In some ways, Adrian Gonzalez would seem like one of the few people in the world who can appreciate the phenomena of Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. Like the two Nationals stars, Gonzalez was the first overall pick in a Major League Baseball draft, having been tabbed for that honor by the Marlins in 2000, nine years before Washington took Strasburg and 10 years before the Nats selected Harper with the same pick.
Yet the Red Sox first baseman suggests that he can’t really identify with his two fellow “1-1”s (first round, first pick). After all, Gonzalez enjoyed a fairly standard progression through the minors. Aside from a trade that sent him from the Marlins to the Rangers in 2003, he made his way in relative obscurity to the big leagues four years later, making his debut just a few weeks before turning 22 in 2004.
And so it is difficult for him to relate to the meteoric ascents of Strasburg and Harper. Gonzalez has never seen Strasburg pitch, but he played for the Padres when the fireballing right-hander became a national phenomenon across town at San Diego State en route to becoming the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft and then, within a year, stormed to the majors, where he dominated immediately. Harper, meanwhile, was just 17 when he was taken first overall in the 2010 draft, and it has taken him less than two years to hit the ground running in the majors at 19 years old.
To Gonzalez, such direct lines from heralded draft pick to the majors verge on incomprehensible.
“It’s a lot of pressure on them,” said Gonzalez. “Asking them to come up, most young kids, young guys, are going to have success early because nobody knows them. There’s not a lot of scouting. It’s when they go through the struggle that teams are going, you need to learn to have failure. If you come up fast, you’re never going to go through failure. That’s the hardest thing to learn at this level.
“I was able to go through that but I did it in the minor leagues. I was able to learn how to deal with this,” Gonzalez said, referring to periods of struggle on his way through the minors that prepared him to put his 2012 struggles in context. “It happens. It happens to everybody. [But] they’re both really talented. Talent alone will help them get through those. They’re both, as we know, unbelievable talent-wise.”
Indeed they are, a fact that will be front-and-center as the Nationals play the Red Sox in Fenway Park this weekend. Strasburg will command the spotlight first, taking the mound on Friday night. His numbers -- a 6-1 record, 2.35 ERA, 10.9 strikeouts and 2.4 walks per nine inning -- are almost as dazzling as his stuff.
In his first full season back from Tommy John surgery, Strasburg looks very much like the same pitcher he was before the procedure. He unleashes comets, with his fastball averaging just under 97 mph, with more in the tank when needed. He has a devastating curveball that paralyzes right-handers, and a 90 mph changeup that left-handers find almost comically good.
Cody Ross is one of the few Red Sox players to get a first-hand glimpse of Strasburg, having played against him one month into the pitcher’s big league career. The outfielder felt confident that the reality could not match the hype. He was wrong.
“Everyone was talking about how great he was. As an opposing team, you’re like, we’re going to light him up or whatever. I don’t think it really happened,” Ross chuckled. (Strasburg tossed six shutout innings against Florida, striking out seven. Ross had one of the four hits against him and struck out twice.) “His stuff was as good as everyone was talking about, if not better. His command was really good for such a young player and someone who didn’t spend very much time in the minor leagues.
“All of his pitches were plus pitches, almost a [Justin] Verlander-type. It’s too bad that he got hurt. Obviously, he’s back and pitching at a top level again, but I was just watching some video of him throwing against me. He was 98, 99, and it’s coming out hot. And he’s locating it,” said Ross. “I haven’t faced Verlander that much and I didn’t face Strasburg that much. But I’ve faced them both probably about the same number of times, and they’re very similar. That’s a very big compliment. I’m not saying he’s Verlander status. Obviously, he can’t be yet. But stuff-wise, it was pretty spectacular.”
When he was with the Cubs, Marlon Byrd saw Strasburg in his first start of the 2012 season. He was impressed by the stuff, though he noted that what he saw from the 23-year-old was not unprecedented. Still, the precedents for Strasburg represent a who’s who of the great power pitchers of the last 15 years.
“This is my 10th year in the big leagues. I’ve faced John Smoltz. I’ve faced Roger Clemens. I’ve faced Curt Schilling, Pedro [Martinez], Felix Hernandez. He’s comparable to those guys,” said Byrd. “He’s got that good live young arm. If he stays healthy, he’s going to be like them. I’ve seen stuff that’s comparable to him, but you see the names that I’m naming. I’m not naming Jeff Suppan -- I’m naming big names. I’ve seen that good stuff and location. The only difference with him is that he hasn’t had that much time in the game yet.”
