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Friday, August 27, 2010
Updated: August 28, 8:19 AM ET
Loss of Stephen Strasburg a huge one

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

This isn't just the Washington Nationals' loss.

You understand that, right?

If Stephen Strasburg isn't going to throw a pitch for another year -- or even more -- the entire sport of baseball isn't going to be quite the same.

Stephen Strasburg
Stephen Strasburg could be sidelined up to 18 months after being diagnosed with a torn ligament in his right elbow.

There aren't many pitchers -- there aren't many players, period -- who can cause you to interrupt your regularly scheduled life because you just have to watch them do their thing. But Stephen Strasburg was one of them.

And now we can't be sure he'll ever be one of those players again.

We found out Friday morning that Strasburg almost certainly needs Tommy John surgery. That news itself wasn't a total shock.

Rumblings that Strasburg had a torn ligament in his elbow had been rattling around baseball practically since the moment he walked off the mound in Philadelphia last Saturday.

But now that we know that's true, we need to digest this news and what it means. And boy, is there a lot to digest.

For one thing, it means an end to not merely one of the most dazzling seasons by a rookie pitcher in baseball history. It means an end to one of the most dazzling seasons by any kind of pitcher in baseball history, even though it didn't last nearly long enough.

Strasburg made just 12 major league starts. But in those 12 starts, he faced 274 hitters and struck out 92 of them.

The only starting pitchers who have ever, in any season of 10 or more starts, whiffed that high a percentage (33.6) of the hitters they faced were Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson. Those two own eight Cy Young awards. There's a reason for that.

Now add in Strasburg's 11 minor league starts. Of the 484 hitters he faced, only 87 of them got hits. Which would be 70 fewer -- yeah, 70 -- than he struck out.

If he had done all of that in the big leagues, you should know that only two starting pitchers in the entire live-ball era have had a season with a strikeout rate that high and a hits-allowed rate that low -- Johnson (1997) and Kerry Wood (1998).

OK, obviously, some of those hitters Strasburg saw in the Eastern League are never going to hit cleanup for the Yankees. We'll concede that. But Strasburg actually had a higher strikeout ratio in the major leagues (12.18 per nine innings) than he had in the minors (10.6). So apparently, his stuff translated just fine on any level.

Anyway, we present those numbers simply to make this point, for about the billionth time:

This guy was special.

It was clear from the moment he stepped onto the big league stage in June and punched out 14 Pirates that he was something special.

Maybe [Stephen Strasburg will] be back in 2012 as if this never happened. Maybe he and Bryce Harper will arrive on the Nationals' scene at virtually the same time now -- and recharge the franchise together. But we don't know that. We don't know it'll all turn out fine.

And what lay ahead promised to be just as special.

That was part of the electricity of watching Stephen Strasburg. It wasn't simply about the fun of watching him hit 100 mph on the gun, buckle knees everywhere with his breaking ball or induce some of the ugliest hacks ever witnessed with his dive-bomber changeup.

It was also about wondering where it was all leading.

If you live in a big league town, one of the heart-thumping benefits is the thrill of looking at the schedule and realizing: "Whoa. Strasburg pitches here next week."

It's been that way forever. No different than the days when people thought: Koufax comes to town next week … or Gibson … or Pedro … or Fernando.

Those evenings are never just another night on the schedule. They're Events.

And even though this guy trailed all those guys decisively in Cy Young trophies, Strasburg Night was already in that same class. It was An Event.

Not just in Washington, either. All over the baseball map.

Remember the "Baseball Tonight" crew broadcasting live from the first game of his career? That doesn't happen every night of the season, friends.

Remember TBS bailing on a Red Sox-Phillies game in June to show a Nationals-Indians game instead? That would have been ratings suicide if Strasburg hadn't been pitching.

And then there was the unique phenomenon of Stras-mas in Washington.

Strasburg made it to the mound only seven times in D.C. this summer. But just those seven starts alone nearly made his team an extra $3 million, according to CNBC's Darren Rovell.

In those seven starts, the Nationals averaged 33,446 paying customers per game. In all their other home games this year, heading into this homestand, they'd averaged only 22,761 fans.

So just the attraction of watching Strasburg pitch was the kind of magnetic force that sucked an extra 10,685 customers per game into the ballpark.

Who does that?

Only those rare athletes, with that special on-field charisma, do that. And Stephen Strasburg was one of them.

So for the Nationals, this news is a crusher, just from that standpoint alone.

Stephen Strasburg
Stephen Strasburg made 12 starts for the Nationals this season, and during that time had 92 strikeouts in 68 innings.

It's a crusher from a standpoint of sheer economics. The best guess is that Strasburg would have made four more starts at home this season before the team shut him down. Then add in another 15 or 16 more starts at home next year.

So if this fellow had kept attracting all those extra customers at even close to the same rate, that's somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million they just lost. Practically could have paid for another year of Adam Dunn all by himself.

But obviously, for this franchise, the impact goes way beyond the sound of the cash register that just stopped ringing.

Strasburg gave the Nationals an identity, a presence. He was practically the face of the franchise before he'd even played for the franchise.

So this is a loss, an injury, that will reverberate in every direction, for as long as he's out.

We know the prognosis for most Tommy John patients is good. Close to 90 percent of them come back, within 12 to 18 months, and recover just fine.

But in the case of this man, you still have to wonder.

Will he be back throwing 97 to 100 mph again?

Will he have the confidence to finish his changeup -- the pitch that stressed his shoulder in July and then caused the blowout of his elbow ligament last weekend -- the same way again?

Will he ever be this kind of pitcher again?

We mentioned Kerry Wood earlier. Wood had Tommy John surgery right after his rookie year. That was 11 years ago. He's pitched 11 seasons in the big leagues since that surgery. So obviously, he healed. He came back and put up lots of picturesque numbers, even led his league in strikeouts once.

But he's never been that guy again.

So what does the future hold for Stephen Strasburg? None of us can be too sure.

Maybe he'll be back in 2012 as if this never happened. Maybe he and Bryce Harper will arrive on the Nationals' scene at virtually the same time now -- and recharge the franchise together.

But we don't know that. We don't know it'll all turn out fine. You can't ever know where Tommy John surgery is leading -- whether you're Stephania Bell or Dr. James Andrews or Rob Dibble. No injury, no surgery, no rehab is ever precisely the same.

So all we can do is wait. And see. In the meantime, for the Washington Nationals, it means way too many games that are about to be pitched by Miss Iowa.

And for the rest of us, hey, life will go on. And baseball will go on. But don't forget something important here, as Stephen Strasburg heads for another doctor's office:

This is our loss, too.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.