The spotlight has followed Stephen Strasburg since he was drafted No. 1 overall by the Washington Nationals, since he struck out 14 batters in his big-league debut, since he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline “National Treasure.”
It’s always been there, this spotlight, and 2015 is no different. Entering Sunday’s game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Strasburg was 0-1 with a 6.75 ERA in two starts. He had allowed 19 hits in 10 2/3 innings with three walks and 10 strikeouts. He had not lived up to expectations so far this season.
Then again, consider what those expectations have become.
Strasburg’s majestic major league debut at Nationals Park in 2010 propelled him from future star to potential legend. Ever since, it seems like the baseball world has been waiting for some sort of breakout season, waiting for him to take his place among the sport’s elite. Because his contract is set to expire in 2016, many Nationals fans are looking for Strasburg to make that leap now, proving himself worthy of a long-term extension.
Obscured by these expectations is the fact that over the past three years, few pitchers have been better than Strasburg. In the three-year period from 2012 to 2014, he ranks third in the majors with a 10.17 strikeout/walk ratio, just behind new teammate Max Scherzer, and 15th in the league with a 3.10 ERA, ahead of Scherzer, Cliff Lee, Yu Darvish and James Shields, among others.
According to FanGraphs.com, he has accounted for 11.8 wins above replacement in that three-year span, which ranks 14th in the majors.
“I think Strassy’s right there other than the fact that he doesn’t have 20 wins on his record,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said last week. “His ERA’s been right there, hasn’t it? His strikeouts have been right there, haven’t they? Everything else has been there. So we kind of look at it and say, ‘Boy, we’re waiting for this big thing to happen.’ Well, he’s been awfully good. Really good. So hopefully, if that’s what it takes for people to see — all the wins and all that? Great. Hopefully that happens.”
Late last week, Strasburg said he believes something changed in 2014. For the first time in the majors, he threw 200-plus innings. It allowed him to hone a year-round routine entering this season, a comfort he said comes with age and “being around enough to kind of get the kid gloves off, I guess.”
“You know what’s asked of you,” Strasburg said. “You know you’re supposed to go out there and throw 200-something innings every year, and I think the biggest thing is just developing that strength and that conditioning to stay durable and stay healthy. I think I figured some things out last year and I just wanted to build off of those. Nothing really pitching-wise. It was more so just having that routine set in place where I know what I need to do when I’m feeling like this the next day, when to back off, when to push it a little bit more.”
For the past three years, Strasburg has dealt with the spotlight, and pressure, that comes with being a No. 1 starter. He started Opening Day and was expected to lead a pitching staff that grew increasingly dominant with the additions of Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister. When Scherzer signed a $210 million contract this winter, Strasburg was moved to No. 3 in the rotation, something that could help ease the pressure on him this season.
Catcher Wilson Ramos said the rotation spot hasn’t changed Strasburg’s demeanor, nor the pitcher’s expectations for himself.
“To me, he look like No. 1 pitcher,” Ramos said earlier this month. “He needs to be the same guy. I know he feel probably pressure because all the eyes, all the fans want to see Stephen Strasburg, Stephen Strasburg. Probably he feel a little bit of pressure in that. But to me, he just need to go out there and do what he need to do. He don’t need to do nothing more.”
When asked about pressure, Strasburg shrugged. He’s been asked this question dozens of times since he was drafted No. 1 overall in 2009, and he will be asked it again before his career is over. He always goes back to advice he was given by the late Tony Gwynn, a Hall of Famer player with the San Diego Padres and Strasburg’s coach at San Diego State.
“He always put it like this: What would you rather be doing? Would you rather be batting .350, everybody talking about you, or would you rather be batting .200 with nobody talking about you?” Strasburg said. “As a competitor, you want to go out there and be the best that you can be. With that said, there’s going to be people out there expecting you to do certain things and trying to tell you what you’re not good at. Those are the things that you really have to learn to flush out the window and just keep moving forward, keep trying to get better.”