One year ago Stephen Strasburg was Major League Baseball’s forgotten star. Now he’s one of the highest-paid players in the sport.
Strasburg re-signed with the Washington Nationals, whom he has spent the entirety of his big-league career with, on a seven-year, $245 million deal on Monday.
This contract is the culmination of a mixed bag of a career that has included the highest of highs and impasses that generated some doubt as to whether Strasburg would ever live up to the expectations of being the number one overall selection in the 2009 MLB Draft.
Strasburg made his MLB debut on June 8, 2010 in Nationals Park against the Pittsburgh Pirates. He struck out 14 batters and surrendered just two runs across seven innings. Unfortunately for the hard-throwing right-hander, his elbow acted up later in the season, and he ended up needing Tommy John surgery, ending his season and keeping him off the mound until September 2011.
In his first full season at the big-league level (2012), Strasburg stayed healthy and pitched well, recording an impressive 3.16 ERA. Strasburg’s season infamously ended in September, as the Nationals put an innings limit on him before the regular season began in an effort to keep his arm healthy.
Strasburg responded to his shortened season by putting forth two more extraordinary seasons in 2013 and 2014, and he totaled a National League-best 242 strikeouts in the latter season. Then he took a step back.
With recurring injuries plaguing his 2015 campaign, Strasburg was unable to get into a groove and pitch at the same level he did in years past. The ensuing season featured the same holdback but in heartbreaking fashion.
Strasburg was pitching to his strengths, going deep into games, and was voted to the MLB All-Star game. Then injuries began to pile on, subsequently ending his season in September. The 2017 season included its fair share of injuries too, but it also featured downright dominance from the San Diego native.
Across 28 starts, Strasburg recorded a 2.52 ERA and 1.02 WHIP whole totaling 204 strikeouts. In the postseason he was virtually unhittable. In two starts against the Chicago Cubs in the National League Division Series he surrendered zero earned runs, totaled 22 strikeouts, and supposedly pitched with an illness in an elimination Game 4 in Wrigley Field, which the Nationals won.
Yet again, injuries hindered Strasburg in 2018. He was limited to 22 starts due to injury, and while he got into a groove towards the end of the regular season, it wasn’t enough to catapult the Nationals into the playoffs. The offseason produced thousands of headlines for the Nationals.
Whether it be Bryce Harper leaving the nation’s capital for the Philadelphia Phillies, the Nationals signing Patrick Corbin, the future of manager Dave Martinez, or Anthony Rendon‘s upcoming free agency, Strasburg was far from the public eye, even though he had an opt-out included in his contract for the 2020 season.
Few were thinking about his 2017 postseason heroics, rather he was just a great pitcher on a deep pitching staff headlined by Max Scherzer.
Then 2019 happened.
All in all, his regular season outputs weren’t historic, so to speak. He recorded a 3.32 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, a career-high 251 strikeouts, and was fifth in MLB in innings pitched (209.0). But the innings are telling. He grinds through at-bats and outings and limits damage.
Strasburg utilizes four pitches on a consistent basis: four seamer, curveball, changeup, and sinker. He keeps hitters guessing, has them reaching for pitches, and pitches deep into games. While that four seamer isn’t hitting the high 90s anymore, he gets considerable movement on the offering and makes use of it at crafty times in at-bats. The 2019 postseason exemplified Strasburg’s stone-cold capabilities.
In the sixth inning of the Nationals’ NL Wild Card Game affair with the Milwaukee Brewers, Strasburg came out of the bullpen, inheriting a 3-1 Brewers lead; he was exceptional. He pitched three scoreless innings, pulled no punches, and kept the Nationals in the game — which later led to a dramatic, go-ahead three RBI double from Juan Soto in the bottom of the eighth inning.
Strasburg started Game 2 of the team’s NLDS matchup with the Los Angeles Dodgers, where he carried a no-hitter through five innings and pitched through six innings, totaling 10 strikeouts and surrendering just one run. Then Martinez sent the homegrown hurler to the hill in a win-or-go-home Game 5.
He surrendered two home runs, which accounted for three runs, across the first two innings, but he settled down and got through six innings. Like the NL Wild Card Game, the Nationals saved the best for last, launching three home runs, which accounted for six runs, over the last three innings of the game, setting a date with the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Championship Series.
Strasburg took the mound in Game 3 of the NLCS with the Nationals maintaining a 2-0 series lead; he was remarkable. Across seven innings, he totaled 12 strikeouts while surrendering no walks or earned runs. He kept a veteran Cardinals offense headlined by Paul Goldschmidt, Marcell Ozuna, and Yadier Molina in check.
Naturally, Strasburg continued to impress in the World Series against the Houston Astros.
In Game 2 he labored a bit but got through six innings while surrendering just two runs. However, this performance is a mere afterthought when compared to the other start he made in the series.
Game 6 of the Fall Classic became the defining moment of Strasburg’s career. The Nationals were coming off three consecutive losses, giving the Astros a 3-2 series lead heading back to Houston. If they lose, the season is over. Strasburg didn’t let that happen.
After surrendering two runs in the first inning, Strasburg pitched 7.1 scoreless innings. He kept Astros hitters off-balanced, inducing groundballs and lazy popups, and worked out of trouble.
It felt like Martinez would pull Strasburg after six innings since teams typically don’t let pitchers go through an order four times or through the heart of an order a third time if they don’t have to in the playoffs. Instead, the skipper surprised the baseball world, letting Strasburg go through eight innings and get the first out of the ninth inning.
After an epic Game 7 World Series victory, Strasburg was awarded the 2019 World Series Most Valuable Player Award.
When the Nationals signed Scherzer and injuries began to cripple Strasburg in 2015, the homegrown product became a secondary figure. Harper was one of the most exciting players in the sport — and became the face of the franchise — and Scherzer was putting together Cy Young seasons. Plus, Strasburg has always been quiet. It’s rare to hear him doing interviews on a national broadcast.
The injury hiccups have always hindered him, but being quiet and having little to no distinct qualities like cursing to himself on the hill (Scherzer) or being expressive (Harper) is what pushed Strasburg into the background in the public eye. In today’s day and age people are looking for personalities or vibrant players.
Strasburg isn’t a big personality; he’s a stone-cold killer.
But throughout it all he has been his potent self. The phrase “when healthy” is tossed around with ease across sports — and it can be a deadbeat categorization — but when healthy Strasburg is truly elite.
The 2019 season was redemption for Strasburg, and a year that silenced the recurring critics. He played an integral role in the Nationals exorcising their postseason demons.
No longer is Strasburg playing in Harper or Scherzer’s shadow.
Even in the wake of Strasburg’s signing, the talking point became how the transaction affected Gerrit Cole‘s free agency, rather than its impact on him and the Nationals or the road to this point for the right-hander. It’s just another example of how Strasburg’s greatness gets glanced over.
Whenever the Nationals have needed Strasburg to come through in a big moment, he has done as such. He has pitched in four career elimination games, three of which were starts, and the Nationals have won all of them. When you provide length and consistency over a 162-game season, answer the call against the best of the best in the playoffs, and are franchise royalty, you get the dough.
Forgotten no more: Strasburg is getting payed and performing like the ace he was carved out to be.