Gwynn weighs in on Strasburg
Hall of Famer gives coach's perspective on top prospect
SAN DIEGO -- Once a hitter, always a hitter.
So says Tony Gwynn, the Hall of Famer with more than 3,100 hits and a .338 career batting average. He also happens to be in his seventh season as the head coach for San Diego State University's baseball team and has had the privilege of watching the evolution of Stephen Strasburg into the surefire No. 1 Draft pick he is today.
He may have hung up his cleats as a player after the 2001 season, but he'll never stop analyzing the game from the batter's box. Even when watching his ace take the mound, Gwynn can't help but think about how he'd approach the challenge of facing the best arm in the Draft Class of 2009.
"It's like riding a bike, man, you don't forget it," Gwynn said with a laugh. "[I think about it] every time I see him pitch. The game plan is still the same as it always was. He's the guy with the ball in his hands. He's going to dictate the action and I'm going to counter.
"A guy throwing that hard, you can't try to pull him. The original thought has to be you have to take him the other way. The other thought has to be even though he's got great velocity, you have to look for the fastball. When he throws you the breaking ball or the changeup, you still have to hold your ground, which, at the college level, is almost impossible. My game plan would be I'm going to try and hit him in the 5.5 hole. If he busts me in, I'm going to try and fight it off in the 5.5 hole. If he throws something offspeed, I'm hoping I can stay back long enough to use the center of the diamond."
Easier said than done, of course, except for perhaps a guy with Gwynn's resume. Suffice it to say, it's highly unlikely that Strasburg has faced any Tony Gwynns over the course of his college career. That doesn't mean that Gwynn hasn't been thoroughly impressed with the progress of Strasburg from questionable recruit to one of the best pitching prospects anyone has seen in quite some time.
"Every Friday night, he's been really consistent," Gwynn said. "Unlike the two years previous to this year, I can honestly say he's pitching. Everybody gets caught up in the velocity. They want to see what the radar gun is going to show. What I like to see is the fact that if hitters are cheating, if they're jumping out there to get the fastball, right away he goes to his breaking ball, he goes to his changeup, he goes to something different to keep them off balance. For a 20-year-old, he understands it, he gets it. Every Friday night, it's an adventure sitting on the third-base side, watching him work."
Gwynn will admit he wasn't always so enamored. He had to be talked into bringing him into the program by pitching coach Rusty Filter. He further questioned the decision when an unconditioned Strasburg couldn't handle Filter's workouts. But he also saw that the right-hander did not give up and ultimately figured out what was required -- not just to get by, but to excel.
"He started to understand what he needed to do," Gwynn said. "That first experience taught him a valuable lesson. You have to take care of yourself."
Gwynn nearly fell off his chair when he watched Strasburg throw for the first time that fall after Filter's conditioning workouts. His velocity had jumped, but beyond that, he was locating the fastball, a key part in a pitcher's development.
"That's why coaches coach," Gwynn said. "When guys get it and they understand what they need to do and how they need to do it, you kind of just let them go and sit back and watch the show. For Strassy, that's how it's been. To go through all the things he's gone through, especially this year, and handle it as easily as he has, it's really been amazing."
At this point, Gwynn is fairly confident Strasburg will go on to be a good Major Leaguer. But will that be enough for the No. 1 overall Draft pick who will command the kind of bonus that might end up breaking a record? Some have said Strasburg is the best pitching prospect in the history of the Draft era. Gwynn doesn't think he's qualified to answer, though he feels Strasburg's skills do put him in elite company.
"The greatest of all time?" Gwynn said. "I couldn't tell you. I've only been coaching the college level seven years. Best ever? I'm not in a position to say. I just say it is pretty amazing watching a 20-year-old throw a ball with location, with downward plane, with a little bit of movement, 100 mph. People have thrown 100 mph, but most of the time, it's been straight. He's got a little bit of movement to it, which is intriguing to a lot of people."
"Greatest of all time?" Gwynn asked one last time. "I don't know. Can he have success in the big leagues? I believe he can. Is he worried about it now? No, I don't think so. I think he's focused on pitching for us at San Diego State. That's kind of how we like it. The pro part of it is going to take care of itself."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.