Stephen Strasburg's rise and the future of the Nationals

May 24, 2010

Washington Post staff writer Dave Sheinin will be online to take your questions about the rise of rookie pitcher Stephen Strasburg, his likely debut date in Washington and the future of the Nationals.

Hello Dave, So the Strasburgeddon has to be the 3rd biggest event, if not the 2nd biggest, in franchise history, right? Behind 1) Opening Day, 2005. 2) Opening Day of Nationals Park, 2008? I've had my tickets for June 4 about a week now -- I'm pretty excited if it turns out I guessed right. And do you think this will be the first game of 30K+ attendance, maybe since 2005, where the vast vast majority of fans will be rooting for the Nats? That is probably the most thrilling part -- unless there's a secret cabal of Reds fans lurking somewhere -- this could be the first game I've been to where the cheers for the Nats will be loud and raucous.

Hey everyone. Greetings from Syracuse. We've got the phenom's ninth minor-league start tonight, his fourth for the Chiefs. But let's get straight to your questions...

Third-biggest event in franchise history? I don't know. This might be heresy, but I think it might be bigger than the opening of Nats Park -- because this will be a national story, whereas the stadium's opening was more of a local one. When Strasburg gets to the bigs, it may be a postseason type of atmosphere, in terms of media coverage.

And it will sell out, make no mistake about it.

 

Once he's called up, is the plan still for him to pitch every 5 days?

I don't know this answer definitively, but I would guess it will be a fluid situation. In other words, you won't be able to simply count ahead every fifth day to find out when he'll be pitching. There may be times, such as an off-day, when the entire rotation is kept in line, and thus he'll get an extra day of rest. There will also be rainouts.

Dave, I've read a lot of conspiracy theories on IMB's about the Nationals letting the June 4 date float so they can sell that date out (looks like they're close) and then actually pitch him on a later date in the homestand and get a second sellout. Sounds plausible (and typically sinister) until you consider that if they pitch him on the 4th they still get a second game in the homestand out of him on the 10th and, presumably, a second sellout. Aside from the ludicrousness of seeing conspiracies surrounding the day a pitcher starts, does the 4th and 10th still look like likely dates for Strasburg's first two starts?

What we've been hearing is that the 4th looks like the date. But I wouldn't go betting my house on it. Remember, they can move it to the 5th and STILL be able to pitch him twice on the homestand (the 5th and the 10th, on normal four days' rest). I understand fans want to give themselves the best odds of catching this debut, but it's all a gamble at this point.

When will the Nationals officially announce that Strasburg's debut date is (probably) June 4? I need to buy my ticket, but I just can't do it on spec.

I'm guessing they will wait until as late as possible to announce it. As in, a couple of days before.

Any inside information on when Strasburg's debut in Washington will be? The 4th is the expected date, but Heyman said he thought it'd be closer to mid-June due to an informal agreement with Boras.

Btw, I really enjoyed both your articles on Strasburg's life in the minors. Keep up the good work.

Anyone have a question that doesn't involve the date of the debut? Sheesh. (But thanks for the nice words.)

Granted, Strasburg's rampage through the minor leagues has been impressive. But can he possibly do anything as an MLB rookie that can justify all the ink the Post has spilled about him the past few months? This seems to typify a recent trend in Post sports coverage which emphasizes depth in a few subjects for which editors perceive reader interest rather than breadth. I frankly don't need to know what Strasburg has for breakfast every morning.

So, are you saying we are mis-reading the level of interest in Strasburg in our region --  and that we're over-covering this story? I don't agree.

Also, I don't recall once mentioning what Strasburg had for breakfast.

 

Until Friday, things seemed to be coalescing around a June 4 Strasburg debut at Nats Park. Then Olsen went on the DL, and it appears that the Nats can go without a 5th starter until May 29. What are the odds that 5th starter is Strasburg, on regular rest after tonight's start?

OK, I'll tackle this one, since it's a different take on the date issue. Interesting question. May 29 would almost certainly put the Nationals past the Super-Two cut-off (google my name and Strasburg and Super-Two if you need to know what I mean by that). So there would be nothing stopping them from calling him up to pitch that game -- other than the fact they want him to debut at home. So I'd say it's possible, but unlikely.

Great coverage, Dave. Strasburg has pretty consistently hovered around 96-98 with his four-seam fastball, not the 100+ he touched at San Diego State. I'm not at all concerned, but is there any reason for this? Just needs to stretch out his arm? Or do the Nationals want him to pull back on the throttle just a bit in order to improve his command? Or were the radar guns out west a bit too frisky?

