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'Set Your Own Standards:' Stephen Strasburg Embraces Path To World Series

Stephen_Strasburg_PatrickSmithGetty.jpg
Stephen Strasburg (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

How does one live up to impossible expectations? When no matter how well you do, there is a sense you should have done even better.

That’s the challenge Stephen Strasburg has faced for a decade.

But 10 years since his anointment as the greatest draft prospect ever, Strasburg is at peace with the career he’s had.

“I think it’s pretty obvious that the expectations that people had for me from early on were a little insane,” Strasburg said prior to the start of the National League Division Series in Los Angeles. “And I think you just become more comfortable with yourself, more comfortable with the results, and you set yourself to your own standards. Those are always going to be more important than what others think you should be doing.”

It’s been 10 years since the Nationals drafted Strasburg with the No. 1 overall pick out of San Diego State in 2009. He was supposed to be a perennial Cy Young Award contender, the ace of aces, a modern-day Tom Seaver or Roger Clemens.

Strasburg, now 31, has been none of those things. And yet, to label him a disappointment would not be quite correct, either.

As the 2010s come to a close, Strasburg has been one of the best pitchers of the decade. Among starters with at least 1,000 innings, he ranks top 10 with a 3.17 ERA, a 1.09 WHIP, 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings and a .222 opponent average. He is a three-time All-Star, owns a strikeout title from 2014 and led the National League in wins and innings this season.

Strasburg has been especially dominant when the stakes are highest, delivering a 1.10 ERA over 41 innings in seven postseason appearances through this year's National League Championship Series.

For whatever awards he was supposed to win but hasn’t, or feats he was supposed to have accomplished by 30 but didn’t, Strasburg has been a frontline major league starter.

“People were talking about him—before the last couple years—that his career wasn’t a good career, which is silly,” said Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, a teammate of Strasburg’s for the pitcher’s entire career. “You look at the numbers he’s put up now and what he’s done in the postseason, I’m just happy for him.”

The attention heaped on Strasburg a decade ago was unlike anything seen for a baseball draft prospect at the time. Evaluators hailed him as a once-in-a-generation phenomenon. He was a 100 mph-throwing, curveball-snapping, 6-foot-5 monster who dominated hitters in a way like few before him had ever done.

Strasburg struck out 23 batters in a game as a sophomore at San Diego State. As a junior, he set a still-standing Division I record for strikeout rate (16.1 per nine) for a pitcher with at least 100 innings. He was the subject of a never-ending stream of media coverage at 21 years old—and he dominated through it all.

“I remember, first and foremost, looking out after batting practice . . . and there would be a line that goes almost a quarter-mile long just to get in to watch Stephen pitch,” said San Diego State coach Mark Martinez, who was an Aztecs assistant in 2009. “That was kind of a recurring deal. As the year went on, we had to bring (additional) bleachers in down each side just to watch Stephen pitch.

“It was electric. It was a magical time.”

Many scouts regarded Strasburg as the best prospect in draft history. He signed a major league contract out of the draft and received a then-record $7.5 million bonus. His one and only prospect scouting report before he reached the majors concluded with the line, “He projects as a true No. 1 starter and a Cy Young Award winner, and anything less will be a disappointment.”

It was a catch-22. On one hand, Strasburg earned those expectations through his sheer brilliance as a pitcher. On the other, those expectations would weigh on him from the moment he made his major league debut on June 8, 2010, a moment transformed into a nationally broadcast television event dubbed “Strasmas.”

Tommy John surgery in 2011 followed by a shutdown that prevented Strasburg from pitching in the 2012 postseason fueled a narrative he was failing to live up to expectations, despite a career 2.94 ERA in the majors at 23 years old. Before long, baseball’s impatient eyes turned toward the next big thing.

But while that happened, Strasburg matured as a pitcher. Each year came new growth and new accomplishments. Soon, a new version of Strasburg evolved.

“This year, Stephen, for me, even though he’s had unbelievable years, he’s come into his own,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said prior to the start of the NLDS. “Not just as a player but as an individual, as a teammate. He’s all in. I’ve seen a change in him.

“I’ll just tell you this: We celebrate, we do a lot of dancing, and I would never have thought in my mind I would ever see Stephen Strasburg dance, and he’s been dancing. His dancing is getting a lot better.”

The success—and the dancing—has dovetailed with a change in mindset from the notoriously straight-laced Strasburg. Now a veteran in his 30s, he measures success differently than before.

He, and the Nationals, can live with that.

“Playing nine, 10 years at the highest level, you have ups and downs and I think you learn to manage them a little bit better,” Strasburg said. “Just realize that at the end of the day, when it’s all done, how do you want to look back on it? And really, it’s going out there and doing everything you can to be the best version of yourself.”

David Price Vanderbilt Matthewsharpegetty

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