For his career, Stephen Strasburg boasts a 3.24 ERA, 1.096 WHIP and a 4.37 strikeout to walk ratio. He became a Nationals hero in 2019 when he went 5–0 with a 1.98 ERA in the postseason, leading the Nats to their first championship in franchise history and earning World Series MVP honors along the way. And yet, Strasburg’s career is one of the most tragic stories in recent baseball memory.
The Nationals selected Strasburg, one of the most hyped pitching prospects of all time, with the first pick in the 2009 draft. Strasburg had just completed a college career for the ages, pitching to a 1.59 ERA and 0.798 WHIP with 375 strikeouts and 50 walks in three seasons at San Diego State. His fastball could touch 100 miles an hour in an era where the average fastball velocity for a big league starter was around 91–92. The Nationals gave him a record four-year, $15.1 million signing bonus.
Strasburg made his big league debut on June 8, 2010, in a home start against the Pittsburgh Pirates. With over 40,000 fans in attendance to watch the 21-year-old phenom, he pitched seven innings of two-run ball, striking out 14 without walking a batter. It was a masterpiece.
But, just 12 starts into his big league career, Strasburg tore his UCL and had to undergo Tommy John surgery. He wouldn’t pitch again until September 6, 2011.
Despite losing some of his velocity, Strasburg returned triumphantly in 2012, earning his first career All-Star selection, and he would continue to pitch effectively until 2019, making two more All-Star appearances and receiving Cy Young votes in 2014, 2017 and 2019. He would deal with more injuries, however, as he was held under 150 innings in three of those seasons.
Following his 2019 World Series MVP season, Strasburg, already 31, was re-signed by the Nationals to a mammoth seven-year $245 million contract. The $35 million average annual value is still the seventh highest in baseball today.
After signing that deal, Strasburg appeared in a grand total of eight games for the Nationals. He was placed on the 60-day injured list for a nerve issue in his throwing hand in 2020 and missed almost the entire 2021 season after needing surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. After appearing in only one game in 2022 and missing all of 2023, Strasburg announced his retirement this August.
Calling Strasburg’s career a tragedy might be a little extreme, but you have to consider the expectations he played with. Scouts called him a “once-in-a-lifetime” talent and compared him to Roger Clemens, and his remarkable debut only added another car to the hype train.
It’s not that Strasburg had a bad career, but it’s impossible to remove him from the context of the expectations he faced. “Once-in-a-lifetime” players aren’t that common. But Strasburg pitched fewer than 1,500 innings at the big league level, and while he was really good (when healthy), he was never once in his career the best pitcher in baseball, always in the shadow of men like Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer.
Unfortunately, injuries were with Strasburg every step of the way. He only threw 68 innings before his Tommy John, which likely kept him from ever reaching his full potential, and it was a neck injury that cut his career short.
Strasburg did a lot of good things in his career. Without him, the Nationals probably don’t win the World Series in 2019. But we’ll always wonder how good he could have been.