Great question. The Nationals want him pitching at 96-98, with the ability to dial up an occasional 100 when he needs it. They feel he has better mechanics and command at that velocity.

Will Riggleman be staying true to the pitch/inning limits of Strasburg or will he be given some leeway to stretch Strasburg out as the situation(s) warrant?

There will be probably be a hard-and-fast pitch limit per game (I'm guessing it's 110), and a hard-and-fast innings limit for the season (around 150-160, minors and majors combined). So Riggleman will have some leeway within those confines.

Having watched several of his starts, what do you think Strasburg's best pitch is? Does it vary start to start (as seems to be the case from the write up)?

Great question. Yeah, it varies. In the times I've seen him pitch, at various times it has been the four-seamer, the two-seamer, the curve and the changeup -- basically, all of them. And I give Strasburg (and catcher Carlos Maldonado) for recognizing what is working best that game.

I'll also say this: My favorite pitch is the curve. I can honestly say, without hyperbole, that I have yet to see a single good, aggressive swing against it -- let alone a solid hit.

 

Any word on when Bryce Harper will make his Nats debut?

May 27, 2013.

I definitely read somewhere about Strasburg sitting at his locker eating breakfast. Not saying it was you, but it's out there.

Hmm. You mean someone scooped me on the breakfast angle?

well ... wheaties.

Obviously -- the breakfast of champions.

But if he were a football player for the local professional team, there would be features on him in every section every day. You don't HAVE to read it.

Thank you.

Do you get the sense that Strasburg is still improving?

Absolutely. Put it this way: he's been better in Triple-A than in Double-A. He told me something the other day that was telling. He said different pitching coaches have a way of saying the same thing in different ways, hoping it "clicks" for the pitching. And for whatever reason, the stuff Greg Booker (the Syracuse pitching coach) is saying is clicking for him. 

It seems that in addition to not letting hitters touch the ball, Strasburg has been getting a lot of ground outs. Does this help with the adjustment to the major leagues?

The Nationals want him getting ground balls. That means fewer pitches, more quick innings. He is using the sinker more these days than ever before. He's not in love with the strikeout -- which is a good thing, and something you might not expect from someone blessed with 100-mph velocity. That's going to serve him well in the majors.

Best assignment ever?

You know what? It ranks right up there. I had not spent a lot of time around minor league ball until this assignment, but I'm loving it. And I also love the idea of sinking my teeth into a story for an extended amount of time.

So even though I have to endure the taunts of colleagues who keep asking me when I'm going to get called up to the majors, I'm enjoying my time in the minors.

 

How do you think Strasburg's personality will mesh with the Nats clubhouse? Nyjer's tantrum aside, it looks like these guys get along pretty well. Will an unproven 'star' cause any friction. I guess my question is, would Strasburg done the silver Elvis wig if presented to him?

There's no question he will don the silver Elvis wig. His last start (the one in Rochester) happened to be on the same night Storen wore the wig following his first big league win. I got to break the news to Strasburg, and his eyes totally lit up.

He wants nothing more than to be one of the guys. Obviously, he's different -- in dozens of ways, especially here in the minors. But it's impossible to resent him over the money, or anything else, because he's so humble and so genuine.

 

Just because I've always been a huge fan of the kangaroo court, I wanted to ask this question -- what are some of the things Strasburg has been "convicted" of in the minors?

Basically, he gets punished for any overt display of celebrity, even if it's not his fault. Such as: once, a fan came on the field when some players were throwing in the outfield, to try to get his autograph. That was on Stephen. Or: a Harrisburg player got offered $20 to get Strasburg's autograph. That was on Stephen.

Obviously, it's all in fun.

The Nationals players....the Nationals fans....or the baseball geeks?

I'd go with the Nationals players -- because they have the most at stake here. They want him, like, YESTERDAY.

I saw in your first article that Strasburg signs all balls mailed to him, because he figures anyone who goes to that much trouble should be taken care of. Do you know if he still does that? is there time to mail him one in Syracuse before he gets to the bigs and gets swamped even more?

I have a feeling a lot of people read that and thought the same thing you did -- because he had tons of mail waiting for him when he first got to Syracuse, and much of it appeared to be baseballs.

If you're going to send it to Syracuse, better do it quick. Otherwise, send it to Nats Park, I guess.

just kidding. Do you think it "matters" who catches Stras? Not in his presumptive debut (since Pudge is out), but in general. Does catching him require anything that your average catcher doesn't possess?

