Remember Stephen Strasburg? Nationals' top draft pick in 2009, phenom with four magical pitches? He was the most-hyped pitching prospect ever, and then, when he arrived in the majors last summer, he turned out to be better than the hype. He struck out 92 batters in 68 innings—including 14 Pirates in his dazzling introduction to the big leagues—while walking just 17 and putting together a 2.91 ERA. He packed ballparks like a rock star, had networks reshuffling their schedules to broadcast his starts, appeared on Letterman and had senators gushing over him on the Capitol floor.
And then, after 12 starts, he was gone. For the last 10 months Strasburg—who tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow in late August—has been recovering from Tommy John surgery, and his comeback has been as closely followed inside the Beltway as the fate of the debt ceiling. May 23: He threw off a mound for the first time! June 10: He threw his first changeups! June 30: He's throwing curveballs! Last week the righthander threw a simulated game in Viera, Fla., and hit 95 mph on the radar gun even while "holding back," said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. With Strasburg "right on track where he needs to be," according to G.M. Mike Rizzo, Strasmas could return to D.C. as soon as September.
But when Strasburg 2.0 arrives, will he be the same dazzling pitcher? There's no reason to think he won't be. One in nine pitchers on active rosters today have undergone Tommy John surgery, including Washington starter Jordan Zimmermann, a 25-year-old who sat out 12 months, came back last August, and now is having a breakout season (3.00 ERA, 87 strikeouts in 120 innings) and throwing as hard as he did before.
The real question is this: Should Strasburg be the same pitcher? Some observers, including White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper, have cited Strasburg's mechanics—the righthander throws with an "inverted W" motion, in which his elbows rise above the shoulders as his front foot lands on the dirt before he releases the ball—as the reason for his injury. (The whiplike motion causes violent stress on the arm.) Strasburg, however, has made no tweaks to his delivery, and the Nationals believe that his motion and injury aren't connected. "There's a lot of debate about [the inverted W] but nothing definitive," says an AL executive. "It's very hard to get a guy to change his arm action, even if you wanted to. That's the way he throws and probably has always thrown."
"My goal is to get back to 100 percent ... and fill up the stadium like I did [last year]," Strasburg, who over the off-season dropped more than 15 pounds of baby fat, told reporters in June. Even if he doesn't return until next spring, the phenom will still only be 23 at the start of the 2012 season. When Strasburg returns, he may not be the shiny national sensation he was last summer, but the scrutiny he'll be under will be nearly as great—and he'll still have the potential to be one of the best pitchers in the game.