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March 23, 2010

Future Shock Blog

Setting A Date: Stephen Strasburg In The Bigs

by Kevin Goldstein

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One of the most common questions I've gotten this month during various radio/television interviews, book store events, etc. is when will we see Washington uber-righty Stephen Strasburg in the big leagues.  By getting reassigned to minor league camp on Saturday, the Nationals offered an easy answer to the question with, "Not opening day," but to set a smart over-under just takes a quick trip back eight years ago to the last version of Strasburg.

In 2002, Mark Prior was the exact same thing.  He was the best college pitcher in the history of baseball, and anybody who saw him that spring knew he was major league ready.  That year, Prior began the year as a 21-year-old at Double-A West Tenn.  He was five months short of his 22nd birthday.  This year, Strasburg will start off at Double-A Harrisburg in the Eastern League, three months away from the same number.  And the similarities don't end there.  Both were born in San Diego, both made their marks at colleges in southern California, with Prior at USC, and Strasburg at San Diego State.  Strasburg is listed at 6-4, 220, Prior the same weight but one inch taller.

Still, like the current Nationals, the Cubs decided not to just throw Prior to the major league wolves, but rather to let him dominate for a bit in the minors.  And dominate he did, but maybe not on the game-to-game level one might expect.  Here are Prior's six Southern League outings.

DATE IP H R ER BB K
4/7/02 5.0 4 1 0 2 10
4/12/02 5.0 3 4 2 2 8
4/17/02 7.0 2 0 0 1 8
4/22/02 3.1 7 7 4 1 7
4/27/02 8.0 3 1 1 2 15
5/2/02 6.1 7 3 3 2 7
TOTALS 34.2 26 16 10 10 55

One very quick and dirty stat I use for minor league pitchers is K/H.  It's an imperfect, but exceedingly quick measurement for how well a pitcher is doing to most important thing when it comes to projection – missing bats.  And 1-to-1 ratio is the minimum for true 'goodness', and 2-to-1 is utterly dominant.  When adding up Prior's time with West Tenn, we get a 2.60 ERA and .198 opponent's average with zero home runs in 131 at-bats, but we also see by the game logs that he was utterly dominant four times, and never did the ratio slip below one, as even in his bad start, which clearly looks like a night his defense didn't help things, seven of his ten recorded outs came via the strikeout.

With little left to prove, the Cubs moved Prior up to Triple-A Iowa at the begging of May, with similar results.

DATE IP H R ER BB K
5/7/02 7.2 3 1 0 2 10
5/12/02 4.2 4 4 0 4 10
5/17/02 4.0 6 5 3 2 4
TOTALS 16.1 13 10 3 8 24

Once again, Prior was dominant (greater than 2-to-1 K/H ratio) in two-thirds of his starts, with the first one adding to his legend when he also smacked a pair of home runs.  While his May 12 start might not look great at first sight, again, he was clearly dominant, with 10 of 14 out coming via the whiff.

Prior hit the big leagues after these nine minor league outings, and was among the best pitchers in the league from day one. He made his debut on May 22, allowing two runs and striking out 10 over six innings in his debut (a game I attended with Baseball America's Jim Callis).  He'd finish that year with a 3.32 ERA in 19 starts and 147 strikeouts in 116.2 innings, putting up that much desired dominance ratio of 2-to-1 or greater in nine of his outings.

So much of Stephen Strasburg's last 24 months have mirrored Prior's days from nearly a decade ago, so let's set that date as an over/under on his big league debut: May 22, 2010.  Like Prior, there's no reason he can't be dominant from day one. Let's just hope it lasts a little longer . . . or a lot.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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