If you're like me, you spent the days leading up to last night's MLB Draft reading article after article about all the top pitching prospects who never panned out, and how this year's No. 1 pick Stephen Strasburg was going to have to overcome tremendous odds to live up to the hype that preceded his selection by the Washington Nationals. Rather than just reference the personal histories of top prospects who never quite fullfilled their promise, Sports Illustrated's Senior Baseball writer Lee Jenkins actually went out and spoke to a number of these "dominant amateur pitchers" who were known as "can't miss prospects" to see what if any advice they could offer to Mr. Strasburg as he (hopefully) begins his major league career in DC. Mr. Jenkins, as he was kind enough to do a few months back when he published an article on Strasburg, agreed to answer a few of my questions in advance of the publication of his new piece, "What It Means To Be The No.1" which is on newsstands, or hopefully in your mailbox today...
Federal Baseball (FB): I was struck by the quote you had from Lew Krausse, who expresses concern for Stephen Strasburg's emotional well-being after recounting his own personal struggles, and is quoted as stating, "God, I hope they take care of him emotionally." Did you get the sense that Mr. Krausse and maybe others didn't think they were taken care of emotionally, have baseball teams changed their approach to providing support for these young players since the early 60's when Mr. Krausse first came up?
SI's Lee Jenkins: Baseball had no infrastructure in place to take care of a player going straight from high school to the majors, and really, it still doesn’t. But remember that Lew Krausse and David Clyde were high-schoolers, while Strasburg is coming out of college. He is much more mature than they were and likely more able to handle what is coming to him. Compared to the 1960s and 70s, every organization takes greater care of its prospects. They have vast support systems in place to help them both physically and emotionally. But people are still wired differently and some handle the big-league life better than others. Take Zack Greinke, for instance, who had to leave the Royals because of his personal problems. You never know how a player will react to the kind of microscope Strasburg is going to be under. Having said that, though, in the time I spent with Strasburg I found him to be very down-to-earth and not at all impressed with himself -- for whatever that’s worth.
FB: Did any of the players you spoke to find the amount of attention being given to Strasburg to be excessive, since many recount not being scouted at all or at least having come up through a much less structured system?
SI's Lee Jenkins: Even Mark Prior, who turned pro only eight years ago, was amazed at how much the world has changed in regard to the amateur draft and the following of high-school and college players. Prior went to a major university (USC) in a major media market (LA), but said the media attention was not even comparable to what Strasburg has endured. He found out where he was drafted on the internet and then went right out to practice. There are pros and cons to the attention players get today. On the one hand, it will probably help Strasburg make more money, and the Nationals will be more heavily invested in his success. On the other hand, it probably took away from the end of his college experience, and it adds to the pressure on his shoulders. Reaching expectations will be difficult. Surpassing them could be impossible. But LeBron James did it, so there’s always hope.
FB: Is there any sense of fraternity amongst the players you spoke to? They all seem to have stories with striking similarities to each others' and to Stephen Strasburg's, notably Andy Benes, who says that all of a sudden in his junior year he struck out 21 batters and found himself with 8 miles an hour of increased velocity, after which, his career in baseball, "...was all thrust upon me at once," which is eerily similar to Strasburg's emergence.
SI's Lee Jenkins: Matt Anderson, Detroit’s No. 1 pick in 1997, who threw 102 mph like Strasburg, said he follows all these guys and feels a kinship to them. But their experiences are slightly different. Tim Belcher, Floyd Bannister and Andy Benes all had successful major league careers. I’m not sure they can relate very well to someone like David Clyde. But I know that Anderson sees similarities between himself and Strasburg, and Benes does as well. When Benes started talking about how he was unwanted out of high school and picked up eight miles per hour in one year, I also flashed back to Strasburg. Not many pitchers have picked up that much velocity in such a short time. Rich Harden was another, when he was in the A’s minor-league system. It means that Strasburg was a control pitcher first who then became a power pitcher. That should work to his advantage. He doesn’t think of himself as a flamethrower.
FB: Andy Benes also talks about the million-dollar bonuses picks like Strasburg receive and notes that, "It's very hard when you always have to validate what you've been paid." Especially on a team with a modest team payroll like Washington's, do you think Strasburg would be better suited by not going for the kind of blockbuster deal that his agent has been rumored to be seeking? Did any of the players you spoke to think he'd be better off with less to start?
SI's Lee Jenkins: That’s a great question. Strasburg will make a ton of money, but the bulls-eye on his back will be larger because of it. Everyone will want a chance to cut him down to size. In talking to the other pitchers, it seems that Strasburg will likely inspire a lot of jealousy in the minor leagues. In the majors, where players are usually more secure, he will probably be embraced. But it’s important that he work hard, perform well and keep his head down, in order to insulate himself against resentment. Of course, he will have to endure a lot of jokes about his contract, and if he has a prolonged holdout, he risks alienating some teammates and fans before he even gets to the big leagues. When Andy Benes said he was happy to have his $200,000, I totally understood what he meant. Obviously, we would all love to have $50 million, but there is a lot that goes with it.
FB: It seems like an inordinate amount of these "phenoms" suffered career-ending or altering injuries, is that more a sign of the times they came up in, and did any of them have especially good advice for Strasburg as far as avoiding the same fate?
SI's Lee Jenkins: Andy Benes talked about the importance of using your body to generate power. Floyd Bannister talked about the importance of throwing with downward arm angle. David Clyde talked about the importance of throwing, period, and not getting on too restrictive a program. But you can do everything right and have the perfect delivery – like Mark Prior – and still suffer a catastrophic injury. I’m sure the Nationals will be very careful with Strasburg, much more careful than the Rangers were with Clyde or the A’s were with Krausse or the Pirates were with Paul Pettit. But pitching is an unnatural motion, and when a person throws 102 mile per hour, there is always going to be risk. The pitchers stressed that Strasburg should do what has made him successful and not necessarily bend to what the organization wants. I know Strasburg likes to throw a lot in order to build up his arm. It will be interesting to see if the Nats have the same philosophy he does.
Thanks, Ed. Good talking with you again.
Thanks for doing this, Lee, it turned out great.