Strasburg Has Historic Run in 2009 Season

Originally published in the April 3, 2009 edition of Collegiate Baseball 


Editor/Collegiate Baseball

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Never in the history of college baseball has a pitcher thrown a fastball 102 mph and averaged 19.4 strikeouts per nine innings.

Until now.

San Diego State 6-foot-4, 220-pound RHP Stephen Strasburg hit the magic 102 mph plateau seven times during his second start of the season against Nevada and has been striking batters out at a record clip.

If he continues at his current pace of 19.4 strikeouts per nine innings, he will obliterate the NCAA Division I record of 16.8 strikeouts per nine innings held by Ryan Wagner of Houston during the 2003 season.

In the five games he has pitched this season, he has struck out 44 of 45 starting batters at least once.

In four of his five starts, he was named Louisville Slugger National Player of The Week after striking out 16 batters in 6 2/3 innings against Nevada, 18 against the University of San Diego over 8 innings (the second most in a game ever by a Mountain West Conference pitcher), 14 in 7 innings against UNLV, and 15 in 7 innings against Brigham Young.

Over the last two years, Strasburg has done something no other college player has ever done being named Louisville Slugger National Player of The Week an unprecedented seven times.

His most memorable outing was a 23 strikeout performance against Utah last season, tying for the third most ever in a college game and the most since the 1981 season. That performance set new San Diego State and Mountain West Conference single game records.

That game marked the second of six consecutive starts in which he reached double digit strikeout numbers. During that string of contests, he allowed only two runs (one earned) over 55 innings from March 20-May 8 and ended the season with 133 strikeouts and only 16 walks.

His numbers are just as imposing this season after five appearances: 4-0 record, 1.57 ERA, 74 strikeouts, 7 walks in 34 1/3 innings.

How this incredibly talented pitcher was not taken in the Major League Draft three years ago, which featured 1,502 selections over 50 rounds, and more importantly 762 pitchers, more than half of the selections, is a story in itself.

As a senior at West Hills High School in Santee, Calif., Strasburg was then 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds and considered chubby by pro scouts with a fastball that touched 90 mph.

Even worse, scouts felt he had a poor mental makeup as he snapped at infielders who made errors or challenged umpires on ball strike calls. He even questioned his high school coach at times all within earshot of scouts.

After Strasburg enrolled at San Diego State, he found out the main reason he wasn’t drafted was his poor mental makeup which he learned about from his Pitching Coach Rusty Filter.

“That definitely fueled the fire inside me to prove them (scouts) wrong,” said Strasburg.

“They didn’t think I was good enough and doubted my abilities to play Division I baseball. I was insulted that I wasn’t drafted at the time. But I knew during my senior year of high school that I didn’t want to go into pro ball the next year and instead play for San Diego State. I knew I would grow as a person and a player there.

“Apparently scouts didn’t like it when I got upset at pitches not being called strikes. My body language was not what they wanted to see. I consider myself a pretty tough competitor. But the fact of the matter is that they felt I was soft. I felt they judged me from the beginning without ever taking the time to learn who I was as a person. I guess they will pay the price for that now.

“I feel I have improved a lot in that area of my game. But I have always had a competitive drive to be the best pitcher I could be. That has never, ever been a problem with me.”

In the history of the Professional Draft which goes back 43 years to 1965, only seven players have vaulted from an undrafted high school senior to the No. 1 pick overall three years later in college.

Research done by Mike Teevan, manager of media relations with Major League Baseball, shows that six pitchers, all righthanders, and one third baseman, were not drafted after high school but became the first overall pick in the draft three years later in college.

The seven include:

Ø 3B Dave Roberts (Oregon), first overall pick of the 1972 draft by Padres.

Ø RHP Tim Belcher (Mount Vernon Nazarene), first overall pick of the 1983 draft by Twins.

Ø RHP Andy Bennes (Evansville), first overall pick of the 1988 draft by Padres.

Ø RHP Paul Wilson (Florida St.), first overall pick of the 1994 draft by Mets.

Ø RHP Chris Benson (Clem-son), first overall pick of the 1996 draft by Pirates.

Ø RHP Matt Anderson (Rice), first overall pick of the 1997 draft by Tigers.

Ø RHP Bryan Bullington (Ball St.), first overall pick of the 2002 draft by Pirates.

San Diego State University RHP Stephen Strasburg will undoubtedly be the next in line.

Going From 90-102 MPH

Once Strasburg enrolled at San Diego State, he began an intense weight training and running program that allowed him to drop 30 pounds in a little over four months. Before you knew it, he had gone from 250 pounds to an athletic 220 pound frame packed with muscle.

“During the fall of my freshman year, I lost 15 pounds in my initial conditioning. Then they gave us a workout program to do over Christmas break, and that is when I lost the other 15 pounds.

“Once I started to lift correctly for the first time in my life, my body started to transform into a more athletic direction.”

Strasburg was asked how he increased his velocity from 90 mph out of high school to 102 mph which he hit seven times during his second outing of this season — a difference of 12 mph.

