Strasburg: The best pitching prospect ever?
San Diego State ace even-keeled as Draft anticipation swells
SAN DIEGO -- He seems like any conscientious junior in college reaching the end of a semester, trying to pay attention in his government class at 9 a.m. on a Friday. He discusses his term paper on National Security Advisor James Jones with his professor. It all seems fairly typical, really, until a student sitting across from him makes a simple request.
"Hey, Stephen," he asks quietly. "After class, would you sign my ball?"
Welcome to the world of Stephen Strasburg, a well-meaning San Diego State University student, an almost certain No. 1 First-Year Player Draft pick and the young man some feel might be the greatest pitching prospect of all time.
Strasburg's pitching exploits have been well-documented by now. He was the lone amateur on the U.S. Olympic Team last summer after a dominant sophomore season, shutting out the Dutch Olympic squad and not allowing a hit until the seventh. The numbers this season are video-game quality: 11-0, 1.24 ERA, 164 strikeouts, 17 walks, 48 hits in 87 1/3 innings. He's struck out 16.9 per nine innings, on a pace to break the Division I record held by Ryan Wagner. He's reportedly hit triple digits on the radar gun with some regularity. The icing on the cake came on Friday when he tossed his first no-hitter, striking out 17 against Air Force with most of the Washington Nationals' brain trust in attendance at Tony Gwynn Stadium.
He's been the consensus No. 1 Draft pick for some time and with Scott Boras as his advisor, it's likely he's going to set another record, for the largest contract given to a Draft pick.
None of this seems to faze the 20-year-old at all, with his impending future taking a back burner to his college team and even to President Obama's choice for NSA.
"Yeah, it's great, but I'm not pitching for them," Strasburg said about the scouts who attended his no-hitter. "I'm pitching for this program right now. I'm hoping to help this team get to a regional and win a conference tournament.
"[The Draft] is going to take care of itself. Right now, I'm pitching in the moment. Each inning is extremely important for this program. We need to win as many games as possible. Bottom line, you have to ask if you're playing the game for the right reasons. I'm playing the game because this is the game that I love and I'm playing it for the guys behind me."
Strasburg, himself, might not want to talk about the Draft, but there are probably enough other people out there buzzing about Strasburg and the June 9 Draft to more than make up for the pitcher's reluctance to think that far ahead. There's been no question since the start of the season that he was the top talent in this Draft class and that he has quickly separated himself from the rest of the field.
The combination of size, stuff -- particularly the velocity -- and command have put Strasburg into another league completely. There are some scouts who feel he's the greatest pitching prospect to come around since the advent of the Draft in 1965. Others don't go that far, pointing to the cautionary tales of Mark Prior and Ben McDonald, other so-called great prospects who didn't quite live up to the billing for a variety of reasons.
"I've enjoyed watching him," one scouting director said. "He's the best guy in this Draft, but who knows how good he's going to be? There aren't any guarantees ... The last thing they're going to have to find out about him -- and with all pitchers in this Draft -- can he do what he does when the guys he's facing have the ability to hit him 450 feet."
Rusty Filter has seen many arms come through the Aztecs' program over the years. In his 16th season as the school's pitching coach, the San Diego State alum has shepherded many through to pro ball and the Majors, including Aaron Harang, Justin Masterson, Royce Ring and Alex Hinshaw. What Strasburg may become as a Major Leaguer remains to be seen, but whoever saw him when he first entered the program might be amazed to see what he is right now.
Strasburg went undrafted out of high school. It's not completely because he was without skills. He was labeled as "soft" and a guy who didn't seem so eager to compete on the mound. Even San Diego State head coach and Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn admits that he had to be convinced to bring the right-hander into the program. It was Filter who did the convincing.
"It's been so rewarding to see a guy transform in front of your eyes," Filter said. "He was very talented out of high school. He was throwing 90-91 [mph], a ton of strikeouts in high school. But he was in a bigger, softer body. His mannerisms on the mound would make people think he was a little softer mentally. We found out right away it was his competitive nature. He came in and what you see now is definitely a transformation over the past three years."
The immediate sign of his fire came during the first workouts. Filter has his pitchers run 10 100-yard sprints to get going. After two of them, Strasburg moved to a corner to throw up. After six, his teammates had to help him finish. That pretty much happened daily for about two weeks. A "soft" pitcher would have likely picked up and quit after such an inauspicious start to his college career. But Strasburg stuck it out and the payoff has been a 6-foot-4, 220-pound pitcher's body, a big increase in velocity and stamina and an exciting professional future.
"It just goes to show if you really put your mind to something and work as hard as you possibly can, in the long run, you're going to be successful," Strasburg said. "That goes pretty much for anything you can do. That's the real thing I learned here at San Diego State. That's what the players and coaches, the strength and conditioning coaches, they all taught me that.
"I learned the hard way from the beginning, but I'm very thankful for everybody I've known here. I can say a lot of them are my friends. I really love this program."
It's a mutual admiration society, for sure. Gwynn has gone from not overly interested, to reluctant, to full-on supportive over the past three years. He's been sure to handle Strasburg carefully, knowing he has a bright future ahead of him. But he's not quite ready to let him go just yet.
"At this point, he's still a student-athlete and he's having fun," Gwynn said. "And he's still dealing. Let's focus on that and the rest will take care of itself.
"Come June, that's going to change. Whoever decides to take Stephen No. 1, they're going to be pretty happy with what they get, you're getting a competitive guy, a guy who wants to get better, who wants to achieve. For a 20-year-old, he understands it, he gets it."
His government professor would wholeheartedly agree. Discussing a student's grade is not allowed, but he was willing to divulge that it was "somewhere near the top of the alphabet."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.