Handicapping Stephen Strasburg’s Debut

Stephen Strasburg is finally poised to make his major league debut. He made his last minor league appearance on Thursday afternoon, and barring anything unforeseen he is scheduled to join the Nationals for his first start on June 8 at home against the Pirates. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Strasburg is the most eagerly anticipated debuting pitcher in league history. Other pitchers have perhaps been as hyped, and have certainly been as talented, but the age of the internet has whipped up more of a frenzy around this one than was possible before. Strasburg’s every move has been followed since well before he was drafted, and highlights of all his minor league starts have been widely available for everyone to see. As we get ready for the arrival of the next great thing here are eight random things that are on my mind about the pitcher and the situation surrounding him:

He’s the real deal – We are used to guys that are this hyped being a disappointment, but indications certainly are that Strasburg is ready to meet the ridiculous expectations placed on him. He was beyond dominant in college, and he has handled the two steps up in class as well as any guy could. He’s made 11 appearances between Double-A and Triple-A. He hasn’t allowed an earned run in seven of those outings, has an ERA of 1.30, and has struck out 65 while walking just 13. His WHIP is just 0.795 – a superhuman level of success. The hitters he faces in the pros are obviously going to be better than the ones he has faced so far (at least after he faces the Pirates), but there is no reason to believe that he won’t be up to the challenge.

He’s not going to go deep – In his final outing he threw just 89 pitches over five innings. He averaged only 5.5 innings per start, and was on a strict pitch count. The Nationals want to be able to enjoy their star for the long term, so they are going to be very cautious with bringing him along. That means that he’s not going to go deep often, and the Nationals’ bullpen is going to be very important in the outcome of the games he starts, and therefore needs to factor into your handicapping – perhaps even more than it normally would.

He’s going to be bet to death – The public attention on this situation is sure to mean that the betting volume is going to be very high – many times higher than a normal game would be between the Pirates and the Nationals on a Tuesday. Virtually all of the public money will be on the Nationals, too. The oddsmakers are going to set the line as high as they can, but if they set it too high they are vulnerable to smart money on the Pirates. The public is likely to drive it higher with their betting action, though. That all means that it’s going to be impossible to find value on Strasburg in his debut, and the better he does the longer it will take to find that value.

He’s facing Pittsburgh – This debut has been very carefully planned. The Pirates are the second worst offense in the league, and are particularly challenged on the road. Washington couldn’t have picked a better spot. That’s good for the chances of Strasburg’s success, but will further inflate the line.

The team is going to be especially fired up for his play – This is the biggest thing ever to happen to the Nationals, and the team is going to be fired up as a result. My inclination is that that is a good thing, but it’s hard to be certain – it’s not like they have ever really played a game that meant anything in the history of their franchise.

No idea at all how he will handle adversity – Sooner or later Strasburg is going to face adversity – everyone in the major leagues does at some time. Perhaps the hardest single part of handicapping Strasburg is that we really can’t know how he is going to deal with that because he has so rarely faced it. He almost never got into a serious hole in his college career, and he hasn’t faced a significant one in the minors, either. With the lines as inflated as they are going to be in the short term there is little room for uncertainty if you chose to bet on Strasburg, and there is a lot of uncertainty in this case.

Opposing managers and players will try to fluster him – Managers and players try to get into the heads of every young pitcher they face, and they are likely to be even more determined in their efforts here because of the hype around Strasburg. They’ll call time and do everything else they can to gain an edge, and there’s a lot that Strasburg won’t have faced before. He’ll probably be fine with it all, but it’s yet another reason for uncertainty.

Crowd like he has never seen before – The Nationals don’t often draw a big crowd, but they sure will on Tuesday night. The game is already sold out, and tickets are going to sell at a premium by game time. The stadium will be the loudest it has ever been. That means that Strasburg will be pitching in front of by far the loudest and largest crowd that he has ever seen. That means more adrenaline, and that could be bad news for the Pirates.

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