VIERA, Fla. -- Stephen Strasburg had dazzling stuff. From the beginning, there was no question about that. He could run his fastball up there at 100 mph, and even though that was impressive, even though that was enough to keep him in the Major Leagues, it was just the beginning.
When Nationals manager Davey Johnson is asked about Strasburg, he'll throw two words into the conversation.
To Johnson, that's the highest compliment anyone can pay a young pitcher. Because he was with Doc from the beginning with the Mets. Because he saw things from Gooden he thought he might never see again.
Only thing is, as great as Gooden was when he made his Major League debut as a 19-year-old in 1984, Strasburg might be better.
Or potentially better.
"Doc could command two pitches," Johnson said.
And they were amazing pitches, a blazing fastball and a knee-buckling curveball. From the beginning, Gooden simply overwhelmed hitters. Back then, hitters weren't even angry after facing him. Rather than wishing they had another crack, they would shake their heads and say something like, "Wow."
Anyway, after dropping Gooden's name when asked about Strasburg, Johnson kept going.
"Stras has three or four pitches he can get over," he said.
Everything begins with that 100-mph fastball. Actually, Fangraphs.com has it as averaging 95.7 mph last season. That means Strasburg had it consistently in the 94-95 range, and when he needed more in a tough spot, he had it in his back pocket.
Detroit's Justin Verlander is like that. He runs through a lineup spotting his pitches, changing speeds, getting by. And when Verlander is in trouble, he brings out the really hard stuff, especially in the seventh or eighth inning, when it's time to finish the deal.
It's Strasburg's 96-mph fastball that hitters always mention, because his command of it is so good. Not perfect, but good. And getting better. Regardless of what else Strasburg throws, it's the heater that hitters go up thinking about and looking for.
If they look for anything else, Strasburg will sense it and throw three in a row by them. But since they have to be prepared first for the hard stuff, it's the two offspeed pitches that can make them look foolish.
Strasburg threw his fastball 64.9 percent of the time last season. He threw 19 percent curveballs and 16.1 percent changeups. Incidentally, that changeup was clocked at an average velocity of 88.8 mph last season, according to Fangraphs.com. There are plenty of Major League pitchers who have gotten by with an 88.8-mph fastball.
Still, the stuff that can be measured is only part of the story. It's also only part of the reason Washington general manager Mike Rizzo took Strasburg with the first overall pick of the 2009 First-Year Player Draft.
To Rizzo, there was a another side to Strasburg every bit as impressive as the 100-mph fastball. It was his demeanor, his seriousness. Back then -- and now -- Strasburg was quiet and thoughtful, completely focused on his craft. He was confident, too, but not in a cocky way.
The more Rizzo learned about Strasburg, the more he saw him as one of the real rare ones, a guy who had both amazing talent and the commitment to work as hard as he could to refine those talents, polish them and be great.
The Nationals saw this early, in Strasburg's fifth Major League start. It was a sweltering night in Atlanta, and everything was going wrong.
"He threw a couple of pitches that were close, and he didn't get calls and walked someone," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "I think we were up one or two runs, and it put runners on first and second.
"He stepped off the mound and was like, 'OK.' I think he went 98, 99, 100 on the next hitter and struck the next guy out to get us out of the inning."
|"Watching a guy like Jake Peavy -- he was in my backyard, in San Diego, and I grew up watching him -- he's a bulldog out there. Even if you had little tweaks, little nicks on your body and stuff, he's going to go out there and give it everything he has every fifth day. He's going to throw 200 innings every year. That's the type of guy I want to be. I want to be a horse in the clubhouse."|
|-- Stephen Strasburg|
Zimmerman had already seen the 100-mph stuff, the rare stuff, the Hall of Fame-type stuff, but until that moment, he wasn't really sure about the kid. After that, there were no questions.
"I was like, 'All right, this kid has got a little something,'" Zimmerman said. "Obviously, he's a special talent. He wants to be that bulldog kind of guy, the guy we can count on going out there and throwing 200-plus innings every year. He works hard to be that guy. Rarely do you have guys that talented with that much work ethic and that much drive. When you get that combination, it's pretty special."
This is a special Spring Training for both the Nats and Strasburg. Washington is widely regarded as baseball's best team, a club with no apparent weaknesses.
Rizzo has built the rotation around young power arms. He has assembled a deep bullpen. The Nationals have a lineup with speed at the top (Denard Span) and power in the middle (Adam LaRoche). The clubhouse has a nice blend of youth and experience, a clubhouse that understands the grind of a long season. And Rizzo has one of the great managers of this generation in Johnson, who has won 56.4 percent of his 2,283 games.
As much expectation as there is around the Nats, as much as people are about to find out that Washington is one of the country's great baseball cities, it's an equally exciting season for Strasburg.
He is fully recovered from the Tommy John elbow surgery he underwent in 2010, and with last season's innings limit removed, this may be the year when he takes another step forward, perhaps to a place up there alongside David Price and Verlander and the others.
The Nationals will not say any of this. They will point out that Strasburg is the No. 1 guy in a deep, talented rotation, and that if he can take the ball every fifth day, it'll be interesting to see what happens.
"I'm expecting him to be as good as he has ever been, and for a longer time," Rizzo said. "We feel he's a top-of-the-rotation type of guy. We see him as workhorse down the road. We think he's ready to take that next step in his progression."
Strasburg has goals, too, and those goals don't begin with throwing 200 innings or winning a Cy Young Award or any of that stuff. He simply wants to be the guy who can be counted on to be healthy and durable. If Strasburg can just do that, if he can take the ball consistently, plenty of other good stuff will flow from there.
"Watching a guy like Jake Peavy -- he was in my backyard, in San Diego, and I grew up watching him -- he's a bulldog out there," Strasburg said. "Even if you had little tweaks, little nicks on your body and stuff, he's going to go out there and give it everything he has every fifth day. He's going to throw 200 innings every year. That's the type of guy I want to be. I want to be a horse in the clubhouse."
When you talk to Strasburg, two things stand out. One is his size. His 220 pounds are packed solidly over a 6-foot-4 frame. His lower body, the part of the body where pitchers get the drive to home plate, looks extremely strong.
The other thing you notice is Strasburg's calm. He's assured. He simply knows who he is. Strasburg is cordial and available to the media, but he does not seek attention. In a clubhouse dotted with professionals, he fits in.
"He has learned more about how hitters approach him and how best to use his stuff," Johnson said. "He's the No. 1 starter on a pretty good big league staff. That says all you need to know about him."
Now, about that innings limit. Rizzo was widely second-guessed for not allowing Strasburg to finish the 2012 season. He had reams of data supporting the care and feeding of a young pitcher. Most of the second-guessing seemed to be coming from people who said that the Nats had a chance to win the World Series, so why not go for it, and if Strasburg got hurt, well, so be it.
That someone would risk a 24-year-old pitcher's long-term health made zero sense to Rizzo, and he never wavered. Strasburg tried to talk his way out of the early shutdown and may have thought he'd succeed until he was called in on Sept. 8 and told, "That's it."
Now we may all see how good Strasburg can be, how great stuff and a terrific work ethic and the experience gained from 45 Major League starts come together. He's working hard on another weapon, a sinker, this spring, and is tweaking the curveball he wasn't allowed to throw immediately after the surgery.
Strasburg is quiet about this stuff. He just wants to take the ball. He wants a healthy season, a season in which he contributes to winning. Everything else will take care of itself.
"I don't really care about showing people," Strasburg said. "I want to prove it to myself."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.