Time to turn to the 2009 MLB Rule IV Draft. And, it's impossible to talk about the draft without talking about uber-prospect Stephen Strasburg.
Strasburg is known to all, achieving the type of hype normally reserved for the top NFL or NBA draft prospects. Many have already labeled him the best pitching prospect of all time. His performance at San Diego State has been remarkable. He has the rare blend of plus power and plus control that define the very best pitchers.
As a draft eligible prospect, Strasburg is mentioned in the same breath as Mark Prior and Brien Taylor, both widely considered to be among the elite pitching prospects of the amateur draft era.
In 2003, Mark Prior had his epic season. He posted a stunning 2.43 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 2.1 BB/9, and 10.4 K/9. Few pitchers possess the ability to control plus stuff. Prior was one. Strasburg might be the next. While Taylor and Prior are frequently used as comparables, they should also serve as cautionary tales. Despite their upside, both saw their careers derailed by injury. Unfortunately, the risk of injury is always lurking just around the corner with pitching prospects.
Strasburg features a plus-plus fastball that can tickle triple digits. He also has the ability to maintain his velocity deep into games. He also features a nasty breaking ball. It's either a tight, sharp biting curveball or a slider. In his most recent outing against the University of Virginia, he spotted his breaking ball effectively on the outside corner on several different occasions. He wasn't just throwing a get me over breaking ball, but was hitting the catcher's mitt. He also utilizes a low 80s changeup, which has good action on it. His changeup is the speed of some MLB starters' fastball, but he still gets a 10+ mph differential between his fastball and the changeup, which makes it a very effective offering.
Strasburg not only has the plus stuff and plus control that scouts droll over, but he also has the "ideal" pitcher's body type. He stands 6-5 and weighs in at 220 lbs after becoming a workout warrior at San Diego State. His height enables Strasburg to work on a downward plane.
Some have raised concerns about Strasburg's mechanics, but it's hard to see any significant flaws. I wouldn't consider his mechanics flawless, but they do seem pretty clean. He coils his leg to build up energy and gets a solid push off the rubber. He incorporates his body well into his delivery, which should reduce the stress on his arm. Even so, I don't think he incorporates his body into his delivery as well as a Tim Lincecum. His arm action is pretty clean, though he does seem to get a bit long in the back and a bit whippy coming through at times.
The main concerns raised about Strasburg's mechanics seem to center around the notion that he uses forced "scap loading" which increases his injury risk. Scapular loading is basically pinching your shoulder blades together before committing your shoulders to the target. It's a way of increasing velocity and some believe that done incorrectly it greatly increases the risk of injury. At this point, I remain unconvinced that Strasburg is at heightened risk of injury because of it.
Personally, I tend to think that the best way for Strasburg to avoid injury is to learn to work effectively at less than 100% effort. If he can learn to be effective with his fastball sitting in the 92-94 range and dialing up increased velocity for big moments in the game, then I think he'll help reduce the stress on his arm. Looking around the game, it appears to be the max-effort pitchers who are always getting hurt, while pitchers like Greg Maddux, Livan Hernandez, Tom Glavine, and Jamie Moyer just continue to rack up the innings. Strasburg has more than enough velocity to be able to work effectively at less than max effort, which may do more to reduce his risk of injury than anything else.
Anyway, here is a video clip of Strasburg in action, so you can decide for yourself.
Unfortunately, Strasburg is a lock to go #1 overall to the Washington Nationals, so the Reds will have no shot at him. Even so, any discussion of the 2009 draft has to begin with Stephen Strasburg, who has the ability to go straight into the starting rotation at the major league level. Even when drafted by the Nationals, it'll be great fun to watch Strasburg pitch over the course of his career.