Last Sunday I drove to a small town in Pennsylvania, where my car promptly broke down. (Very promptly, in fact. As I was pulling over to the exit the engine began to smoke.) I ended up spending the night in Pennsylvania, missing work on Monday, and paying $300 to have the car fixed. But none of that matters for what, really, is a silly reason.
None of it matters because the town was Altoona and my destination was Blair County Ballpark, home of the Altoona Curve. On Sunday they were hosting the Harrisburg Senators and a guy named Stephen Strasburg was making his first professional start. Strasburg is a highly touted blah blah blah you know the story.
When my buddy at work told me that the Washington Post had announced that Strasburg’s debut would be on April 11, I was on the Curve website within about 10 seconds to buy tickets to the game.* I don’t know why that was my reaction. I had been to Altoona a couple times before, so I knew it was a three hour drive from DC. I knew that the game would be covered extensively on TV. I knew that when he eventually gets called up, I’ll see Strasburg pitch in DC. I don’t know why I had, just had, to go to the game in Altoona. But I did. So I bought tickets in the second row behind home plate, which sounds lavish until you realize that each ticket was $12 including the service charge. Gotta love minor league baseball.
*(By the way, the ticket purchase page of the Curve website is one of the best I’ve seen. It is very simple. There is a diagram of the stadium. You choose which section you want. A diagram of the section comes up, with seats in two colors: one color for occupied seats, one color for available seats. You can hover the cursor over the seat, which tells you which row and seat number you’ve chosen, or click on the seat to see a photo of the view of the field from that seat. You choose your seats, and you buy them. It makes Ticketmaster and the like seem hopelessly unhelpful.)
We decided to get food before the game, a decision that almost made us miss the first pitch of the bottom of the inning – Strasburg’s first pitch. I had the same urgency to run down to the mezzanine to see the first pitch as I did when I bought the tickets. I don’t know why I did it. He would throw more pitches, so what was the big deal? I didn’t know, but I couldn’t stop it. I ran down the stairs and stood behind my section. Ball one.
An inauspicious start. It took him 24 pitches to get through the first inning, wherein he gave up a run. And I know I should consider the shaky first inning when evaluating the whole start, but I won’t. When I remember that game, I will remember the second, third, and fifth innings. They were spectacular. Check out this view.
Check out the speed clock you can see beyond Strasburg in center field. I was fixated on that clock as it repeatedly read 97, 97, 96, 95, 97, 98, and other numbers that made me murmur repeatedly to myself.* Well, there’s a funny thing about that speed clock in Blair County Ballpark that I didn’t find out until later. It is consistently 2 miles per hour slow.
*(A story from Nats spring training was about how Strasburg’s nickname is “Jesus.” As Nyjer Morgan explained, it’s not because Strasburg is the franchise savior. It’s because when you watch him pitch you can’t help but say to yourself “…Jesus.”)
That means that Strasburg was repeatedly hitting 98 and 99 and the occasional 100. It must have been after a particularly loud auto-murmur that the guy next to me said “You know, that clock is 2 miles an hour slow.” “Oh yeah? Cool.” I didn’t really believe him. Later I read the same thing on ESPN. Then in the Altoona Mirror. Then on the internets. It’s true. The guy was throwing crazy heat. Look at his second inning:
|1||99||Strike one, swinging|
|2||99||Strike two, ground out to second|
|3||99||Strike one, swinging|
|4||99||Strike two, foul|
|5||85||Strike three, swinging|
|6||99||Strike one, looking|
|7||100||Strike two, looking|
|8||99||Strike three, swinging|
I am a big believer in the ability to use numbers to tell whatever story you want; exploit strengths and hide weaknesses, etc. The only way to avoid accusations of bias is to offer the entire universe of numbers available to you. Well, that table is the entire universe of numbers of Strasburg’s second inning. There’s nothing more to say. I mean, just look at that pitch sequence. Look at it again. I mean, really. What is that?
Here is the third inning:
|2||99||Strike one, swinging|
|5||99||Strike two, looking|
|6||97||Strike, fly-out to left|
|7||83||Strike one, looking|
|8||83||Strike two, looking|
|10||85||Strike two, foul|
|11||100||Strike three, swinging|
|12||100||Strike one, looking|
|14||91||Strike two, swinging|
|15||100||Strike three, swinging|
And just for giggles, the fifth:
|1||98||Strike one, foul|
|2||81||Strike two, missed bunt|
|4||83||Strike three, looking|
|6||91||Strike one, looking|
|8||97||Strike, ground out to third|
|9||82||Strike one, looking|
|10||83||Strike two, looking|
|11||99||Strike, ground out to third|
That last pitch in the fifth was his last of the game, his 82nd pitch. His 82ndpitch – 99 miles per hour. There’s no need to exaggerate these numbers. He looked as dominant as the number suggest. I don’t want to say that the absurdly fast fastballs looked effortless, but they looked like reasonable pitches, like he was throwing 90. Here is his sixth pitch of the second inning, a 99 mph strike.
They say this guy is ready for the majors. I’ve even heard about one scout saying that right now Strasburg could pitch in the MLB All-Star Game. I don’t know about all that but I do know what I saw. The guy is an animal. His overall line for the game ended up being 82 pitches, five innings, four hits, four runs, one earned run, two walks and eight strikeouts. That’s a great but not magnificent start overall, stats-wise. Maybe I’m just drinking the kool-aid but I have to believe that the couple of negatives that there were (the two walks were ugly – 5 pitches each – and both drawn by the same hitter) can be corrected and overcome. I don’t think he’ll throw no-hitters every time out, and I know he’s going to walk people, but I don’t want to believe it. I want to believe he’ll strike out ten every game and never walk anyone. I want to believe he’ll hit 98 and 99 mph fifteen times a game, and his last pitch will always be triple digits. I want to believe he’ll win 20 games every year for 15 years and that he’ll make people rethink proclaiming that we’ve seen our last 300 game winner and that no one will ever approach Nolan Ryan’s career Ks or Pedro’s 2000 season.
I mean, why not?