Hoping Strasburg doesn't reach 105 on radar gun

March, 27, 2009
Via Lee Jenkins, the legend grows

    "I know everybody now is asking, 'How did you miss on Stephen Strasburg in high school?' " says a major league scout. "But we didn't miss. He was soft in every way." Strasburg would bark at infielders after errors and at umpires after bad calls. If he gave up a couple of hits and the opposing dugout started to chirp, he had a tendency to overthrow his fastball, which would then flatten out and get smacked even harder. "I told scouts not to draft me," Strasburg says. "I wasn't ready."

    Filter saw those radar-gun readings, that swimmer's wingspan, and persuaded [Tony] Gwynn to take him [at San Diego State]. During Strasburg's first night on campus it became clear he was a little different. He was living in a dorm at University Towers and was asleep at 10:30 p.m. when his roommate stumbled in with five female students. Strasburg was aghast. A few days later he moved in with his mother and grandmother, who share a nearby house. Then by the end of Strasburg's second week, when conditioning began, he was ready to drop out of school altogether. "I was this close," he says, holding his thumb next to his index finger. "I was going to find a job. We have a Home Depot and a Lowe's near our house."

    The man responsible for almost driving Strasburg away, and then for whipping him into shape, is Dave Ohton, the Aztecs' barrel-chested strength coach. When Marshall Faulk was playing football at the school, Ohton called him "a visitor" because he was so extraordinarily gifted and physically mature, he had to be an alien life force. Strasburg was no visitor. When the baseball team convened in September 2007 for preseason workouts on the football field, Ohton had the players warm up by running from the goal line to the 50 and back. Strasburg could not get through four sprints without vomiting. "Is there something wrong with you?" Ohton asked. "Do you have a medical condition?"

    Strasburg bowed his head, his chubby cheeks a bright red. "Just out of shape," he said. Ohton nicknamed him Slothburg, which he later shortened to Sloth. "I demoralized this young man," Ohton says. "I didn't even want him around the other players. I had never seen a college athlete who was as far behind as he was. I didn't think it was possible to be that bad." After two weeks of conditioning and purging Strasburg passed Ohton on the stairs in the weight room. "I appreciate your staying on top of me," Strasburg said. Ohton paused at the top of the staircase. "Sloth," he said, "you really should consider quitting. You're not going to make it."

I know all about the whole break-them-down-and-build-them-up routine. I've seen it close-up, and it's brutal but often highly effective (at least in the short term). But man, that guy was rough. All's well that ends well, I guess.

You want brutal? Here's some scary stuff …

    Given that he is only 20, Strasburg may have a couple of more miles per hour left in his right arm, but nobody with his best interests at heart wants to see him throw any harder. "It's better to throw 105 than 95, but it's better to throw 95 and be on the field than be in a trainer's room telling people you used to throw 105," says Glenn Fleisig, a research director at American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham who studies pitching. "The harder you throw, the more success you have, but you're pushing your body to higher demand." Strasburg is already stretching his limits. A person throwing a 90-mph fastball rotates his arm at a rate of 22 times per second. The more rotations, the more strain. As Stephen's father, Jim, a real estate developer, puts it, "I'm hoping he's maxed out." No one understands better than Gwynn what's at stake. He only uses Strasburg once a week and limits him to about 115 pitches. "I won't let him leave his arm here," Gwynn says.

If Strasburg were pitching professionally, he wouldn't be allowed to throw 115 pitches. Not when he's 20, and maybe not when he's 21. (We'll find out next spring.) On the other hand, if he were pitching professionally, he would pitch more than once per week. So maybe that's sort of a wash. (We can only hope.)

As for this business about throwing 105 … please, no. Every time we see a young pitcher doing things that seem practically impossible -- Kerry Wood and Francisco Liriano come to mind -- it turns out those things are impossible. Strasburg has struck out nearly 20 batters per nine innings this spring. That's plenty impossible enough. I don't know if throwing 105 is possible. For Strasburg's sake -- and frankly, for mine as a baseball fan -- I hope we don't find out. Because while 105 might well be possible, I'd be shocked if it were possible for long. And I want to see this guy pitch for a long time.


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