Obviously, a better, more experienced catcher will have an effect on Strasburg, but I wouldn't say he requires anything more than anyone else. As I said in Sunday's article, it's like getting behind the wheel of a Lamborghini. He knows what he wants to do, and he'll shake off a sign if it's not what he wants to throw. But it's not like he's a knuckleball guy who requires a special type of catcher.

With only single tickets left for Friday, June 4 and all the sportswriters saying that's the big day, wouldn't it be PR suicide for the Nats to be cute about it and have him debut on Saturday, June 5 instead? They're being too coy for their own good, and if they alienate all the casual fans who are buying tickets, then shame on them. Memo to the Lerners, Kasten and Rizzo -- just man up and say, "If all goes well in his final 2 starts for Syracuse, Strasburg's anticipated MLB debut will be Friday, June 4." That gives them an "out clause" but should preempt any potential PR problems.

I hear you, Section 117. But I wouldn't count on them heeding your advice.

It seems to me that Strasburg has spent a lot of time working on his 2-seam fastball/sinker in the minor leagues. Do you have a sense of that, and how much he throws the 2-seam vs. the 4-seam in game situations?

There are times when it's 50-50, and times when it's 80-20 (in favor of four-seamers). But yeah, he's throwing it quite a bit. And I think it all goes back to the notion of getting ground balls and quick innings.

Let's give a hypothetical. Strasburg pitches on September 1, a complete-game gem to bring the Nats into a tie for the NL Wild Card. Those nine innings bring him up to 163 total innings, minors and majors combined. He's 9-3 for the season, pitching great. Shut him down? What would the Nats have to do PR wise to allow them to do that? And how would fans react if they then lost the Wild Card race -- say, by one game?

They'd shut him down. No question about it. The following six years are more important than that one month.

The most impressive pitch that I've seen isn't Strasburg's four seamer but that knee buckling breaking ball - curve slurve, whatever. You've seen him up close multiple times by now. Is it possible major leaguers can look as lost on that pitch as everyone he's faced so far in the minors?

Yes, it's possible. These guys he's facing in Triple-A are legitimate, borderline-big-league hitters. He made Jacque Jones look bad the other night -- and I understand Jones is 35 now, and not the same hitter he was in his prime. But that's a guy with over 1,000 big league games under his belt.

The problem is, hitters have to "sit" fastball -- otherwise they'd never catch up to it. And they have to "cheat" to get to it. So when he breaks off the curve, they're well into their swing -- and they're toast. I've seen some ugly, ugly hacks against that pitch.

Dave, How has it been in Syracuse/Harrisburg? I know minor league fans foot for the home team more than the owner-franchise, but Strasburg is the biggest star to come throw for the Nats since coming to DC. See many Nationals or Strasburg jerseys out there in the stands?

Yeah, plenty of Nats jerseys and T-shirts, particularly in Harrisburg. (Of course, it's possible many of those fans were DC-area residents who drove up to Harrisburg, as opposed to Harrisburg residents who follow the Nats.)

Is there any chance the Nats draft someone else at this point? (Apparently Harper hit for the cycle over the weekend, and hit 3 homers in another game.) Is there any significant chance he doesn't sign?

I think they draft Harper, and I think he signs. It's been said that Harper has more leverage than Strasburg did at this point a year ago, because theoretically he could go back into the draft three more times. But they didn't go to all those drastic steps -- the GED, the enrolling in Junior College -- to stay in school another year. He'll sign.

How many Strasburg Breakfast searches do you suppose have been run since this chat started? I know of at least one. The B&B looks nice.

That's classic.

I don't know Dave. Do you think that is late enough to avoid Super Two status? ;) (Please note, meant just as tongue in cheek as the answer)

I've seen the 2013 schedule, and the Nats open a homestand on that date.

Do you know if Scott Boras is still involved with Strasburg? Do they still talk? Is he on-board with the June-debut plan?

He's Strasburg's agent. I haven't seen him at any of Strasburg's games, but I've seen one of his lieutenants frequently. It has been reported that there was a handshake deal between Boras and the Nationals about Strasburg's innings limit, but I'm not aware of anything like that. Really, he doesn't have a say in the Nationals' plans for Strasburg's debut.

How much as the addition of Pudge Rodriquez had in the successful development of Nats pitchers this year? And can Strasburg solve world peace on his off days while in DC?

I think he's had a major effect. To a man, everyone in the Nationals' organization raves about Pudge's impact.

As for world peace, I think Storen has a better chance at achieving that.

