Hall of Fame hitter and San Diego State University Skipper Tony Gwynn was on Sirius XM's Inside Pitch with host Kevin Kennedy and fill-in partner WGN Sports Central host Jim Memolo to talk about the Washington Nationals' '09 no.1 overall pick, former SDSU starter Stephen Strasburg. The 21-year-old right-hander who's pitched 5.0 scoreless innings in 2 starts this Spring, giving up 4 hits and 1 walk while striking out 4, throws for the Nationals for the third and possibly final time this Spring against the Cardinals Friday night. Mr. Gwynn began the interview talking about his former starter's mindset heading into Spring Training:
Tony Gwynn: "The debate has begun whether or not he should be in the big leagues or not, and I just feel it's so funny cause Stephen, I think, had the situation figured out before he left for Spring Training, because the last thing he asked me before he left was, 'You know, what do you do when you want to make a club but you're not sure if they're gonna let you?' And I said the best thing you can do is just go pitch well and let them, make them make a decision. So, he got off to a good start, he's throwing the ball really well and it's gonna be interesting to see what happens here in the future."
Jim Memolo: "And let's face it, some of whether or not Stephen Strasburg starts with the Nationals or not is not as much baseball-related as it is baseball business..."
Tony Gwynn: "...Yeah, that arbitration clock starts a little bit sooner if he makes that club coming out of Spring Training..."
Tony Gwynn: "...Yeah, that arbitration clock starts a little bit sooner if he makes that club coming out of Spring Training and you're right, it's not just a baseball issue, cause I think when you look at their roster, as far as their starting pitchers are concerned, to me there's no doubt whether or not he should be there or not, but you have to take into consideration a couple things, I think, and the first one is he's just not used to pitching every fifth day, you know, at college we pitched him once a week, you know he pitched in the Fall League and I'm sure they kinda tried to get him on that track of pitching every fifth day, but I think that's a concern, the other concern is he hasn't had much failure either, and I think the Nationals are kind of weighing the fact that well, if he did make it and he did struggle you kind of open yourself up for a little bit of second guessing by quote/unquote baseball people. So I'm sure they're gonna take their time, I'm sure they're gonna do what's in the best interest of their club, and Stephen, and I'm gonna sit back and watch, cause I am not surprised that he's had success, granted it's Spring Training, but he's a guy who, he gets it, he's 6'5'', he's 220, he's got a 97-98 mph fastball with complimentary pitches that he can command, and you know, in my mind I just think he's going to be successful."
Kevin Kennedy: "Tony, it's funny, because back in my day and perhaps your's too a little bit, they didn't have that business that they could keep you down, (Laughter from Kennedy and Gwynn), so my question is, really about becoming a pro, that was my biggest thing coming out of San Diego State too, was that my first coach, you may remember Ben Hines, who was a hitting guy for the Dodgers later on, he said, my first manager I should say, in pro ball, he said, 'You'll never feel 100% again,' and after catching twenty-one in a row, he was right." (Laughter)
Tony Gwynn: "It's different. You know, there's no question, you've got travel. You have to take care of yourself. There's other factors that Stephen hasn't gone through yet, that you kind of have to prepare for, there's a whole lot more than just going out there between the white lines and pitching every fifth day, and you're right, it's tough, it's a tough life, but I know that's what he wants, I mean for him, it's more about being able to get to the big leagues and being able to stay there more than anything else, and he worked really hard this Spring and got himself ready to go, and again, he's only had two starts and we can't just take those two starts and think that that's going to carry over, but he's got all the attributes of a guy who should be a major league pitcher, but like I said, Jim Riggleman called me about a week into Spring Training and just called to let me know how he was doing and stuff and I called him right back and told him that, 'You just saw him throw in the bullpen, didn't you? And you liked what you saw?' And I think that's, when you see him pitch, you can't help but like his stuff, like his composure, like his mental makeup, so again, there's things he still has to learn there's no question about that, but he has the makings I think of being definitely a pretty good starting pitcher at the pro level."
Kevin Kennedy: "You mentioned the makeup, that's the other part of it, when I was talking about Robin Yount the other day, I grew up with Robin, and Del Crandall said, you know, aside from the physical ability we knew he was going to struggle at first hitting a little bit, but he was mentally beyond his years, I mean, does Stephen have that? I know you have that, a lot of the greats have that, but does he have that?"
