How unfair were expectations for Stephen Strasburg?


Stephen Strasburg debuted on June 8, 2010, with a seven-inning, 14-strikeout performance against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The hype surrounding the number-one overall pick was already at dangerous levels. The dominant explosion onto the big league scene did nothing but serve to drive expectations for the 21-year-old even higher. Just 11 starts later, Strasburg was done for the year and going under the knife for Tommy John surgery.

Armed with a triple-digit heater, a devastating curveball, and changeup that came in just a tick below 90 mph, Strasburg was supposed to contend yearly for the Cy Young, start All-Star Games, and lead the Washington Nationals to the World Series, while becoming the right-handed version of Randy Johnson. Six years into his career, he has done none of that. Strasburg has thrown over 200 innings only once, and topped 30 starts only twice. Injuries kept him out for large chunks of the first half of the 2015 season, and when he was on the mound, Strasburg was largely ineffective. Despite a 52-37 career record with a 3.16 ERA, there are those who would label Strasburg a bust. That a 3.16 career ERA can be labeled anything but a smashing success just goes to show how out of whack the expectations for Strasburg were.

Though he has not lived up to the lofty expectations placed on him from the second the Nationals plucked him out of San Diego State, Strasburg has been far from a bust.

Since returning from the disabled list on August 8, Strasburg has turned in 12-, 13-, and 14-strikeout performances. Last night, he flirted with a no-hitter against the Philadelphia Phillies before settling for eight one-hit innings and 14 strikeouts. In seven starts since coming off the DL, Strasburg has struck out 62 batters in just 45.1 innings. In the conversation for best starting pitcher in the second half of the season, Strasburg’s name is right up there with Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and Jake Arrieta. Opponents are batting a microscopic .169 against the Nationals ace, and he has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 12.40.

Performances like last night’s were supposed to be the norm for Strasburg, but it is unrealistic to expect such dominance every time out. All parties involved — Strasburg, the Nationals, and the fans — certainly wish that were not the case, but it is. Strasburg may never deliver a sub-2.00 ERA season like Kershaw, but if he stays healthy, he remains a frontline ace. When he’s right as he is now, Strasburg borders on unhittable thanks to the velocity with which he throws his curveball and changeup. Health has forced him to adjust his approach on the mound, and the 100-mph velocity he used to reach with ease is now closer to 96.

The hype that followed Strasburg into the league makes his performance so far seem like a disappointment, but it’s not, and his career is far from over. Each year, he has had to work through some form of adversity and has still come out of it with an ERA that is barely above 3.00 while still striking out over a hitter per inning. What more can you ask from the leader of a pitching staff? Six years into Strasburg’s career, expectations need to be adjusted. He may never win a Cy Young or be the best pitcher in the league, and that’s perfectly fine. Strasburg was drafted with the expectation that he would go down in history as one of the greatest starting pitchers of all time, a first-ballot Hall of Famer. After 755.2 innings, he does not appear destined for a 300-win career or 5,000 strikeouts, but there’s plenty of time left to change that and already plenty to appreciate when it comes to all that Stephen Strasburg has already given the Washington Nationals.

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