SAN DIEGO—There were 1,502 players selected in the major league draft three years ago. Stephen Strasburg was not among them.
All 30 major league teams passed on Strasburg coming out of high school. This year, 29 teams may not have a chance to choose him even if they want to. And they want to.
The Washington Nationals have the first pick in the 2009 draft. Strasburg, a junior righthander at San Diego State, is the odds-on favorite for the first choice. So just how does a pitcher go from obscurity to the top of the draft?
• By hitting 101 mph on a radar gun.
• By outdueling the first pitcher selected in last year’s draft.
• By striking out 23 batters in a game.
• By being the first collegiate player selected to the U.S. Olympic team since professionals were put on the roster in 2000.
Strasburg did all that and more last year, making him The Next Big Thing. Everyone, it seems, is now on board.
“Eighty percent of the teams wrote him off in high school,” said a National League scout who has followed Strasburg in both high school and college. “Now guys are saying, ‘I turned him in.’ Oh, yeah, you thought he was going to throw 100. Bull.”
This is where the explanation begins as to why Strasburg was overlooked in the draft three years ago.
Too Chubby For Scouts
Strasburg, who was born in San Diego, pitched for West Hills High in Santee, about 10 miles northeast of the SDSU campus. He displayed flashes of brilliance his senior year, touching 90 mph with his fastball and posting a 1.68 ERA and 74 strikeouts in 62 innings.
But Strasburg also was carrying nearly 250 pounds on a 6-foot-4 frame. He didn’t wear it well. And at times he seemed as undisciplined on the mound as he was at the dinner plate.
“I was a chubby kid,” admits Strasburg, “with a poor mental game out there.”
Said Scott Hopgood, Strasburg’s coach at West Hills: “There were some very difficult times. The biggest thing is he was hardest on himself. He wanted to win, and he felt like he had to go out and strike everybody out.
“Twice he had no-hitters in the fifth and gave up a jam shot. He would be totally pissed. The next thing you know he gives up a couple of runs. You go out and talk to him and say, ‘OK, why did this happen? You lost your focus. So what. You gave up a hit. Big deal.’
“The mental side of the game was very, very weak.”
Hopgood recalls the problems being limited to Strasburg’s junior year, but that’s not how the scouts saw it. They witnessed the same thing his senior season.
“I saw a game where there were quite a few scouts there and he blew up, just absolutely lost it on the mound,” said an American League scout. “He was a kid that would challenge his infielders when they would make mistakes. He would challenge his coach. He would challenge the umpires . . . When you put that into the professional equation, it doesn’t work.
“I think 30 teams got it right with Stephen Strasburg. I don’t think we missed it. Everyone did their job. And it seemed like we all came to the same consensus. Not quite ready.”
In polite circles, scouts said Strasburg was soft or that he lacked mental toughness or intestinal fortitude. Take your pick. Among themselves, they put it more bluntly.
Although Strasburg didn’t know it at the time, that’s what was said about him. SDSU pitching coach Rusty Filter passed the word soon after Strasburg stepped on campus.
“When Coach Filter told me that’s what everybody was saying behind my back, that really pissed me off,” Strasburg said. “I was out there to prove them all wrong . . . To this day, that’s kind of a sore spot in my heart. But it’s fueled the fire to get me where I am today.”
A Rough Start
Molding Strasburg into the pitcher he is today began with his body. He shed nearly 30 pounds his first semester at SDSU, developing muscle and tone for the first time in his life.
Early on, Strasburg said he got exhausted simply going through the stretching exercises before the actual workout began.
When Strasburg went to thank SDSU strength coach Dave Ohton for pushing him during the team’s first week of conditioning, Ohton said: “I really think you should quit.”
Said Strasburg: “When he said that he kind of made me think, ‘What do I want to do? I want to play baseball.’ It was a sign that I needed to step it up.”
There were other signs as well. If Strasburg didn’t get through his workout quickly enough, the weight room would be shut down and all of the players would have to go down to the field and run.
