Early numbers don't tell Strasburg's story
Nationals right-hander appears strong, healthy early in camp
VIERA, Fla. -- Stephen Strasburg has a 6.75 ERA after one Grapefruit League start. He also pitched quite well in that start. There's a lesson in there, even a few of them.
This is part of the fun of spring, separating the box score from the performance, the outcome from the process. Strasburg's stuff was sharp. He struck out three, showing impressive life on his fastball and his offspeed offerings. He changed elevation nicely, getting swings and misses at the bottom and top of the strike zone.
And yet there are sure to be people who look at that box score -- two runs allowed on three hits over 2 2/3 innings -- and worry. There is no reason to worry, and not because the line is misleading. There is no reason to worry because we have better information than a good or bad box-score line from a windy afternoon in early March.
Strasburg is fine. He's more than fine. We already had plenty of information to work with, leading to that conclusion.
For all the attention attached to his "comeback" this spring, Strasburg already came back from elbow surgery. He pitched 24 innings in the Major Leagues last September, and he was even more effective than he had been in 2010 before suffering the injury that cost him more than 12 months of big league time.
During that 2011 comeback, Strasburg was harder to hit than he had been in 2010. He didn't allow a single homer in five starts. His strikeout rate was down from an otherworldly 12 batters per nine innings to a merely dominating nine per nine, but his walk rate was positively microscopic. All during a period when simply feeling good would have been a victory.
It remains to be seen whether Strasburg will hold up over a full season, but then that applies to every pitcher to some degree. His effectiveness is not in much question, and in the short term neither is his health.
"I'm not really focused on [how I feel], but I definitely notice a difference, just from the time off in the offseason," he said. "My arm just felt a lot stronger. It didn't feel like it was getting tired as fast. It was pretty much a breeze. I kind of was a little erratic at times, but I know that's going to come with the repetitions and fine-tuning the mechanics.'
We tend to worry to extreme degrees when it comes to young pitchers and health. The flameouts of amazing talents like Mark Prior are never far from baseball fans' minds. But Strasburg is healthy -- he's 18 months removed from surgery. And his ability is clearly intact.
If there's one worry about a pitcher returning from elbow surgery, it's location. Command and control tend to lag behind raw stuff for rehabbing hurlers. Strasburg's performance in '11 shows that he's unlikely to have that problem. His iffy location Sunday -- and it's worth noting he didn't walk a batter -- is much more likely the result of it being March than of his rehabilitation.
"It's been a while since I've thrown offspeed [pitches] to hitters," he said. "I think the biggest thing that I noticed was that it was very easy for me to go out there, even going into the third inning my arm felt like I could have gone at least a few more."
If you're looking for a takeaway, this is it. A pitcher with staggering stuff and eerily precise command for his age feels strong. He feels healthy. It's far too soon to project numbers, and besides, pitchers aren't exactly the most predictable creatures. In general, though, bet the over on Strasburg. He has stuff, he has command and he has health. Regardless of what 2 2/3 innings -- or even 20 or 30 innings -- in Spring Training say.
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.