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Stephen Strasburg Was More Than Just an All-Time ‘What If?’

Stephen Strasburg has existed to baseball fans in the last few years largely as a hypothetical.

As the pitcher tried to mount a grueling recovery from thoracic outlet syndrome over the last few years—he was able to pitch just a handful of collective innings over the past three seasons—there was precious little factual information to go on. The hypotheticals filled the void instead: If he were healthy. If he could make a comeback. If he weren’t really done. And now, with the news that he will officially announce his retirement in the coming weeks, the hypotheticals are all that’s left.

But it’s worth noting the career he actually did have. Strasburg was more than just a “What if?” In his own right, in real life, he was a damn good pitcher for quite some time.

Strasburg entered the big leagues with as much hype as a prospect could possibly have. (That level of attention has been matched in the years since by only the future teammate and top draft pick who immediately followed him: Bryce Harper.) “Consensus” is not a strong enough term to describe his status as his No. 1 draft pick out of San Diego State in 2009. Yet when a 21-year-old Strasburg made his first career start in June ‘10, he did the unthinkable: He lived up to the hype. Seven innings, two runs, 14 strikeouts. They called it “Strasmas,” and boy, did he make sure it felt like a holiday.

“There are guys who come up to the plate, look down at me and just say, ‘This guy is unbelievable,’” Nationals catcher Ivan Rodriguez told SI’s Albert Chen for a cover story about the pitcher’s introduction to the big leagues. “I’ve caught a lot of guys in my career, and it’s true what people say about this kid. He is unbelievable.”

(That cover story also quoted Bob Feller. How many pitchers had a debut so marvelous that SI had to call for context from Bob Feller?)

Strasburg’s star dimmed in the later years of his career due to injury, but not before he put together several excellent seasons and one truly great postseason stretch.

Tommy Gilligan/USA TODAY Sports

It would have been hard for any career to live up to the shimmering magic of that debut. For stretches at a time, Strasburg’s seemed like it could, until suddenly it didn’t. His path forward was fraught: Tommy John surgery just a few months into his rookie season, additional injuries in the years that followed, seemingly always one workload concern or another chasing him. It could be easy for those frustrations to take on an outsize role in any evaluation of his career. But when Strasburg was at full strength—he was magnificent. His changeup, in particular, was a batter-baffling masterpiece. And the prime of his career wasn’t quite as dramatically injury-bitten as it may have seemed in real time: In the eight seasons from 2012 to ‘19, Strasburg averaged 168 innings a year, and he never pitched fewer than 125.

The last of those eight seasons was, of course, the most rewarding. In 2019, Strasburg helped lead the Nationals on a miracle playoff run, putting together some of the best performances of his career to push them further into October. The first pitcher ever to put together a 5–0 record in one postseason, Strasburg left no doubt about who might be World Series MVP. (He also became the last starting pitcher to work into the ninth inning of a World Series game—and, considering the continued evolution of pitcher usage, he very well might be the last to do it, ever.) The years since have been dark ones. Strasburg has dealt with a debilitating surgery and attempted recovery from thoracic outlet syndrome, able to make just eight combined starts from ‘20 to ‘22, and none at all in ‘23. But think of what preceded them—Strasburg emptying the tank, looking his best, delivering the first championship in the history of a franchise.

So where does all of that leave him? As a dazzling pitcher at his best, a three-time All-Star, a World Series MVP. There are exactly 50 pitchers who recorded an ERA+ above 125 in at least 200 starts. Strasburg is one of them. It’s easy to imagine other, more exclusive clubs he might have joined in a hypothetical universe where he enjoyed better health. But here, in this universe, without the hypothetical? He was just fine, too.

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