Nats’ phenom: Best young pitcher ever?

Twenty-two-year-old Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg is a genuine phenom, whose arrival in baseball has come this summer with unmatched ballyhoo.
His highly anticipated first game this year in the majors on June 8 at Nationals Stadium was a debut beyond expectation: Strasburg struck out 14 batters in seven innings before a sell-out crowd of 40,315, leading the Nats to a 5-2 win over the Pirates.
Since then, he has pitched like a veteran ace, starting nine games, winning five and losing two, with an earned run average (E.R.A.) of 2.32, striking out 75 batters in just 58 innings.
Looking past the hype, how good is Strasburg really, and how good will he be? What are the historical comparisons to the lightning start to his career? Who indeed were the greatest young pitchers in the game?
Another flamethrower, Bob Feller, immediately comes to mind. Rapid Robert never played a day in the minors, and in 1936 pitched in 14 games (winning five, losing three) at the tender age of 17, striking out 76 batters in only 62 innings. He won 17 games for the Indians at age 19 and an astonishing 76 games between the ages of 20-22.
Feller is one of only two pitchers to strike out as many hitters as his age in a major league game, fanning 17 Philadelphia A’s in 1936. After Feller’s rookie season, he went home to Van Meter, Iowa, to finish high school. The other pitcher? It’s Kerry Wood, now of the Yankees, who struck out 20 at age 20 for the Cubs in 1998.
Two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Feller enlisted in the Navy and served in combat, earning eight battle stars and five campaign ribbons. He lost four seasons (ages 22-26) to military duty.
Nearly as spectacular as Feller’s youthful performance was the more recent baseball duty of Dwight “Doc” Gooden. In his first season with the Mets at 19 in 1984, he won 17 games and struck out 276 hitters in 218 innings. His next year was a season for the ages: 24 wins against 4 losses, a 1.53 E.R.A. and 268 strikeouts. Doc won 91 games by the age of 23.
Alas, Dwight Gooden’s name will not be enshrined alongside Feller’s in baseball’s Hall of Fame, as he squandered his extraordinary athletic gifts through his struggle with drug addiction, and he never achieved what those gifts portended. By the time he was 26, his career was in serious decline.
Going further back, Christy Mathewson walked off the Bucknell University campus in 1900 onto the New York Giants nine and won 20 games at age 20 in 1901. By age 25, Matty had an even 150 major league wins. Walter “Big Train” Johnson was great early in his marvelous career too: he had 25 wins for the Washington Senators at age 22 in 1910, with 43 complete games (in 45 starts), striking out 317 batters
Of course, black players were barred from play in the white major leagues for over 60 years (1888-1947), and many of the great Negro league pitchers started early.
Stuart “Slim” Jones was a precocious star, whose life was cut short by pneumonia and alcoholism at age 25. The 6-foot-6-inch Jones pitched the Philadelphia Stars to the Negro League World Championship in 1934, winning 34 games and losing four. He was 19 years old. He started the 1934 and ’35 East-West Negro League All-Star game.
The incomparable Satchel Paige, whom Joe DiMaggio said was the fastest pitcher he ever saw, was a full-time professional player at age 19, but like so many hard-throwers (Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson, Nolan Ryan), it took some time for him to harness his talent and achieve greatness.
For the Red Sox, the greatest of our youthful mound stars was probably a lefty named George Herman Ruth, nicknamed “Babe” by his teammates for his precocity. In 1915, at 20 years old, he won 18 games for Boston, and had a .315 batting average. In his early twenties, he was the best left-handed pitcher in the league. When he was but 25, he was sold to the Yankees, where, it is reported, he did OK.
If not Babe Ruth, then certainly Smokey Joe Wood. By the time Smokey Joe was 21, he won 23 games for the Red Sox, and then the next year, went 34 and 6, still and forever the best season for a Red Sox hurler. By age 25 his pitching career was over, due to injury, though he stayed in the game for another decade as an outfielder (like Babe, though hardly with his success).
Right now, Stephen Strasburg is on the DL (disabled list) with a “minor” arm injury, according to team sources. Let’s hope it’s truly minor, as we can also discuss at length baseball’s shooting stars, whose flame burned brightly but only for a brief time (Herb Score anyone?).
So we’ll follow Strasburg with keen interest. As Harriet Bird said to youthful pitcher Roy Hobbs in Bernard Malamud’s baseball novel, “The Natural”: “Will you be the best who ever played the game?”
We’ll see.

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