SAN DIEGO -- Believe the hype.
Amateur baseball players normally fly under the radar until they get drafted, and in most cases even after that.
But Stephen Strasburg has become something of a rock star at San Diego State this year, routinely busting out 100 mph fastballs before sellout crowds, wide-eyed scouts and curious members of the media from around the nation.
"He's the best I've ever seen," said a scout who has been watching players for 23 years. "He could be a top-three starter in a major league rotation today."
Strasburg has been called the best prospect ever. All that will keep him from being the No. 1 pick in the June draft is if the Nationals are scared off by agent Scott Boras and what figures to be a record-shattering contract.
"You have to see it, because if you don't, you ain't gonna believe it."
-- Tony Gwynn, San Diego State managerThere has been talk of paying Strasburg in relation to other current major leaguers, not amateurs. Estimates have gone into the $50 million range.
"What they say is true," one NL executive said. "He's different. I can't think of somebody better. There have been some good ones (in college), Mark Prior and Jered Weaver, but so far this guy has been different even from those guys."
Strasburg is 6-foot-4, 220 pounds. He has a textbook delivery that produces a repertoire of fastballs, sinkers, slurves and changeups that are all well above average.
"The day I was there he was 95 to 101, sitting 97-98 mph," a scout said. "He's got late life in the strike zone. Usually guys that throw that hard are straight as an arrow. This guy is not, and he can control his life in the strike zone. He's got a Kerry Wood curve ball. He is dominant.
"He's a prototype major league guy. He's just unbelievable."
Strasburg, the only amateur on last year's Olympic baseball team, is 9-0 with a 1.54 ERA. In 70 1/3 innings, he's allowed 44 hits, with 13 walks and 135 strikeouts.
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"You have to see it," Gwynn said, "because if you don't, you ain't gonna believe it."
That's why they were crammed into Tony Gwynn Stadium on the San Diego State campus on Friday, to "see it." The ballpark seats only about 3,000 fans, but on this night they packed a standing-room-only crowd of 3,072 into the place. It was the first time the Aztecs had sold out a game the day before, said Chris Carlson, director of marketing at ticket sales for San Diego State.
The Aztecs, who normally would draw about 1,000 for a baseball game, have sold out a few games this year, all Strasburg starts. The school began selling tickets in a "Strasburg Strikeout Plan," a plan that included Friday night games he was likely to start.
A group not affiliated with the university sold 1,500 tickets to a pregame Strasburg tailgate party, including a Strasburg T-shirt in the package.
The athletic department's official web site has a page devoted to Strasburg.
"His presence has done so much," Carlson said. "He has created an opportunity for us to provide the people of this campus a place to go on Friday night. This is the place to be."
Any good party has more people than places to sit, and that's what they had last Friday. The fans milled around, often stopping behind the plate to get a peek at the radar guns.
At least two dozen fans asked the scouts behind the plate how hard Strasburg was throwing. Others just wandered by and looked at the numbers themselves.
On this night, they might have been a little disappointed. Strasburg, who said later he had a cramp in his side, touched 100 mph only once. He was consistently throwing 95 to 98 mph.
In the seventh inning, after he had thrown more than 110 pitches, one 95 mph fastball drifted back over the plate and was pinged over the left-field fence for a three-run homer. Faster they come in, faster they go out, especially with aluminum bats.
Strasburg responded to that by striking out the next two. He left with a victory, but one of his worst performances of the season: seven innings, three runs, four hits, one walk, 14 punchouts.
After it was over, Strasburg stood on the field talking to a half-dozen reporters and television cameras. He was more interested in discussing a key victory over TCU than he was in telling his story.
There is a common thread, though, between Strasburg and the Aztecs.
"There is always someone that thinks you aren't good enough," Strasburg said. "I feel a lot of people still doubt this program, that we can't win a big game or get to a Regional. That's what I want to do right now, is prove these people wrong."
Many of them are the same people who watched Strasburg as a senior at West Hills High in suburban San Diego and doubted him.
He saw a kid throwing 88-90 mph fastballs, but carrying about 30 extra pounds of fat and an attitude.
"Stuff wise it was good for high school, but what I saw was the other stuff," Gwynn said. "He didn't have a lot of composure. Didn't seem really confident. He wasn't afraid to fuss at the umpire, wasn't afraid to fuss at a teammate if someone made a bad play. I liked his stuff, but I wasn't sure mentally if he was ready for the college game.
"My pitching coach, Rusty Filter, said, 'This guy's got a lot in the tank, and I can get it out.' I liked other guys better, but he was adamant."
So Gwynn offered Strasburg a scholarship. On the first day of conditioning in Strasburg's freshman year, Gwynn wondered if he'd made a mistake.
"He had run one 100-yard dash and his face was flush red and he was about to lose it," Gwynn said. "I said, 'Rusty, this kid isn't going to make it.'"
Filter said he told Strasburg exactly what the local baseball community thought of him, that he was out of shape and had a bad attitude. Strasburg quickly began to change on both fronts. He committed to a strict workout routine that helped him lose 30 pounds during his freshman year, Filter said. The added strength and flexibility helped those 88 mph fastballs go to 90, then 92, then 94.
The stuff and command had always been there, but he was adding velocity.
"He came to the table as a pitcher and then you saw his velocity increase," Filter said. "Usually it's the other way around."
Strasburg's collegiate debut was a memorable one. Coming on in relief against USC, he walked the bases loaded on 12 pitches.
Then he struck out the next three on nine pitches.
"The confidence just started to grow," Gwynn said. "The improvement was there every year, every month, every time out there. You could just see it right in front of our faces.
"If I hadn't seen it happen for three years, I'd be saying 'Don't give me that. You're lying.' But I'm telling you, that's what happened."
The Whole Package
Gwynn said he doesn't worry any more about Strasburg's conditioning or his attitude. His biggest problem now is controlling the media frenzy surrounding him.
After stories on Strasburg appeared on ESPN and in Sports Illustrated in March, the school limited his media availability to after games he pitched.
"It's been a little chaotic," Strasburg said. "Personality wise, I'm not a guy to be out in the middle. That's not my style."
He'd rather just do his thing on the mound, which tells a story itself.
On Friday night, Strasburg was working ahead in the count most of the night. He'd pop a first-pitch fastball into the zone, then get the hitters to go on the defensive. When he was ready to put them away, he typically threw his slurve. It's harder than a curve, around 82-83 mph, but it breaks more than a slider.
"He's a pitcher, not a thrower," Gwynn said. "Everyone gets caught up in velocity, but he can pitch. He lives in the high 90s, but he's got a real good breaking ball, a real good changeup. He can locate. He can cut it. He can sink it. He can do all those things that pitchers do, but you have to watch him pitch. I sit here and shake my head, because he's pitching. He recognizes what hitters are trying to do, and he makes adjustments."
Gwynn said Strasburg isn't quite ready for the majors, despite the grand predictions of some scouts. Gwynn said that his 10-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio has as much to do with impatient college hitters as Strasburg's control.
"At the next level, they don't chase that stuff," Gwynn said.
With that, though, Gwynn said: "There is no doubt he'll be in the big leagues."
After all, there aren't many guys walking around throwing 100 mph fastballs with movement and knee-buckling breaking balls.
"When you are standing there in the box, if a guy is throwing 100 and it's straight, you can hit it," Gwynn said. "But if it sinks and cuts a little bit or changes plane, now you pay a little more attention. He's been tremendous. I'm his coach, so I'm going to be biased, but I defy you to find another guy who can do the things that he can do."