Steven Strasburg has been the hottest pitcher in baseball over the last two weeks.. Just ask anyone. In just three starts, he’s racked up an impressive 1.86 ERA, a 2-0 record (it would have been 3-0 if the Nationals hadn’t blown the game in extra innings to the White Sox), and a staggering 32 strikeouts. He’s been absolutely phenomenal, and there’s no reason to think that he won’t keep getting better from here.
Or is there?
While Strasburg has certainly impressed so far, talk of him winning this year’s Cy Young award (or even Rookie of the Year) is still premature. Even if we were only awarding that honor for the best three starts from any one pitcher, Roy Halladay and Ubaldo Jimenez would still probably top him, and that’s only including NL pitchers. No, there’s every reason to think that he’s going to fall off, possibly significantly, from the pace he’s on right now.
Don’t believe me? I’ll give you two words to explain exactly what I mean: rookie wall.
We’ve seen this trend in most major sports. A heralded rookie gets off to a scorching hot start, then falls off over the course of the season. It’s not hard to see why, when you stop and think about it. Rookies generally come straight out of college, where they’re used to playing a season lasting three or four months. Most pro leagues, however, have seasons lasting six to eight months, nearly double what they’re used to playing. By the time those four months are over, rookies are spent, being unprepared for the long slog of a professional season.
Consider basketball, for instance. We had a dramatic example of the rookie wall last year in Brandon Jennings, point guard for the Milwaukee Bucks. Jennings raced out of the gate, dropping 55 points early in the season against the hapless Golden State Warriors. Fans immediately and loudly proclaimed him the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year. However, Jennings had trouble duplicating the performance, or even coming close to it again. While he’s clearly talented, he’s probably not ready for prime time just yet, even admitting as much a few months after the game.
The same thing happened the year before. Portland’s Rudy Fernandez, a leader on the Spanish national team that nearly beat the U.S. in the gold medal match in Beijing, began the season hitting on all cylinders, seemingly unstoppable from beyond the three-point line. Yet as the season wore on, he found himself with fewer open looks and making fewer shots. By January, he seemed like an entirely different player.
Part of that, of course, is due to scouting. When rookies first hit the scene, pro scouts have little useful footage to work with, only seeing how players react against college players. After a few weeks, they can see what tendencies they have and how to shut them down. That, coupled with their natural fatigue over the course of such a long season, leads to their production tailing off toward the end of their rookie year.
Granted, that’s basketball. Does this translate into baseball?
It certainly does, and we have a strong example of it in recent history. Remember Kerry Wood? He was the fourth overall pick in the 1995 draft, selected by the Chicago Cubs. When he made his MLB debut in 1998, he turned heads with some eye-popping numbers. In just his fifth start, he struck out 20 Astros and allowed only one hit, an infield single by Ricky Gutierrez that almost could have been considered an error, which would have given him a no-hitter. He looked invincible that day, and many were quick to pronounce him the Next Great Pitcher.
The next few years, however, were not kind to him. Injuries held him back, of course, but he never came close to duplicating that performance.
This brings us back to Strasburg.
Obviously, no one can predict an injury, and I certainly don’t hope that he gets hurt, but I do think it’s likely that over the next month or so, Strasburg is going to level off a bit. There’s simply no way that he can keep throwing 10 or more strikeouts every game. He may have trouble adjusting to the length of the MLB season, which is nearly three times as long as San Diego State’s. He may also have trouble once hitters learn how to anticipate his delivery, which is likely as scouts compile more and more film on him.
He’ll still be good, obviously. No one throws a baseball like that without being immensely talented. But it’s unreasonable to think that he’s going to keep up a pace like this.
One thing’s for certain, though. I’ll still be watching.