“They (his teammates) were yelling at me every day my freshman year if I didn’t get through something,” Strasburg said.
Developing Strasburg’s mental toughness began soon thereafter. As a freshman, he pitched in middle relief for the Aztecs before being moved into the closer’s role.
“We ran him out there and put him in every hot box situation that we could,” Filter said. “There were times we would intentionally walk someone to load the bases and tell him he had to strike out the next two guys and he was delivering.”
Strasburg finished the season with seven saves over 25 appearances in which he allowed but 10 earned runs. His confidence began to soar. So did his velocity.
Strasburg gained eight mph on his fastball between his freshman and sophomore seasons, looks of disbelief registering along with a 101 mph reading on the radar gun during a fall intrasquad. He hit triple digits several times during the season as well.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Filter. “Most guys at that age start to plateau. The benefit in this whole thing is he learned how to pitch before he became a velocity guy.
“I want people to know that he’s worked extremely hard, and it’s not just a guy blessed with a great arm.”
The Aztecs moved Strasburg into the starting rotation for his sophomore season. He gave a glimpse of what was to come in the 2008 opener when he got the best of crosstown rival San Diego and lefthander Brian Matusz, who was selected fourth overall last year by the Orioles.
Strasburg seemed to build on each outing over the next five weeks before missing a start with a bad cold that led to an ear infection.
He returned the following week with a game for the ages, a 23-strikeout, one-hit performance in a 1-0 Mountain West Conference win over Utah. It was the third-most strikeouts ever and the most by a pitcher since the 1981 season.
Strasburg struck out the side in the first inning as well as the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth against the Utes. In the ninth, he hopped off the mound and pumped his fist after striking out Utah’s Jesse Shriner to end the game.
“I’ve seen a lot of baseball,” SDSU coach Tony Gwynn said after the game. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”
Strasburg may have been even better two weeks later in a 4-1 win over Texas Christian in which he took a perfect game into the seventh inning and finished with 13 strikeouts in a one-hitter.
The game provided the first hints of a phenomenon developing. The crowd’s voice at Tony Gwynn Stadium rose as one whenever Strasburg got two strikes on a batter, a fan along the first-base line was putting up K’s after strikeouts and a female student behind home plate held up a sign that read “Yo mama let u date?”
This all came during a seven-week stretch in which Strasburg allowed just two runs (one earned) over 55 innings. For the season, he was 8-3, 1.57 with 133 strikeouts and 16 walks in 97 innings.
It makes some wonder what Strasburg has in store for an encore.
“He might not match the numbers of last year,” Filter said. “His numbers were unbelievable. The thing we’re looking at is trying to increase the win total . . . We’re trying to get him peaked for the end of February. Answer the bell strong and get better throughout the season. At the end of the year, we’ll take a look at the numbers. We’re not going to get consumed by it.”
For all the success, scouts would actually like to see Strasburg experience a little failure.
“What I’d really like to see him do is have a bad game,” said the AL scout. “I’d like to see a team come out and hit him, maybe an umpire miss a call. Those are the things I’ll be watching closely because he’s already shown he can pitch.
“If he’s going to get $6 million, or whatever it is this year for the No. 1 pick, he’s got to show that he’s matured, 100 percent, all the way against adversity. I want to see how he handles that. I don’t want him to be happy about it, but I want him to be able to handle it with pride and poise and still believe who he is.”
San Diego County has produced more than a dozen major league pitchers over the past decade—Cole Hamels, Aaron Harang, Mark Prior, Barry Zito and Joel Zumaya among them.
Strasburg’s name now seems destined to join the list, although he’s more concerned with leading the Aztecs to their first regional appearance in 18 years.
“Playing at the next level is great and I think it’s going to work itself out,” Strasburg said. “But my goal right now is to make an impact on this program and leave a footprint to help build a tradition for the future.”
Kirk Kenney is a sportswriter based in San Diego.