Thursday, May 20, 2010

Strasburg light years ahead of Chapman

I had the unique opportunity (along with anybody else who lives in Rochester) to see two of baseball's most hyped pitching prospects throw against the AAA Red Wings in the past week. 2009 #1 overall pick Stephen Strasburg came to town last night with the Syracuse Sky Chiefs (Nationals AAA team) and Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman pitched Friday for the Louisville Bats (Reds AAA team). I will start with Strasburg, since his performance was much more noteworthy.

Strasburg's final line against the Red Wings was outstanding. 6.1 innings, 3 hits, 0 earned runs, 2 walks and 9 strikeouts. But what isn't seen in that line are the struggles he endured through the game's first four innings. He ran up multiple three-ball counts early against Red Wings hitters, struggling to find the strike zone and harness his nasty stuff (he hit 99 MPH on the radar gun), as both of his walks came in the first few innings.

Strasburg settled down with his control in the fourth inning and didn't allow any runners past second base the rest of the way, something that happened in both the second and third innings, but he was hit hard in the inning. After a leadoff single by Jose Morales, Dustin Martin hit a scorching line drive right at the center fielder and highly-rated Twins prospect Danny Valencia ripped a line drive to third, which Chase Lambin snagged with a quick lunge to the backhand side.

After his defense stood strong behind him in the fourth, Strasburg struck out six of the final seven batters he faced including a knee-buckling curveball to Wings first baseman Brock Peterson that made SportsCenter. All in all, Strasburg had 5 strikeouts with his curveball (2 looking) and 4 with his fastball (3 looking). The drop on his curveball made it virtually unhittable and his fastball location was pinpoint as the game wore on.

After starting the game with a fairly even ball-to-strike ratio, Strasburg threw approximately 30 of his final 40 pitches for strikes and dominated Wings hitters by pounding the strike zone, as Morales pointed out in the post-game press conference. He finished with 60 strikes out of 92 pitches and was still hitting 97 MPH on the radar gun in the seventh inning.

When he was pulled after his final strikeout, he walked off of Frontier Field to a standing ovation from the 12,000 or so fans that came to see him in one of his final starts at the Triple-A level. Two batters later, Brock Peterson hit a moonshot home run to left center field against the Chiefs bullpen, something that seemed unfathomable with Strasburg on the mound.

Despite his impressive line, Strasburg battled for most of the game last night. Maybe it was because he hadn't started in a week but regardless of the reason, he maneuvered his way out of tough situations. Strasburg impressed me as a pitcher and not just a thrower and he definitely looks ready for the big leagues right now. His first start is schedule for June 4 against Cincinnati and it should be another event. His presence alone drew the eighth-largest regular-season crowd in Frontier Field history.

Now on to Chapman, who will get a much shorter write-up. The reason? He didn't quite last as long (or pitch as well) as Strasburg did.

Chapman's line last Friday night: 3.1 innings, 9 hits, 8 earned runs, 3 walks. Those three walks came within the Wings first eight batters but it was the fourth inning that proved to be Chapman's undoing.

Unlike Strasburg, who pitched through a shaky start to shut down Rochester's offense, Chapman could not. He allowed hits to the first three batters in the fourth before striking out Peterson and allowing three more hits, including a home run by Trevor Plouffe that ended his ugly outing. Chapman allowed six runs in the inning while recording just one out.

Chapman's struggles with control were much worse than Strasburg's, especially because he could not bounce back. This is a sign to me that he is nowhere near as ready for the big leagues as Strasburg is, despite being on a similar timetable for a call-up.

The Reds plan on recalling Chapman in early June, around the same time Strasburg will be making his debut for the Nats. While I fully expect Strasburg to post good strikeout numbers and a respectable ERA from the start, I can't say the same about Chapman after watching him on Friday night.

The Wings lineup is not particularly potent yet he posted by far his worst start in the minors this season. He came into the game with a 2.84 ERA and left with a 4.28 mark. Maybe I'm just overreacting to one bad start, but I'm going on what I saw with Chapman in comparison to Strasburg, who was dominant even without his top-notch stuff.

Chapman has the skills to succeed at the big league level, but my feeling is that he will struggle initially upon being called up unless he harnesses his control issues. Major league hitters will work the count and pound his mistakes like the Red Wings did on Friday night, just more often and with more authority.

But that Strasburg kid? Well, he's the real deal and it won't take people long to see that once he hits the big leagues. I'm not sure when he'll win his first Cy Young award, especially with great young pitchers like Tim Lincecum, Ubaldo Jimenez and Adam Wainwright in the National League, but he will surely be in the discussion starting in 2011.

If you look at what 2007 #1 overall pick David Price is doing this year with the Rays, I expect that and more from Strasburg next season. This season will prove as a valuable learning experience for this future stud, who could bring the Nationals back to the relevance they saw as the Expos in the early 90s. They're already over .500 this season without arguably their most talented starting pitcher. Is it too early to put the Phillies on watch? (Yes.)

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