Is there any truth to the rumor that the Nats could sign Bryce Harper on June 7th and bring him up the next day to replace Pudge?

Why wait until the next day?

Are you going to be the Post's minor league beat reporter when you do this all over again next year with Harper? Has there ever been a franchise that has had back to back draft picks like the Nats? A product of really great luck and really lousy play.

I believe it is unprecedented. Until several years ago, the first pick alternated between the leagues -- worst team in the NL one year, worst team in the AL the next year -- so it would've been impossible to get No. 1 in back-to-back years.

Oh, and not sure what our plans will be with Harper. But it will be a different scenario -- since there won't be the payoff of a mid-season call-up.

How about his hitting. That looks pretty good as well. I saw him at the Altoona stat and when he hit that double he hit it.

He's an athlete. I'm told he's a great golfer -- hits it 300 yards off the tee, naturally. And he can flat-out hit. He takes it seriously -- extra bunting practice, plenty of swings in the cage, etc.

Has Strasburg said anything about the prospect of informal tutoring from Livo and Pudge? I imagine that they could teach him a lot about strategy and pitching effectively without burning out his arm.

He hasn't mentioned it to me, but I'm guessing it's something he has thought about.

Hi Dave really enjoyed your work on Strasburg. He strikes me as the "anti-Haynesworth", i.e. unselfish, mature, with a great deal of clarity on what he is doing professionally and personally. Is this your take as well, and do you believe this will assist him grow in MLB when he encounters the inevitable bad game(s) all major league pitchers have?

I think your reading of him is spot-on. I wrote a story on him this spring, in which I quoted Paul Menhart (the pitching coach at Class A Potomac, and also of Strasburg's Arizona Fall League team). He told me a story: after Strasburg gave up three HRs in an AFL game and got yanked, Menhart let Strasburg sit by himself on the dugout bench for a few minutes, then went over to talk to him. Before Menhart could say anything, Strasburg said: "That will never happen again." Menhart was blown away -- and of course, it has never happened again, to this day.

I'm a big fan of SI's Joe Posnanski and was happy to see him cover Strasburg's last start. Did you read his column, where he essentially compared Strasburg favorably to all-time greats? Amazing writing, as always. I gotta say, having two of my favorite baseball writers both writing about my current favorite player (I know) is awesome. Now you just gotta convince Svrluga to write about baseball again...

I'm honored to be mentioned in the same sentence as Pos. For my money, he is one of the two or three best sportswriters on the planet. So, damn right I read his column. It was awesome. Also, I had lunch with him that day in Rochester. That was awesome, too.

Since you've been around the Eastern League and International League a bit, what's your favorite park so far?

Gotta go with Reading. It's so charming.

Is there any sort of understanding with the Post that you continue to cover Strasburg even after he's called up to the majors? Or does the Nats beat writer automatically take over for you? I assume, at least, you're working on a book -- if not, you need to re-examine your head -- so I wondered if you'd still be able to spend your workday covering Strasburg.

I think we're going to keep this little experiment going once he gets to the majors. Hopefully, I won't be stepping too much on Kilgore's toes. He'll be covering the games and I'll be doing my thing.

Is there any chance this may encourage the Post to cast a more regular eye on what is happening in the minor leagues for the Nationals? It seems that even beyond Strasburg, there are quite a few interesting stories to follow

I know, I know. There are amazing stories here. I love hearing them, and I love telling them. But I'm not sure there's a wide enough audience. If The Post ever decides to do more minor-league stories, I'd volunteer in a heartbeat.

I found one thing from your article that's very telling about the type of person Strasburg is. I know I'm not getting the quote right, but you said that he deals with the crappy minor league food, but one day before he leaves he wants to take the team out for a good steak dinner -- "like at Outback!" That, to me, tells me the kid is grounded. When Outback is the creme de la creme when it comes to steak, he has no airs to even attempt to put on.

I can tell you: that gesture mattered A LOT to his Senators teammates.

I get the sense that you genuinely like Strasburg as a person. Do you know him better at this point than you do other professional athletes? Do you just get along with him well? Or is this one more thing that we should admire about the guy?

I do genuinely like him, but I wouldn't say I know him well. He's intensely private, and doesn't open up much about himself. But he's incredibly polite and humble (and shy), so it's no knock on him that he doesn't open up much. There's a lot to admire there.

Sorry, folks, I'm out of time. Remember, you can always e-mail me at sheinind@washpost.com with additional questions. Thanks to everyone who stopped by and posted.

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Dave Sheinin
Dave Sheinin is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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