Tony Gwynn: "I really think he does, you know he stepped in here as a freshman, I think he'd be the first to tell you he had a lot to learn. I thought he was kind of immature, kind of, not mentally tough, and boy o' boy he picked up on that right away and by the time he left here...in my mind there was never any doubt that he was going to be able to handle all the stuff that was being thrown at him, I mean he was the most-talked-about player in college baseball last year and the scrutiny and the things that he had to go through, the interviews and fans waiting for him and autographs, and that whole thing, he handled it, like you would want somebody to handle it. And I said when he was drafted, if it came down to the money or getting the best possible deal that you could possibly get or telling his agent hey I want to play, let's go, that he would make the right decision and as it turned out that's exactly what happened, he said I want to play, let's sign, let's go, and yeah, he signed the last day, but you know, he got a great deal and then he began his climb toward getting to the big leagues and I'm sure Spring Training has got to be amazing over there because every time he pitches everyone wants to see him, and that whole thing and that's why the people that I've talked to said that he's handled it pretty well, so I'm not surprised cause he kinda gets it, he kinda understands what's at stake, he understands what he needs to do and how he needs to do it and he's gone out and tried to do it."
Jim Memolo: "As a college pitcher you can't get a better gauge of where you're at than to have a Hall of Fame hitter as your coach, how does his stuff compare to all the stuff you've seen over the years?
Tony Gwynn: "That's a good question. His delivery is completely different, but the guy I think about is John Smoltz. You know. Overpowering fastball, he's got a really good slider, where Smoltzy threw his split, Strassy throws a change, and it's, you know in college it was kinda tough for him to throw his changeup, because his changeup was like 88, 89 and that's like most fastballs in college baseball, so he really didn't have to throw it that often, but there were a couple of times last year where he needed to throw it and he did, and he had a lot of success. But I think, because he's so tall, and his delivery is so good, to me there aren't a lot of guys that I face who kinda fall into that category where he had the overpowering, but two other pitches that were very good, and to me I think John Smoltz is the closest guy that I can think of that I faced."
Kevin Kennedy: "Tony, did he ever say, 'Skip get in there and take a few hacks" I want to show you what I got?"
Tony Gwynn: "Yeah, he said a couple of things. I told him last year that if he won 10 games I would let him hit, and then when he won 10 games I didn't want to let him hit...but I thought about getting up there against him, but I was kinda scared I wasn't going to be able to get out the way if he came inside. And you know, the thing with Strassy is that he locates on both sides of the plate and that's, you know, getting in there and facing him wouldn't have been that big a deal because I know his command is good, so getting hit wouldn't have been an issue. But, no I wasn't going to let him embarrass me, I had to kind of keep some credibility, you know, it's probably a good thing to not get up there and face him."
Jim Memolo: "Where did you find him? What was the unfinished product like when you got him out at San Diego State?"
Tony Gwynn: "You know, I tell this story all the time, because when we recruited him, he was a local kid here out of West Hills High School down here in San Diego and I went to see him pitch as a high school senior. And he was 6'5" about 240 and his fastball was 90-91, and to be honest, there were a lot of high school pitchers in town that honestly, I liked a lot better. And Rusty Filter, who was our pitching coach at Stanford he was just adamant that this guy had a high ceiling and we need to sign him. And I was really fighting it, I was like, you know, I think this other guy's better and he said, 'You know what the thing about it is, Tony? I think we're gonna get him into shape and he's going to surprise you with the kind of stuff that he has.' And so I said OK, we signed him, first day of conditioning, he ran like 2 100s and he ran to the fence and he was throwing up for like ten minutes, and to me it just didn't equate, I kinda felt like he was gonna have trouble, but as time went on and he got into shape, the fastball went from 91 to 97, the first time I saw him throw a bullpen, I was like, 'Wow!' We're gonna have to do something because we thought we had four pretty good starting pitchers to begin with, so we made him the closer and you know from the first game that he went in, he pitched against USC, he walked the bases loaded and then he struck out the next three guys on nine pitches. And you just kind of new that if he continued to work hard and progress, that you know, he was going to be one of those guys. I talked earlier about not being mentally tough...he just got tougher, the more he pitched the tougher he got, the more competitive he got, and it got to the point where he was really upset if guys squared one up off him and we built him up to get mentally tough and we kind of had to bring him down and let him know, guys are going to make contact off of you, but that's how he approached it, and you know what, he had a lot of success doing it that way."
Jim Memolo: "Circle back to the whole Stephen Strasburg thing, Tony, if you were the Nationals, all business aside, is he ready to start the season?"
Tony Gwynn: "I would. You know, there's nothing like on-the-job training, and I think the thing for me, you know, having coached him the last three years, is that if he should struggle, he's gonna understand it, he's going to work hard to try to get through it. I don't think the he's gonna go into the tank if he struggles as a starting pitcher, I think he understands that it's about your work ethic and paying attention and you know working hard to try to improve, you know, all the business stuff aside...I say why not. He's your no.1 pick, this is what you expected, you expected him to go out and have success, um...it's not going to surprise me if that's the decision that they make."