- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 19, 2009

PHOENIX

The first thing everyone notices about Stephen Strasburg is the fastball. Really, it’s not even fair to call it a simple fastball, as though it were some 92 mph four-seamer coming out of the hand of Joe Blanton or Jeff Suppan. No, this is a high-and-tight heater that regularly reaches triple digits, yet emerges from Strasburg’s right arm so effortlessly that batters don’t realize its lethality until it’s too late.

The next thing everyone notices about Strasburg is the breaking ball. It’s a slider. Or maybe a curveball. Perhaps it’s a hybrid of the two, a “slurve.” Whatever it is, it’s devastating, a power off-speed pitch that darts down and away from right-handed batters and when thrown properly is an even better pitch than his fastball.

Strasburg’s change-up isn’t half-bad either. He doesn’t use it much, but when he does, it’s a quality major league pitch that might be thrown harder than some guys’ fastball. Yet it’s a good 10 mph slower than his heater.

Needless to say, the top prospect in the Washington Nationals’ farm system - and perhaps in all of baseball - has the stuff to be a dominant big leaguer.

But there’s another aspect of Strasburg’s game, something that becomes evident about the 21-year-old once the wow factor of his repertoire wears off. The kid knows how to pitch. And what he doesn’t know yet, he wants to learn.

It’s one thing to have the golden arm. It’s another to understand how to use it. And as those who have been watching Strasburg for the past month in the Arizona Fall League have come to realize, his brain might be an even stronger weapon than his arm.

“He’s just got a tremendous awareness of how to make adjustments,” said Gary Cathcart, manager of the Phoenix Desert Dogs and the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, the Toronto Blue Jays’ Class AA club. “He’s a real student. He pays attention. I’m as impressed with all the other stuff, if not more so, than the physical ability.”

Strasburg’s performance in the AFL suggests he already has the mental side of pitching down, even though he still hasn’t appeared in a regular-season minor league game. In five starts with the Desert Dogs, he’s 4-1 with a 4.26 ERA. Throw out his one subpar outing - more on that in a moment - and he’s been downright unstoppable, going 4-0 with a 1.10 ERA and allowing only 14 men to reach base in 16 1/3 innings.

Strasburg, the No. 1 pick in this summer’s draft, is doing this not against fellow first-time pros but rather against the top upper-level prospects in baseball. AFL rosters are loaded with premier Class AA and Class AAA talent, guys on the verge of the big leagues.

Which is why he understands his mental approach to pitching at this level is just as important as his physical gifts.

“That’s the thing,” Strasburg said. “All these guys have seen ‘plus’ fastballs. They’ve seen plus breaking balls. They’ve seen good change-ups. Here, you have to go out there and actually pitch. Because if you’re just out there throwing fastballs 95-plus right down the middle, sooner or later they’re going to hit it a long way.”

They did hit it a long way Oct. 22, Strasburg’s lone rough outing of the AFL season and really his lone substandard appearance in years. Facing the Peoria Javelinas, he was tagged for eight runs (seven earned) and seven hits in 2 2/3 innings. Three Javelinas players hit home runs, the only homers he has allowed in a league known for inflated offense.

The Strasburg detractors, those who want to see the richest and most hyped draft pick in baseball history fail, got their wish. And fans at the Peoria Sports Complex let the right-hander hear it with catcalls and snide remarks.

But as the rest of that loss played out, and after it was over, Strasburg displayed uncommon poise and maturity.

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