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Stephen Strasburg Wins Muted Praise For AFL Debut

Did anyone else read this review of Stephen Strasburg's Arizona Fall League debut and wonder where all the superlatives went? Overall, it sounds like Strasburg pitched very well, getting two strikeouts and a bunch of grounders while allowing no runs in 3.3 innings of work, all in a hitters' league and against much more experienced players. (Jose Tabata, from AAA, got a hit and a walk off him.) But Strasburg's velocity was down from previous reports (to 98 MPH, which obviously most pitchers would kill for, although it was down to 95 by the third inning) and his curve wasn't as sharp.

There's nothing here that suggests that Strasburg will be anything but an ace, but the praise is much more muted than it's been in the past. Whereas before he was the "best prospect ever," now he's merely "a sort of right-handed Dave Righetti," who should begin his career as a top starter but end it in the bullpen.

Strasburg is clearly a special case, but it appears that even he, a once-in-a-generation talent, is mortal. This wouldn't be the first time that reviews of a prospect suddenly became mixed after he signed, and clearly this phenomenon isn't confined to pitchers. But compare the supposedly objective information in the BA article (98 MPH fastball that dropped down to 95 after two innings, with an 88 MPH slider) to the report from the Olney article (102 MPH fastball, 94 MPH slider) and tell me what happened there.

If a Strasburg-type player were available to the Bucs in the first round of the draft, they probably should consider taking him. But any lesser pitcher? I really don't know. Reports about a pitcher's velocity are almost always dubious, because radar guns aren't terribly reliable, because people tend to err on the high side, and because velocity comes and goes. The best way to read a report that a pitcher "touches 95" is to say that he probably can reliably throw 89. And so I think the best way to approach an amateur pitcher's stuff is to say that if he really does touch 95, or if he really does throw a hammer curve, there's at least a theoretical possibility he'll be able to do that in three years. That's something, since plainly there is a large group of professional pitchers who are very unlikely to ever do those things. But so much can change in between the time a pitcher is drafted and the time he arrives in the big leagues that it's silly to count on it. In the case of Stephen Strasburg, who can lose three MPH off his fastball and still be one of the hardest throwers in the league, that's one thing. In the case of a lesser prospect (read: nearly all of them), that's quite another.

As you all know, the Pirates passed on a variety of high-upside arms with the fourth overall pick in the draft last year and took Tony Sanchez instead. They then took a bunch of interesting pitchers in the later rounds, including Zach Von Rosenberg, Colton Cain, Victor Black and Trent Stevenson. They seem to get that amateur pitchers (and especially high school pitchers) are best treated as theoretical possibilities.

It's way too early to comment much on the 2010 draft, which isn't for eight more months. But a glance at Andy Seiler's excellent draft blog shows him choosing a pitcher, LSU righty Anthony Ranaudo, with the second overall pick. Time will tell if Ranaudo is a Strasburg- or David Price-type prospect, but if he isn't, I don't think the Pirates will pick him, or any pitcher. Instead, they'll go with a position player and take their pitchers later. Theoretical possibilities are nice to have, and every team needs a lot of them, but they aren't so rare that you can't just take them later. Hitters are much more reliable commodities.