Leach: Strasburg the best right now?
Nationals phenom on a short list of top pitchers in Majors
If you needed to win one Major League game, today, is it possible that the pitcher you'd choose is someone who was in Double-A six weeks ago?
Last month, six-time All-Star and former World Series Most Valuable Player Curt Schilling suggested that might be exactly the case. Schilling famously said of Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg, "He'll immediately, potentially, be the best pitcher in the game."
That's high praise, probably even hyperbole, in a season that has featured some magnificent individual pitching performances. Even when you account for that "potentially" qualifier, it's hard to imagine that the best pitcher in the game might have been a San Diego State Aztec at this time last year.
But if he's not the best, somebody else has to be. Which raises the question: Who is better? It's fair to say the list is short.
Put aside, for a moment, the idea of an actual Major League trade. Issues like contracts and service time complicate that matter. It may well be that Strasburg is the most valuable single asset in baseball right now, because he's under team control -- and cost-controlled -- through the 2016 season. Even if you preferred, say, Cliff Lee for one start, there's no way you'd trade Strasburg for Lee. The Seattle lefty can be a free agent at the end of the season, so you'd be trading 6 1/2 years of Strasburg for 3 1/2 months of Lee. That's a bad deal.
But say instead that you're looking at winning one game, or making it to the end of this season. It's a less-complicated question, since the only matter at hand is the ability to get outs. But it may well be a tougher one to answer, just because the information on Strasburg remains limited.
He has a grand total of 67 2/3 innings pitched at all levels of professional baseball, or about three percent of what Roy Halladay has thrown in the Major Leagues. So we certainly don't have any kind of long view as to what the young man will become, and not much more than circumstantial evidence regarding how he'll handle himself in specific situations.
What we do have is the stuff, which is exceptional, and the command, which can be excellent but isn't always. Strasburg walked five in his second big league start, against the Indians. Lee has walked four batters in 68 innings this year. Halladay hasn't walked more than three in a game since June 2008. It's just one game, but two games in the Major Leagues are all we have to go on at this point.
Ubaldo Jimenez is enjoying an absolutely historic season, and Halladay is dominating the National League in his first go-round. Matt Cain is enjoying a career year and Josh Johnson just keeps quietly overwhelming hitters. Given that they all have lower ERAs than Strasburg, while making more Major League starts without the benefit of very carefully chosen opposition, they'd probably all rate ahead of him right now.
And then ...
"He's definitely a middle-to-top-of-the-rotation guy now," said a National League executive who requested anonymity.
"The exercise is, how many guys are like that? ... There's a handful of guys. I think it's probably less than 15 right now."
If you're seeking knocks on Strasburg, there are at least a couple of concerns. No one has really seen how he handles a tight spot in a professional game, because one hasn't really happened yet. The Nationals had a concern with how he would pitch out of the stretch, ostensibly part of the reason he spent the first two months of 2010 in the Minors.
And then there's the pitch-count issue, which is a very real one in this instance. Strasburg is 21, and he needs to be protected, lest he become another cautionary tale. So there's a very real difference between what can be expected from him and what can be expected from someone like Halladay or Adam Wainwright. Those pitchers can reasonably expect to pitch at least seven innings even when they're not at their most efficient. If Strasburg gets in a couple of jams early, he's probably not going past the fifth or sixth.
It's a subtle thing, but the subtle things are what separate pitchers with great stuff from great pitchers.
It becomes, in a sense, a proxy for the ongoing struggle in baseball to balance scouting data with performance analysis. With each start, there's more data on Strasburg, but at this point a large portion of any assessment must still be based on the scouting report. And what a scouting report it is, with a fastball from the high-90s up into triple digits, a hard, sharp breaking ball and an impressive changeup.
On pure stuff, it's hard to name a big league starter who boasts a better assortment. And the five-walk game notwithstanding, Strasburg showed excellent control in the Minors, walking 13 batters in 55 1/3 innings.
It's more difficult to translate statistics from the Minors to Major League equivalents for pitchers than it is for hitters, so even with advanced data it's tough to say exactly what Strasburg's Minor League numbers equate to at the big league level. But the website MinorLeagueSplits.com does provide some translations.
The site offers translated strikeout, walk and home run rates, and they're pretty outstanding. The rates come out to 8.27 strikeouts, 2.81 walks and 0.16 home runs per nine innings. That's elite territory. The strikeout rate would rank 12th in the National League, the walk rate 20th, and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.94 would be 14th in the league.
Only Dan Haren, Johnson, Roy Oswalt and Wainwright have a strikeout rate as high and a walk rate as low in the National League this year.
So, again, given that those pitchers have actually done it, against actual big league hitters, they're probably names on the I'll-keep-my-guy list. So we're now at seven. Maybe you give a point to guys who have proved it but are a step down this year, pitchers like Zack Greinke, Lee or even Johan Santana. That's 10.
Maybe you stretch it a little further, take pitchers whose numbers this year aren't quite up to those translations and Strasburg's two-start numbers. The teams that employ Chris Carpenter, Yovani Gallardo, Mike Leake and Tim Hudson might not give up their guys for a single game, or a week, in order to get Strasburg. But if you believe in the stuff as much as or more than the numbers, maybe you would.
A generous, inclusive list is 15 pitchers, right about where the GM set the line. A stricter list might be 10 or fewer, if you believe more in the stuff than the numbers.
Not bad for a guy a couple of weeks removed from being a Syracuse Chief.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.