As He Retires, Remember Stephen Strasburg Changed Baseball in Washington

Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey
Stephen Strasburg was the MVP as Washington won the 2019 World Series.

Never forget, as he prepares to announce his retirement, that Stephen Strasburg changed baseball in Washington. That is not hyperbole, or a romantic notion based on a career that is ending before it should. It’s reality.

Put another way: For the Nationals, there are all the days before June 8, 2010, and all the days since. Before Strasburg first took the mound at Nationals Park, contending for postseason berths seemed mere fantasy. For a town that had watched its major league team walk away not once but twice, there were still wounds deep enough that a fear it could happen again lingered over everything. All the losses, so many losses, didn’t help.

And then 40,315 fans packed Nationals Park on a random Tuesday night. Bob Costas, the Hall of Fame announcer, showed up to broadcast the game to a national audience. The Nationals as the talk of the sport? Before that night, they seemed bumbling, hopeless, inherently limited. “Strasmas” changed that.

The pregame buzz was somehow blown away by what happened on the field. Strasburg hit 100 mph with his fastball. He threw a change-up that looked as if the film had been slowed down. He struck out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates, including the last seven he faced, a crescendo that made arm hairs stand straight up. Baseball pulsed through the District in a way it hadn’t since the sport returned five years earlier. This was about the moment, which was spine-tingling. But it was also about the possibilities.

“It’s often said that, more often than not, the reality doesn’t match the hype,” Costas told The Post years later. “Here, it exceeded it. . . . No one walked away from that night thinking anything else except, ‘This guy is the real deal.’ There was a huge payoff.”

Strasburg’s legacy isn’t just about that night, and it will forever be complicated. He somehow reached the highest possible hopes and succumbed to the worst imaginable fears. The contradictions are almost endless: The best pitching prospect in a generation whose comet of a rookie season was cut short by Tommy John surgery. The World Series MVP whose subsequent seven-year, $245 million contract will go down as among the worst in the history of the sport because, in the three seasons since he signed it, he appeared in just eight games. For every achievement there seemed to be a detriment. For every batter he blew away there seemed to be a what-if.

That’s bound to be the primary note Strasburg hits when he speaks about this inevitable decision, probably in early September, and about the condition called “thoracic outlet syndrome” that ultimately left him unable to lift his right arm, let alone unleash a baseball at 100 mph. With that, assessments of Strasburg won’t be as much about what he did as what he might have done. This, according to people familiar with the situation, has been a dark time for Strasburg. He wanted to earn those $245 million when he couldn’t even pick up his kids. Those two notions can’t coexist.

There is also the reality that Strasburg’s ordeal led to the Nationals’ teardown. If Strasburg had been healthy and pitching well in the summer of 2021, it’s reasonable to assume the Nationals would have been something better than 46-54 and in fourth place in the National League East when the July 31 trade deadline approached. But with Strasburg shut down, a team that typically added reinforcements to make a postseason run instead traded away stud pitcher Max Scherzer and star shortstop Trea Turner. That fundamentally transformed the franchise from an annual contender to one that needed to further retrench to rebuild.

That’s a hard part of the legacy to shake. But this part is important: It’s not his fault. Strasburg wanted to pitch. His body wouldn’t allow it. He is not stealing the remaining money on his contract. The players’ union wants no part of a precedent in which a player returns cash a team owes him. His past performance earned him that deal, at least in the eyes of late Nationals owner Ted Lerner, who negotiated it. That he wasn’t able to pitch to the contract’s value is just blameless misfortune.

But what he did when he pitched? Wow. Don’t forget about it. If a starting pitcher’s chief job is to give his team an opportunity to win, Strasburg could scarcely have delivered more effectively. Consider that, of his 247 career starts, the Nationals won 154 times. That’s a .623 winning percentage, which doesn’t sound overwhelming – until you realize, over an entire season, it’s a 101-win pace.

Quality, measured another way: In those 247 regular season starts, Strasburg allowed either zero or one earned runs 109 times. Throw in five more in eight postseason starts, and Strasburg gave the opponent one or fewer earned runs 44.7 percent of the time. That’s astonishing.

And that doesn’t even include the night of Oct. 29, 2019, when he pitched into the ninth inning of Game 6 of the World Series in Houston, a game the Nationals needed to win to have a chance for the championship, a game that became Strasburg’s high-water mark, two runs in 81/3 innings, nothing after the first. Strasburg pitched in six games for the Nats that October. They won them all. That’s wasn’t an accident. It’s a stat to be treasured.

This is, of course, all cast against what he didn’t do, and that’s only because that June night back in 2010 made anything seem possible. Strasburg never won a Cy Young Award as his league’s best pitcher. He was three times an all-star, and only once led his league in strikeouts, once in innings pitched, once in wins. Only three times in 13 seasons was he able to make 30 starts, a sore shoulder or creaky neck or blown-out elbow limiting him in ways both enormous and minute. With a career record of 113-62, an ERA of 3.24 to go along with 1,723 strikeouts against 394 walks in 1,470 innings, he will not be a Hall of Famer.

That’s okay. Or more – way more – than okay. We should accept that. He should know that.

One last factor, when it comes to legacy. Upon his arrival as a 21-year-old, Strasburg seemed uncommonly guarded, even painfully shy. By his resting countenance, he seemed eternally disgruntled.

“I credit my dad for that,” he told me in the spring of 2020. “It’s kind of the way we walk. It’s kind of the way our faces are. If I’m not smiling, it looks like I’m grimacing. Like I’m mad. You kind of get that persona of being a little intimidating.”

And because he wasn’t warm, because he wasn’t particularly expansive in interviews, he seemed, for so long, a little distant. As he matured, got married and had children, a San Diego kid became comfortable in Washington, which he eventually considered home. But he spoke with his pitching, not with his words, and when he could no longer pitch, there was only the disconsolate face that remained. This year, even that presence hasn’t been around Nationals Park.

But know, as Stephen Strasburg’s career ends in a way he will always find disheartening, that he wanted more. Because so much was expected of him before he even threw a major league pitch, he changed what Washingtonians expected from their baseball team.

For that, the Nationals should retire his No. 37. For that, and more, he should stand at a dais in early September, announce that he can no longer play the game that brought him pressure and pleasure, and walk away without a regret. Strasburg didn’t give up. His arm gave out. That’s a defining distinction.