Ross suggested that Strasburg’s command of a high-90s fastball and knee-buckling curveball were both special. Scott Podsednik, the other Red Sox player to face Strasburg, suggested that his 90 mph changeup -- a pitch that dives down and away from lefties -- was a pitch unlike any he’d seen.
Ultimately, the impression created by Strasburg is one of a pitcher like few others. Yet the fact that he is “like few others” makes him different from his teammate, Harper.
Put simply, members of the Red Sox are in awe of what Harper is doing in his big league debut. At 19 years old, he is the most compelling player on the field. He’s hitting .276 with a .359 OBP, .500 slugging mark, .859 OPS, five homers and 16 extra-base hits in 35 games.
Those would be tremendous numbers for a player 10 years older than Harper. That the outfielder is posting them while still years away from his likely career prime is incomprehensible to members of the Sox.
A teenager is dominating major league competition.
“That’s crazy. I was drafted No. 1 overall. … I was drafted for four or five years down the road,” said Gonzalez. “[The Marlins] saw the potential I had down the road. I wasn’t a pick like a Josh Hamilton where it was like, ‘This guy can be up in a year.’ I still didn’t have the strength, I didn’t have the stuff that guys like Josh Hamilton and Bryce Harper have. They come around once every 10 years.”
Almost no one in baseball history can relate to Harper. Within the Red Sox clubhouse, no one but Josh Beckett could make anything close to a claim of being so polished so early.
When Will Middlebrooks was 19, he was struggling desperately to figure out how to avoid striking out three times a game on one of the lowest rungs of the minor league ladder, with the Short-Season A-ball Lowell Spinners. Ross thought he was the cat’s pajamas at age 19 because he was holding his own (.267/.356/.396/.753) in full-season A-ball.
“I don’t understand how he’s able to do it. I thought I was ready when I was 22, and I look back now and I’m like, ‘You weren’t ready then.’ It’s a totally different ballgame. You’re playing with grown-ass men,” said Ross. “There’s no way I could have even sniffed it at that time.
“I was talking to Nick [Punto] and a few guys in here the other day about it, and I was like, ‘Man, there sure are a lot of people just constantly talking about Harper, Harper.’ The scroll is, ‘Harper, 0-for-4 with two strikeouts.’ ‘Harper, 3-for-4 tonight,’ ” he added. “I’m like, we’ve got rookies, too, that are doing good. Then I think to myself, ‘Oh, yeah -- he’s 19.’ Our guy (Middlebrooks) is young, too, 23. But there’s a huge difference between 23 and 19. Huge.
“At 23, as a prospect, that’s your time you should be in the big leagues. If you’re a young, really good prospect, 23 is a perfect age to get up and not feel overexposed, not feel like he doesn’t belong. He’s growing into himself, maturing. At 19, you’re still a kid. This guy’s a kid, and he’s up here playing this game, making it look easy sometimes.”
Gonzalez spent all of his age 19 season in the Single-A Midwest League. Byrd was a freshman at Georgia Perimeter College at 19, still two years away from being drafted by the Phillies.
“I was still trying to figure out how to hit with a metal bat. This guy’s hitting with wood in the big leagues against the best in the world,” he said. “That’s just different talent -- Mike Trout, Starlon Castro. Those guys are above and beyond superstars. They can have Hall of Fame careers.”
Indeed, the list of players who have had been able to hold their own at 19 in a fashion comparable to Harper verges on non-existent. Mel Ott and Tony Conigliaro are the only two 19-year-olds in baseball history to have an OPS over .800 with at least 400 plate appearances at age 19.
That explains the prevailing sense among Red Sox players that Strasburg compares to the most dominant pitchers of this time, while Harper seemingly transcends his time and requires the benefit of baseball history to comprehend.
“It’s crazy. It truly is amazing,” Ross said of Harper’s performance at 19. “There’s only a handful of guys who have ever done it.”
All of that has turned the Nationals -- occupants of first place in the National League East -- into the most fascinating team in the majors, not just a visiting team but an event, with two stars as luminous and compelling as they are young. The Red Sox will be competing against Strasburg and Harper, but they will also be watching them, mindful that the opportunity to see such precocious talents rarely comes along.