The Strasburg Case: Part Two

Stephen Strasburg has all of the tools required for greatness in the majors. However, there's one tool that there is no way of judging until a career is completed; health.

First, a reminder…

"Some have already punched his ticket to Cooperstown , without bothering with little details like completing a major league career… let's not get carried away. Let's…Curb Our Enthusiasm, for at least, oh, a few years.

Yes, a few years. Not starts, not weeks, not months, years. Because in baseball, to quote a pretty good pitcher, Joaquin Andujar, you just never know. And you particularly never know about young pitchers."

That was June 9, 2010, edition of "19 to 21," just after Stephen Strasburg struck out 14 Pirates in his major league debut. Everybody and his brother were jumping on the Strasburg Bandwagon. Since then, he's been on the disabled list twice, and is now headed for Tommy John surgery and a year to 18 months on the shelf. (And, from what you read elsewhere, you'd think there's at least the possibility that this is also the death knell of the National Pastime.)

So, what happened, other than a lot on sportswriters and fans getting carried away over just a dozen major league starts and overanalyzing the Strasburg Case ad infinitum, ad nauseum? Did the Nationals overuse him? (Not likely, he only threw a total of 123 innings in 2010, 55 in the minors and 68 in the majors.) Should they have shut him down longer after the first DL stint? Should they have shut him down for the year after the first trip to the DL? Should they have kept him in the minors longer? Put him on a tighter pitch count? (The most pitches he threw in any one start was only 99 and his longest outing was only seven innings.) Etc., etc., etc. (Also known, in the words of Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, as Endless Thoughts Continued.)

What really happened? Baseball happened. Anyone who knows baseball history should be less than shocked by Stephen Strasburg, because the number of pitching phenoms that fail is a lot higher than those that succeed. And the injury reasons that they fail are many and varied. In fact, one of the most famous failures was mentioned in that same June 9 column. Picking up that thread again…

"The Dodgers' Karl Spooner struck out 15 members of the New York Giants on Sept. 22, 1954…  The 23 year old Spooner hurt his shoulder in Spring Training the next year, and ended up pitching just 117 major league innings, going 10-6 with 105 strikeouts and a 133 ERA+. He's one of the great `ifs' of major league history, but, the point is, that's exactly what he became – and `if,' not a `star.'"

Spooner apparently tried to throw too hard, too soon, in a March 1955 Spring Training game, and suffered some kind of shoulder injury while throwing a curveball to Jungle Jim Rivera, which he described to author Peter Golenbock as a "pull" in his shoulder. Some pull. Although he did pitch for the Dodgers in 1955, he wasn't the same pitcher and he was toast after the 1955 World Series. His shoulder got worse during the off season and he couldn't throw hard enough to have "busted your lip" afterwards. From what happened, it does not appear that Spooner's problem was one of overuse, although he did throw a lot of innings at the ages of 22 and 23…

Year     Age      IP

1951     20         170

1952     21         120

1953     22         203

1954     23         256

The first three years were in the Dodgers minor league system. He only pitched 120 innings in 1952 because he was 4-12 with a 5.42 ERA. In fact, he wasn't really much of a prospect (partly because he didn't pitch in high school until he was a senior) until 1954 when he went 21-9 in 238 minor league innings, and then threw two shutouts, striking out 27, for the Dodgers.

Spooner is hardly the only young pitcher of great promise brought down (either temporarily or permanently) by injury. The best might have been Smoky Joe Wood (the first two years were in the minors)…

Year     Age      IP         W-L     ERA

1907     17         196       18-11    N/A

1908     18         178       7-12      2.38 (plus 23 major league innings)

1909     19         161       11-7      2.18     

1910     20         197       12-13    1.69

1911     21         276       23-17    2.02

1912     22         344       34-5      1.91

And then he crashed, and eventually became an outfielder because his arm hurt so much. Was it the big jump in innings at the ages of 21 and 22? Probably not. He was hurt in Spring Training, too, slipping on wet grass and breaking the thumb on his pitching hand in the spring of 1913. He tried to come back too soon, and hurt his arm.

Although no less an authority than Walter Johnson said that no man threw harder than Smoky Joe Wood, the Red Sox' ill-fated star was not the hardest thrower to become a "what if?" That would have been Steve Dalkowski, the famous left-handed wild man of the Orioles minor leagues in the late 50s and early 60s. His stats were almost unbelievable… 262 walks in 170 innings in 1960; 196 walks in 103 innings in 1961, a year in which he was 22 years old and went 3-12 with an 8.39 ERA, despite also striking out batters by the carload. And then he ran into manager Earl Weaver at Elmira in 1962.

Year     Age      IP         W-L     BB       K         ERA

1962       23      160       7-10      114       192       3.04

A good, though not great pitching line, but a LOT better than he'd been doing. The O's had him penciled in for their bullpen in 1963. Then, in Spring Training, he slipped fielding a bunt (by Jim Bouton, of all people) and hurt his arm. He threw just 41 innings in 1963, walking 40 and striking out 36, and he was toast as well.

The point is, you can name dozens of pitchers who flamed out, for various reasons. Kid Nichols, Herb Score (and no, not because of the eye injury… he hurt his arm after he came back from that), Sandy Koufax, for goodness sakes, J.R. Richard, Von McDaniel, and Karl Spooner, Joe Wood and Steve Dalkowski. The young fireballers who didn't flame out are the exceptions to the rule… Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson – freaks of nature all. (It's hard to say if Roger Clemens should be included in this group or not.)

One unique case among this fraternity is Bob Feller, who was overwhelming major league hitters at the age of 17, and ended up with a long career, and 266 wins. However, recall that, because of World War II, Feller didn't pitch a single major league inning at the ages of 23, 24, 25, and only pitched 72 innings in 1945, at the age of 26…

Year     Age      IP

1936     17         62

1937     18         149

1938     19         273

1939     20         297

1940     21         320

1941     22         343

1942     23         0

1943     24         0

1944     25         0

1945     26         72

1946     27         371

Also recall that Feller was done by the age of 36 when he threw 83 innings in 1955. He finished up with 37 innings in 1956, and that was it. His last major league pitch was when he was 37. Although he was clearly an unusual talent, the guess here is that he wouldn't have lasted that long, not given his workload, if it hadn't been for World War II. His strikeout rate dropped dramatically, from 8.4 Ks per nine innings, to 5.9 Ks per nine innings, after he threw those 371 innings in 1946. From 1947 on, he was getting by by striking out, in order, 5.9, 5.3, 4.6, 4.3, 4.0, 3.8, 3.1 and 3.8 batters per nine innings.

What's the long term prognosis for Strasburg? No one really knows. A lot of pitchers in recent years, e.g., Chris Carpenter, Tim Hudson, came back successfully from Tommy John Surgery. However, not many of them were starting pitchers who threw as hard before the surgery as did Strasburg. Maybe more importantly, the jury is still out on the future of pitchers with Tommy John Surgery who throw largely with their arm, especially who throw 100 MPH largely with their arm, something pitching guru Dick Mills refers to as the "Gullwing Syndrome." Another young, hard thrower who throws largely with his arm is the Braves Tommy Hanson, your classic "dart thrower." Look for him to go down some day, unless his mechanics change, because, in baseball, you just never know.

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