Tomorrow night at National Park here in Washington, Steven Strasburg will make his major league pitching debut. Strasburg was the first player selected last year in baseball’s amateur draft, and is considered the best pitching prospect to arrive in the Major Leagues since Mark Prior in 2002 or perhaps Ben McDonald in 1989. Old hands, including me, are having difficulty remembering a more ballyhooed debut ever in baseball. But that may say more about the history of hype than it does about the history of baseball.
Strasburg does look like a genuine phenom, though. In the portions of the three minor league outings I’ve seen, he had command of three or four pitches and used his 97 mile-per-hour fastball not as his “out” pitch, but rather to set up his curve, change-up, and some sort of hard slider (I think). His combined ERA in his two minor league stops this year (Harrisburg in AA and Syracuse in AAA) is 1.30.
But old Washington hands may be sobered by their recollection of another pitching phenom whose debut was accompanied by a goodly amount of attention for the time. On June 20, 1971, Dartmouth’s own Pete Broberg took the mound at RFK Stadium for the Washington Senators against the Boston Red Sox. Broberg hadn”t been the first pick in the 1971 draft (that was Burt Hooten), but he had been the second. And the Senators (managed by Ted Williams) assigned him directly to the Major Leagues.
His performance against the Red Sox, in a game I had the good fortune to attend, seemed to validate that decision. He shut out the Red Sox through six innings, giving up only three hits (but four walks) and striking out six. He added a strikeout in the seventh, but also hit a batter and gave up a single. Williams removed him after the hit.
Unfortunately, reliever Paul Lindblad allowed both of Broberg’s runners to score, costing Broberg both a chance for the shut-out and a chance for the win (he took no decision in the eventual 4-3 loss). Nonetheless, his performance had lived up to the hype.
Unfortunately, the young pitcher did not quite sustain that level performance during the rest of the year. He ended the season with a 5-9 record. However, his ERA of 3.47 was more than respectable, and optimists noted that Walter Johnson himself had gone 5-9 during his rookie year in Washington.
Unfortunately, Broberg never came close to fulfilling the promise, or matching the ERA of, his 1971 season. The final won-lost record for his Major League career, which ended with the 1978 season, was 41-71. His carerr ERA was 4.56.
The Washington Nationals have good reason to expect much more from Strasburg. But baseball history — including the careers of Mark Prior and Ben McDonald — suggests they shouldn’t expect too much more than the 146-138, 3.38 ERA, that Burt Hooten retired with in 1985.
UPDATE AND CORRECTION: There were various phases to the 1971 draft. The first pick in the main draft was a high school catcher named Danny Goodwin. The draft that included Hooten and Broberg must have been for players who had been drafted out of high school, but had gone on to college. And Broberg was actually the first pick in that draft and Hooten the second (it’s becoming more and more risky for me to write baseball posts even in part from memory). Broberg was the second pick in the first round in the 1968 draft for high school players, but chose to attend Dartmouth. He is now a real estate and estate planning attorney in West Palm Beach, Florida.
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