“When I dropped the 30 pounds, matured athletically and grew into my body, I threw harder. I didn’t change my mechanics one bit. In high school, I was never really taught how to lift and properly condition my body. When I came to San Diego State, I learned how to bench press properly for the first time, how to squat for the first time. I just took it from there. My arm is just a lot stronger now, along with the rest of my body.”

During his freshman season, he served as the closer for the Aztecs and pitched in 25 games. He recorded 7 saves while allowing only 10 earned runs. In each outing, he became stronger mentally because he knew he could pitch against NCAA Division I hitters as his velocity topped out at 93 mph.

During the fall of his sophomore season, his velocity jumped 8 mph higher as he registered 101 mph during an intrasquad game. He hit that several more times during the 2008 season.

Then in his second outing of the 2009 season against Nevada, he hit 102 mph seven times as he fanned 16 batters in 6 2/3 innings.

“It has been amazing to watch the transformation,” said San Diego State Pitching Coach Rusty Filter, now in his 16th season in charge of hurlers with the Aztecs.

“We didn’t change anything mechanically with him. But he has gone through a big change physically. His body has really transformed.

“Over the last few years with a good weight and conditioning program, he has increased velocity steadily.”

Filter was asked how Strasburg’s arm speed has increased so dramatically at San Diego St.

“You usually see an increase with guys who come from high school. But to make a jump like this is simply amazing. It is nothing specific that we have done. We haven’t reinvented pitching here. We do a lot of things that have been done for many years. What helped him initially was being put in the closer’s role as a freshman. He had to be ready to go every night, and he took care of his arm as well.

“Stephen has worked extremely hard. He long tosses, does cord work and does arm circles just like many pitchers do. The key has been listening to his arm so that he doesn’t overdue it.

“Sometimes magic things happen to pitchers, and it is difficult to put your fingers on what precisely caused the velocity change.”

To put Strasburg’s incredible velocity jump in perspective, only eight pitchers in Major League baseball history have been radar gunned at 102 mph or higher.

According to the Baseball Almanac, the eight include:

Ø Joel Zumaya (104.8 mph in 2006).

Ø Mark Wohlers (103 mph in 1995).

Ø Armando Benitez (102 mph in 2002).

Ø Bobby Jenks (102 mph in 2005).

Ø Randy Johnson (102 mph in 2004).

Ø Matt Lindstrom (102 mph in 2007).

Ø Robb Nen (102 mph in 1997).

Ø Justin Verlander (102 mph in 2007).

Prior to the invention of the Jugs Radar Gun in 1975, two other pitchers threw over 102 mph, according to The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball.

Stories from the early 1960s said that Steve Dalkowski threw his fastball 105 mph and possibly harder.

Hall of Famer Bob Feller supposedly threw 104 mph during the 1941 season at Lincoln Park in Chicago.

Strasburg’s Pitch Selection

Strasburg was asked what pitches he brings to the table.

“I have a 4-seam fastball with 6 inches of run, a 2-seam fastball that sinks along with a slider with late break and changeup which has the action of a split-finger when thrown correctly. I have the same release point with all of my pitches which makes it very tough on hitters.

“Hitters can’t tell whether I am throwing a fastball or slider because both deliveries are identical as well as the release point. I don’t snap my wrist. I just stay behind the pitch. Everything then looks the same. My slider is definitely my go to pitch for strikeouts. Batters say it is very tough to hit.”

Strasburg was asked whether it feels any different to his arm and body to throw pitches 102 mph compared to 90 mph in high school.

“The thing I have noticed is that the plate appears much closer than it did in high school. Maybe it is because once I release a pitch, it gets there a lot faster than in high school.

“Other than that, it feels pretty much the same. I’m putting in the same amount of effort on pitches as I did in high school. I’m just a lot stronger.”

Since Strasburg has become a specialist in the strikeout, he was asked if he has any favorite moments of hitters throwing bats, helmets or other such antics after they are called for strike three.

“What I like to see is the batter’s knees get wobbly when I throw a slider. Since it has late break, it is fun to watch the hitter after it breaks into the zone for strike three. My slider velocity is anywhere from 80-83 mph.”

Strasburg said that he follows the same routine after his starts and is consistent with it.

“After I pitch in a game (usually on Fridays), I don’t throw the next day which features a lot of running. On Mondays, I am in the weight room doing a core workout. Tuesday is a bullpen day. After that, I keep my arm healthy for the next start. On the day of games, I try to stay loose and not try to overanalyze too many things going into the game. If I can just do my thing, I should be successful.”

Precision Control

Strasburg’s control is simply amazing.

Last season, he only walked 16 batters and struck out 133 in 97 1/3 innings as he posted an 8-3 record and 1.57 ERA.

So far in 2009, he has been on track with his control with only 7 walks and 74 strikeouts in 34 1/3 innings.

He was asked how he has such impeccable control.

“My mechanics are very basic and very easy to repeat. If you have repeatable mechanics, you have a great chance of throwing a lot of strikes consistently.

“I have always had good command of my pitches. Since I didn’t always throw this hard, I had to learn how to locate pitches properly in order to be successful.”