2006 and remains on the disabled list in the San Diego Padres’ farm system.
“The whole ‘I’m a robot’ thing — I’m human, I get tired,” Prior warned in March 2005, before his major injuries began.
“My mechanics get inefficient at times. When your mechanics get off a little bit, it doesn’t take much for something to go wrong. For every one of us, one pitch, one throw, anything can happen.”
Scouts know this, of course. But as comets like McDonald, Prior and now Strasburg streak across baseball’s sky, it’s far more fun to watch than worry. This draft is for dreams. And amnesiacs.
“It’s hard to remember the guys who failed,” Hughes said. “This game has got so much failure involved in it. You want to go out and get excited.”