In the Nats’ four NL East-winning seasons, plus their wild card year in 2019, Strasburg went 83-33, including 6-2 in the postseason. No other Nat was a star on all five playoff teams.
His career culminated in one long mature crescendo. From his June return from the disabled list in 2015 through the 2019 World Series, the Nats were an incredible 92-35 in his starts. That .724 percentage approaches the Dodgers’ mark (.742) when Sandy Koufax started in his final five years.
It would have been common decency for the Lerner family, which owns the Nats, to honor Strasburg at any time this September — or at least have him address the cameras at Nationals Park. But nothing happened or is in the works. Why not? Principal owner Mark Lerner made an odd reference in a news release to the Nats “seeing Strasburg” next year in spring training. MLB deals are guaranteed. So it’s hard to get past, “Just pay the man.”
Strasburg, a workout fanatic with the physique of an NFL tight end, has sacrificed ribs, tendons and muscles that he’ll never get back to make a return the past three seasons. The result? Tons of pain. One win.
No one is to blame. The late Ted Lerner bid against himself (up to $245 million), ignoring advice to structure the Strasburg extension like Clayton Kershaw’s deal with the Dodgers. That squandered tens of millions. But n-o-b-o-d-y in D.C. said, “Let Strasburg leave town. Ring? What ring?”
If the Nats don’t know how to say “Thanks,” at least the rest of us should. Maybe show up at a game this weekend with a No. 37 jersey, a “Strasmas” sign or just a “Thanks for the ring, Stephen” placard.
For many years I have been mildly, but persistently, annoyed by the inability of many to get a reasonable perspective on Strasburg. His pitching should be viewed aesthetically and emotionally as well as statistically.
Fans and media tend to fall back on numbers, framed by expectations, because those are our limited tools. As a result, we get stuck in the mire of career stat totals, such as Strasburg’s 113-62 career record. We wanted 226-124.
But those inside the game see it differently. For them, the game is a dream born in childhood; a bare-knuckled daily struggle as an adult; a living theater of piercing break-your-heart career arcs; a shot at a pot of gold. But always, it’s a story bristling with romance; you might end up a character in a beloved 150-year national narrative.
By that standard, Strasburg fulfilled his athletic destiny.
Some characters in that huge baseball story are just bigger, much bigger than others. The Nats’ Jayson Werth captured Strasburg in 2017 when he said, “I can’t see him very well as an outfielder. But I got to face him [in a simulated game] when we were both on the DL. He was rested, healthy, throwing hard. I realized one thing that maybe he doesn’t know.
“He’s big. He hides the ball. It’s explosive in the zone. Especially to a right-handed hitter. He ran one in on me and I said, ‘Oh, s—!’ … Strasburg is just a big, hairy, scary, furry animal out there.”
What Strasburg leaves behind, all 6-foot-5, 239 pounds of him, is the memory of one of the most intimidating hurlers, and one of the most dominant October pitchers, on record. The biomechanics that produced those memories also wrecked his pitching arm. He blew out his elbow in his 12th MLB start and never threw as fast again. Everything he accomplished was with two feet knocked off his fastball.
Yet Strasburg’s career winning percentage (.646) is in the top 25 in MLB since 1900 — a hair behind Randy Johnson, but ahead of Justin Verlander, Dizzy Dean (who had just six healthy seasons) and Grover Alexander.
Strasburg is in the top 15 since 1900 among MLB starting pitchers in WHIP, ahead of Juan Marichal. Since 1920, Strasburg is in the top 20 in fewest hits allowed per nine innings, ahead of Tom Seaver and Walter Johnson. He is seventh in strikeouts per nine innings among MLB starters in the past century.
So, I get a little tired of hearing everything Strasburg didn’t do because his career peaked, and then plummeted at 31. Durability is great. But it’s not my favorite fascination. Koufax retired, after a career-high 27 wins, when he was 30. He was losing feeling in his hand.
John Keats, one candidate for greatest poet in the English language, died when he was 25. Now, 202 years later, no one begins evaluating him by saying if only he hadn’t had tuberculosis, he would have written more poems.
Art, in all its forms, exists in a galaxy far away, which we visit with gratitude, not with quantification.
Unfortunately, sports, with its final scores and championships, won by only one person or team, tends toward a demand for exact measurement, which is irrelevant in the moment when we experience great performances.
I’ll vividly remember Strasburg’s 255 starts — including the fourth-best ERA in postseason history (1.46) among starters who have thrown at least 50 innings — long after I’ve forgotten every specific image of David Wells, Bartolo Colon, Jamie Moyer and Don Sutton who, combined, were durable enough to win 1,079 games.
A mountainous life work, such as the 50-year publishing career of William Butler Yeats, has a weight that our cut-short geniuses such as Keats can’t match. But in music, painting, literature, film and every other art, we focus on what was done best.
We all prefer quality and quantity. But we know which holds more power over us. Last week, I listened to “Red House” by Jimi Hendrix and “Back to Black” by Amy Winehouse. Both died at 27. But they can still give me chills.
So did Strasburg, many times. And he still can. Let’s see, how about Sept. 10, 2017? I think I’ll just ask the DVR for that one. “Strasburg allows two hits, one walk and fans 10 in eight innings to run his consecutive streak of scoreless innings to 34⅓ as the Nats clinch their fourth NL East title in six years.” Game Score: 87. The best such number of his career. His 14-strikeout debut was just 75. Hey, he gave up two runs!
Here we go. First batter sees 96 mph paint at the letters three times, then freezes on a third-strike curveball that drops a foot-and-a-half to the knees at 82 mph. Strasburg finishes the frame with a three-pitch strikeout: change-up, curveball, change-up, each placed into a teacup.
Yeah, I think I’m going to have to watch it all. And say, “Thank you.”