One of the most common questions I've received this month during various radio/television interviews and bookstore events is this one: "When will we see Stephen Strasburg in the big leagues?" By reassigning the right-hander to minor league camp on Saturday, the Nationals made it clear it won’t be Opening Day. So to make an educated guess regarding Strasburg's major league debut, I decided to go back in time eight years to look at the last version of Strasburg.
Back in 2002, folks were talking about Mark Prior the same way we're talking about Strasburg this year. Prior was the best college pitcher in the history of baseball, and anybody who saw him that spring knew he was major league-ready. Prior began that season as a 21-year-old at Double-A West Tenn. He was five months short of his 22nd birthday. This year, Strasburg will start at Double-A Harrisburg in the Eastern League, three months from the same number. And the similarities don't end there. Both were born in San Diego and made their marks at colleges in Southern California, with Prior at USC and Strasburg at San Diego State. Strasburg is listed at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds. Prior is the same weight but one inch taller.
Still, like the Nationals, the Cubs decided not to just throw Prior to the major league wolves but rather let him dominate for a bit in the minors. And dominate he did. In 34 2/3 innings for West Tenn, Prior allowed just 10 earned runs while fanning 55 and allowing just 26 hits. One very quick and dirty stat I use to evaluate minor league pitchers is K/H. It's an imperfect but easy measurement of how well a pitcher is doing the most important thing when it comes to projection -- missing bats. A 1-to-1 ratio is the minimum for true "goodness," and 2-to-1 is utterly dominant. So Prior was pretty dominant. After six Double-A starts, Prior was promoted to Triple-A Iowa, where he struck out 24 in 16 1/3 innings while allowing just 13 hits. Once again, an excellent K/H ratio.
Prior hit the big leagues after those nine minor league outings and was among the best pitchers in the league from day one. He made his debut on May 22 and finished the season with a 3.32 ERA and 147 strikeouts in 116 2/3 innings. We don't need to get into his subsequent arm woes, but remember that Prior was one of the most talented young pitchers we've ever seen.
Because so much of Strasburg's past 24 months have mirrored Prior's days from nearly a decade ago, let's set May 22 as the over/under on his big league debut. And while Strasburg is in the minors, keep an eye on his K/H ratio. Strasburg's success is predicated on missing bats, and if his K/H is below 1-to-1, he's probably not missing enough of them. Like Prior, there's no reason he can't be dominant from day one, let's just hope his career lasts a bit longer.
Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus.