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May 13, 2009

Future Shock

Hitting Strasburg

by Kevin Goldstein

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Even though the draft is still almost a month away, you might be a bit overloaded on Stephen Strasburg at this point. Never before has an amateur been so well-known among even casual fans before being selected. How many times can one write about the perfect frame, the triple-digit heat, and the plus-plus breaking ball? With platitude after platitude getting thrown out there-is he the best college pitcher of the decade, best amateur pitcher ever, and so on-it's important to note that Strasburg is mortal. He's given up 13 runs this year, and 12 of them were earned. There have been 48 hits off Strasburg this year, including, believe it or not, three home runs. So, what's the secret? What's it like to go deep against the Next Big Thing? To find out, I tracked down the three players who have taken Strasburg deep this year, as well as the one player with three base knocks against him.

The Unlikely Hero

Texas Christian infielder Ben Carruthers is a three-year starter for the Horned Frogs. He's an outstanding defender, and not especially known for his bat; his .275 batting average is the lowest among all starters on a good-hitting team, and he's hit just two home runs in 138 at-bats. However, one of those home runs was against Stephen Strasburg.

The wind was blowing out at 30 mph on that March 27th day, but that's not how Carruthers chooses to remember it. "It was a little windy that day, but I just used it to my advantage," he recalled. "I'm not going to talk about the wind, I'm going to tell people I got it pretty good."

Think that was a fluke? Think again. Last year, when Strasburg fired a one-hitter against TCU, the one hit was a double off the bat of Carruthers. "I joke that I own him," laughed Carruthers, "but nobody owns him. Nobody that I've faced or will ever face is comparable to him... he's just in a whole other world."

Carruthers' baseball career will likely come to an end in the next few weeks, despite jokes that some big-league teams will want him solely to hit against Strasburg. "I'll only do it if they let me use an aluminum bat," assessed Carruthers, "If I had to use a wood bat, he'd just shatter it."

But he also knows his place in history, and he'll always have the bomb off of Strasburg to pass along to his family. "It'll be my claim to fame," he joked. "When I'm watching ESPN and he's getting his tenth Cy Young Award, I'll tell my kids that I took him deep."

Most Likely To Go Pro

Carruthers' teammate, catcher Bryan Holaday, is the most likely of the trio to get drafted next month. While he won't be an instant millionaire like Strasburg, his raw power-he ranks second on the team with nine home runs-and plus arm should make him a second-day selection.

Beyond being one of the trio to take Strasburg deep this year, Holaday has been one of the best hitters against him this year overall. In two games against the San Diego State ace, he's 2-for-5 with the home run, a walk, and almost more impressively zero strikeouts in those three outs that he made. So does Bryan Holaday own Stephen Strasburg? "I wouldn't quite go there," he laughed. "Me and Ben give everyone on the team a little crap about it. We get to say they can't touch him and we're on him. But we know deep down that we don't own him."

Holaday says that while you can't change the way you play when Strasburg is on the mound, the buzz around him does create a different atmosphere. "There's almost a moment of silence before his pitches, and then you see all the [radar] guns go up behind home plate," he explained, adding that the home run in front of all those scouts was one of the highlights of his year. "It definitely put a smile on my face," he added, "because I knew that everyone just saw that."

The bigger highlight would come later that night. "Turns out I made Baseball Tonight with that one," Holaday said. "Andrew Cashner [a 2008 Cubs first-round pick, and also a TCU alum] called and said I made Baseball Tonight, so that was pretty fun."

Holaday hopes that he'll have some more appearances on the highlight show down the road, but he knows he at least always has one. "I'm definitely going to brag about it for the rest of my life," he said.

The YouTube Sensation

University of San Diego catcher Nick McCoy was the first to take Strasburg deep this year, and while it's hardly the next "Chocolate Rain," the YouTube video documenting the feat is pushing 10,000 views.

Like the TCU duo who hit home runs off Strasburg, McCoy's memory of the at-bat is vivid and detailed. "It was a fastball up on a 2-2 pitch," he explained. "I hit it, and I knew I got a lot of the barrel on it, but I didn't know it was out and I was sprinting," he said. The video backs up the assertion, as McCoy is clearly seen rounding second base at full speed as the ball goes over the fence. Both he and his teammates knew something special had happened. "Everyone in the dugout was coming after me and hitting me and giving me a hard time," McCoy said. "It was awesome."

The home run came in McCoy's first at-bat against Strasburg, and the junior will choose to focus on that at-bat, as opposed to the two that followed it, both of which ended in strikeouts. "I got caught chasing sliders in the dirt twice," he explained. "Just adding to his 250 strikeouts or whatever he has this year." McCoy represents only 1.2 percent of Strasburg's strikeouts this year, but one-third of the home runs hit against him.

The Contact Hitter

UNLV Senior J.J. Sferra doesn't have a home run off Strasburg. In fact, he doesn't even have a home run this season. A center fielder weighing in at all of 155 pounds, Sferra hits at the top of the order, has more walks than strikeouts, and leads the Rebels with six triples, so you pretty much know what kind of player he is. That said, he's still worth talking too as the only player this year with three hits off Strasburg. In two games against the Aztecs, Sferra is 3-for-6 against Strasburg, with three singles, and three strikeouts (out of just 17 strikeouts in 208 at-bats on the season).

He remembers each hit, by pitch and where it went. "Fastball away, hard grounder between third and short," Sferra began. The second and third hits? "Fastball that jammed me and I got a blooper over the shortstop, and then the third hit was a slider-ground ball between second and first," he concluded, reflecting that he can use the entire field.

"It's fun just getting one hit off of him," said Sferra. "It's a cool opportunity to go against a guy you know is going to be the first pick in the draft and a big-leaguer, and I just tried to have fun and play the game," he added. As in-conference rivals, Sferra faced Strasburg last year, and took what he learned into this year's contests. "Last year we faced him once, and it's just unbelievable... I've never seen a baseball explode out of a pitcher's hand like that," said Sferra. "This year, I at least knew what was coming."

A transfer from Arizona State, Sferra has faced plenty of top competition, but by his memory even the best pitchers he has faced pale in comparison to Strasburg. "When I was [at Arizona State], we faced [Tim] Lincecum and Joba [Chamberlain], so I've faced big-league stars already, but Strasburg is just on another level," he said. "He was 100 mph against us the entire first inning. I've never seen that on any level, including the big leagues, and then he adds location and a great breaking ball."

How To Hit Stephen Strasburg?

I asked each player what their advice would be to someone who told them he was facing Strasburg tomorrow. The idea seems to be pretty clear: look fastball, hit fastball.

Carruthers: "The first thing I'd say is 'good luck.' Then I'd say sit on the fastball, because at least you know he's going to throw strikes. So just step in there and compete and try not to strike out on three pitches."

Holaday: "He mainly throws fastball/slider to righties, so pick one pitch and sit on it the entire at-bat, and when you get it, you better not miss it. That one pitch should be the fastball, because you can sit slider, but there's a good possibility that you're not going to touch it anyway."

McCoy: "Look for the old number one and stick to it. You're going to get maybe one pitch to hit in your plate appearances, so don't be late on it. His breaking ball is the real deal, and it looks like a fastball out of his hand, so you can't really guess with him or you'll be caught between a rock and a hard place."

Sferra: "Don't try to do too much. Look for the fastball, and react to the breaking ball and hope he hangs one. That breaking ball in the dirt is very hard to lay off of and I struck out twice on it. Just have fun, have confidence, get your foot down early, be a little quicker to the ball, and just go with the pitch and hit line drives."

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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

Related Content:  The Who,  Bryan Holaday

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