Scouts, bloggers disagree about Strasburg
CHICAGO—Stephen Strasburg entered the year as the hands-down No. 1 prospect for the 2009 draft, so there was no way for him to improve his stock.
Though he can't go any higher in the draft, scouts are more bullish on him than ever.
San Diego State clocked Strasburg's fastball at 102 mph seven times in their home opener, and he has struck out 59 of the 106 batters he has faced. He was averaging 19.4 whiffs per nine innings, well ahead of the NCAA Division I record of 16.8 set by Houston's Ryan Wagner six years ago.
Strasburg also has overwhelmed them with his hard breaking ball and carved up the strike zone (just five walks in 27 innings).
What's not to like?
According to scouts, nothing except maybe his price tag, as he's expected to break Mark Prior's record for the biggest guarantee ever given to a drafted player ($10.5 million).
According to some corners of the Internet, his delivery makes him an injury waiting to happen. Enter "Stephen Strasburg" and "mechanics" into your favorite search engine, and quicker than his fastball gets on hitters, you'll have hundreds of posts, most of them pessimistic.
So who's right? Does it ultimately matter?
Stressful Or Safe?
Many of the Internet worries seem to originate from a November post at drivelinemechanics.com. The site's webmaster, Kyle Boddy, rated Strasburg's arm action as very bad, his tempo as average to bad, his release as good and his follow-through as very bad. Boddy concluded by predicting a steady decline in Strasburg's velocity early in his career and eventually a significant shoulder injury.
It's unclear what Boddy's credentials are, but several other bloggers have taken that post and run with it. (Don't tell Buzz Bissinger.) If I had $5 for every e-mail or chat question I've received about Strasburg's impending doom, I'd be close to meeting his asking price.
Baseball America has yet to encounter a scout who was terribly worried about Strasburg's mechanics. The closest we've come is when we talked to one scouting director who said he had some trepidation last summer, but that wouldn't have prevented him from taking Strasburg first overall in the 2009 draft.
When he saw Strasburg again early this year, those concerns evaporated.
"He's not picture-perfect clean, but he's not a max-effort guy either," the scouting director said. "His arm works really good out front. When I saw him this year, he was a lot tighter and cleaner than he was last summer. I thought, 'Wow, he's really cleaned it up.' If I'm picking 1-1, he's my guy."
Another scout was more blunt.
"There's nothing that looks like a red flag to me," he said. "That is the newest annoying trend on the Internet to me, with all the mechanics experts. It's kind of a bizarre phenomenon, really. Of course, he's a pitcher, so he has a chance of breaking down and then they can say they are right."
Still Looking For Answers
There's the rub. The vast majority of pitchers get hurt at some point, and there's still little understanding as to how or why. Teams monitor pitch counts and workloads more carefully than ever, and they pay more attention to mechanics, but they still fight a losing battle against pitching injuries. Throwing a baseball puts stress on anyone's arm.
When Prior was the second overall pick in 2001, he received near-universal praise for his mechanics. The Yankees used him as a model to show their scouts what a textbook delivery should look like. Yet arm problems would limit him to just one full big league season, and he hasn't taken the mound since August 2006.
Some scouts and bloggers point to Prior's delivery and say it put stress on his shoulder and proved to be his undoing. But does that mean we now have a better understanding about mechanics, or is that just revisionist history to explain why he kept getting hurt, or some of each? Were his injuries the result of his delivery; the 235 innings he pitched in his first full big league season in 2003, when he concluded the year by averaging 126 pitches over his final six outings; or a baserunning collision with Marcus Giles that July, which led to a shoulder contusion and Prior's first stint on the disabled list?
I'll vote for all of the above. If there are any certainties about mechanics, it's that there's no perfect delivery that will prevent all injuries, and that different deliveries work for different pitchers.
We'll have to wait to see how Strasburg holds up in pro ball. No matter how he fares, that won't necessarily mean either the scouts or bloggers were right about him.
You can contact Callis at firstname.lastname@example.org.