As time passes, Stephen Strasburg might be remembered as the greatest pitcher in college baseball history, and his 2009 junior campaign as the most dominant season ever. Strasburg, San Diego State’s 6-foot-4, 220-pound righthander, went 13-1, 1.32 with 195 strikeouts and 19 walks in 109 innings to lead the Aztecs to regionals for the first time since 1991. His 16.1 strikeouts per nine innings ranks third on the NCAA’s single-season list.
With an overpowering fastball that sometimes reaches triple digits, a devastating hard breaking ball and excellent feel for a changeup, Strasburg was a no-brainer choice for the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. He was also an easy selection for Baseball America’s College Player of the Year, even though North Carolina’s Dustin Ackley and Arizona State’s Mike Leake put together seasons that would be enough to earn the award in almost any other year.
There isn’t much left for us to write about Strasburg—we profiled him in depth in the 2009 College Preview issue and have devoted thousands of words to his exploits over the last two springs and summers—so we’ll let others do the talking. Those who have coached Strasburg and coached against him, as well as Strasburg himself, tried to put his historic season into perspective.
San Diego State coach Tony Gwynn: “We were spoiled rotten, really. As the year went on and he got more and more attention, you would expect somewhere in there for him to have one where he wasn’t effective. But he did what he needed to do. There were nights where he needed to punch a bunch of guys out, and he did that. There were nights he needed to pitch to contact, and he did that. I try to downplay everything because I know the expectations are through the roof with him. But he did what he needed to do—I think that’s the best description. Hey, if I put a bat in his hand, it wouldn’t have surprised me if he’d gotten a knock—he was that good this year.
“He came into school knowing there were doubters out there, and he made his mind up that he was going to try to get the most out of himself at San Diego State. Each year he got better, and the work ethic didn’t change—he worked harder. This year, by far, was a much better year than last year, which was by far a much better year than his first year. When you set your mind to becoming as good as you can be, great things happen. To me it’s just a byproduct of good old-fashioned hard work. There’s no question he paid the price. From freshman year puking on the first 100-yard sprint, to this year leading the guys in the sprint. He’s the whole package, man. Granted, you’ve got to be blessed with a good fastball, a good breaking ball, all that stuff. But good things happen when you play hard.
“You can tell the impact he had on our program already. Our phones are ringing off the hook. I’ve got a stack of DVDs sitting on my desk. People are interested in San Diego State baseball again—I’ve got alumni coming through the roof. The impact he’s had on not just San Diego State but college baseball has been tremendous. There’s no question he has put this program back on the map.”
Texas Christian coach Jim Schlossnagle: “The thing that goes so underrated with him in my mind is his pitchability. I think every year in the country there’s a guy—and we had one last year in Andrew Cashner—that can throw in the upper 90s. But usually those guys, their command’s not great or the ball is straight or they can’t throw a secondary pitch consistently for strikes. The thing with Stephen is he throws like he’s an 87-89 sinker-slider guy. He pitches at the knees with movement with the fastball. He’s 1.1 (seconds) to the plate so you can’t run on him even if you get on. And he fields his position well. He is obviously physically gifted, but he’s the most complete package I’ve ever seen at the amateur level. To me, it’s the pitchability that separates him from everybody else.”
Utah coach Bill Kinneberg: “I compare him with Mark Prior when I was at Arizona and he pitched against us, but with a little more arm strength maybe. Prior struck out 16 against us once but he did it in about 96 pitches. The command Mark had that night was unbelievable, and for me it was just like I was going back in time (when Strasburg struck out 23 Utes in a game in 2008). The funny thing about the 23-strikeout night was he struck our first three batters out in the top of the first, and I’m going, ‘Wow, that’s pretty good.’ Our guy went out there, Stephen Fife, he started throwing and I turned to our pitching coach and said, ‘Gosh, he doesn’t have anything.’ It turned out my Stephen was throwing 93-94 that night, but it just didn’t look like it—there was no comparison to it. Offensively, we had no chance that night.”
San Diego coach Rich Hill: “It’s an unbelievable story. We all knew him here in San Diego in his previous life, as we like to put it. He was out in East County, and he’s just completely transformed his body. He was a little emotional, probably a little soft, a blame-game kind of guy. But he’s just completely turned things around. He’s in yoga classes, pilates, arm strengthening programs. To do what he did from the mental side, to me, is the story. Every team schemed and planned on him this year, tried to bunt on him, tried to run on him, tried to get him rattled. Every single game, he’s facing an offense that’s had all week to prepare, it’s going to make their season if they beat him. And still there was nothing you could do. You couldn’t rattle him, you couldn’t short game him, you couldn’t do anything. We just have a different perspective here in San Diego because we’ve all seen Stephen grow up and transform into this beast that he’s become. It’s remarkable.”
Stephen Strasburg: “It was a great season, and I had a lot of fun doing it. I have a lot of great memories at San Diego State. Definitely the one moment that I remember most is—I think it was our last home game for me—pitching that no-hitter in front of my home crowd, it was unbelievable. I knew it was going to be a lot of fun, but to go out there and pitch a no-hitter, something I’ve never done since Little League—it still hasn’t really sunk in yet.
“I owe all my accomplishments to being given the opportunity at San Diego State to play baseball there. Obviously coming out of high school, not many people thought I was good enough to play at the Division I level. (Pitching) coach (Rusty) Filter, coach Gwynn and (assistant) coach (Mark) Martinez believed in me and gave me a chance.
“I think it’s just something my parents have instilled in me at an early age. It’s about hard work and dedication. If you want something bad enough, you can’t let anything get in your way. I wanted to be the best, I still want to be the best, and I’m going to work as hard as I can to get there.”