Strasburg 10 years later — Sizing up his trip from No. 1 to 100 wins

WASHINGTON — A decade later, Stephen Strasburg hit the century mark.

It wasn’t pretty, but almost 10 years to the day after he was drafted first overall, and one day after Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman became the newest member of Club 1.1, Strasburg notched his 100th victory in the Washington Nationals’ 9-5 comeback win over the Chicago White Sox on Tuesday night.

The landmark W came courtesy of a game in which the Washington right-hander threw 41 pitches during a four-run first inning. It came on a night when he gave up five earned runs, the first time in his career he allowed more than four earned runs and still picked up the win. It came despite the fact that he lasted only five innings, his second-shortest start of the season. But the bottom line is, it came.

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“It’s a great personal accomplishment and I’ve been very fortunate and blessed to have been able to do that,” Strasburg said afterward. “But this whole time and in the future, wins and losses — as much as you like having them next to your name — it’s a team thing. And I think it’s just great that this was such a good team win. They really picked me up for the 100th.”

A hundred wins might not sound like much of an accomplishment. Not for a hyper-hyped hurler who was considered the best amateur pitching prospect in the history of the game. And not in an era when the once-almighty W has become so devalued that last year’s NL Cy Young winner (Jacob deGrom) finished the season with all of … wait for it … 10 wins. But 100 wins is 100 wins, and that’s as good a time as any to check in on Strasburg’s evolving legacy.

When it comes to the hype machine, Strasburg didn’t do himself any favors with his big league debut. On June 8, 2010, just one day shy of his draft-day anniversary, the San Diego State product exploded onto the scene when he pitched seven otherworldly innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates, striking out 14 with no walks. It was the kind of debut that, combined with his pedigree, left people no choice but to assume Strasburg would go on to become the greatest pitcher in MLB history. That he’d break Cy Young’s record of 511 wins and Nolan Ryan’s record of seven no-hitters and Roger Clemens’ record of seven Cy Young awards, and that he’d probably do it all by the time he turned 30.

OK, I exaggerate. But you get the point: Strasburg was destined for great things.

Instead, Strasburg blew out his ulnar collateral ligament before his rookie season ended, requiring Tommy John surgery. He missed most of the 2011 season and then, despite being really good in 2012, was shut down in early September by the Nationals, who were afraid of overworking their prized pitcher and therefore decided that the best thing for everyone involved was to not let Strasburg be part of the team’s first postseason appearance.

Stephen Strasburg has a good chance of having the highest career WAR of any pitcher drafted first overall. Tommy Gilligan/USA TODAY Sports

Since then, Strasburg’s career has been a mixed bag. When healthy, he has been one of the best starters in baseball. But staying healthy has been a challenge. Since 2014, when he posted a career-high 34 starts, Strasburg hasn’t started 30 games or reached 180 innings in any season. Over the past four years, he has averaged only 24 starts. When the Nats made the playoffs in 2014, Strasburg was whole but failed to distinguish himself in his one postseason start. When they made it again in 2016, he was on the shelf. When they made it again in 2017, well, that’s when the narrative — the one about Strasburg being fragile and disappointing and never there when his team truly needed him — started to turn. That’s when, on the heels of a historic second-half run that landed him a top-three Cy Young finish, he was absolutely dominant in two division series outings against the Chicago Cubs, including a Game 4 gem when he was supposedly too sick to pitch but then miraculously fanned 12 over seven scoreless frames to help Washington avoid elimination.

Despite those efforts, when it comes to the court of public opinion, it seems the jury is still out on Strasburg. Despite the three All-Star appearances and the tidy 1.09 career WHIP (only Clayton Kershaw has been better among NL starters since 2010), the perception is that Washington’s 30-year old righty has yet to fulfill his massive promise. And maybe he hasn’t. After all, how could anyone truly live up to the kind of insanely enormous expectations that have escorted Strasburg since that fateful draft day a decade ago?

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But if we strip away the projections, if we ignore all the what-could-have-beens and instead deal strictly with what-ares, it becomes far more difficult to condemn Strasburg’s career. Will he win 300 games? No way. In fact, there’s a pretty good chance that he doesn’t even reach 200. But 100 wins into his career, and a few days shy of his 10th draftiversary, Strasburg holds up pretty well when compared to the other members of Club 1.1.

Of the 55 players who’ve been selected first overall since the inception of the amateur draft in 1965, Strasburg’s 30.1 WAR ranks 14th, according to Baseball Reference. Of the 18 pitchers who’ve been taken with the top pick, that 30.1 WAR ranks third behind David Price and Andy Benes. Odds are Strasburg will overtake Benes later this year. Depending on how long Price keeps pitching, there’s a good chance Strasburg — who is three years younger than Boston’s lefty — will surpass him too. In fact, by the time Strasburg hangs it up, it’s quite possible the only top picks with a higher career WAR will be Alex Rodriguez, Chipper Jones and Ken Griffey Jr.

Here’s the part where I admit that WAR isn’t the be-all, end-all. Especially when it comes to pitchers. It’s also the part where I admit that using only top overall picks as a frame of reference is somewhat flawed (if Strasburg doubles his current 30.1 WAR by the time he retires, he’ll still only be tied with Andy Pettitte for 184th overall).

But as we sit here today, trying to sift through all 1,219 selections from this year’s draft and wondering what will become of Adley Rutschman 10 years from now, it’s an opportune time to take stock of Stephen Strasburg, 100 wins and all.

“Fair share of ups and downs,” Strasburg said of what the past decade has been like since hearing his name called on draft day. “And I know they’re going to continue. I’m excited to see what the next 10 years have in store.”

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