WASHINGTON, DC: Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals celebrates after hitting the game winning RBI single in the twelfth inning against the New York Mets at Nationals Park in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
It's not often that the urge comes to detail specific opponents of the Red Sox, but it's even rarer that two generational talents would make their way to Fenway at the same time, during their first full seasons in the major leagues. That's the case with the Washington Nationals, though, who have two former first-overall picks in the 23-year-old Stephen Strasburg and the 19-year-old Bryce Harper, two phenoms who, thanks to the oft-cursed interleague, we'll get to see play in Boston this weekend.
Strasburg was selected in 2009, but he didn't begin his professional career until the following season. The then-21-year-old didn't spend very much time in the minors, as his major-league debut came two years ago today, against the Pittsburgh Pirates. With all the hype that surrounded him, it felt impossible that Strasburg wouldn't disappoint, but once he took the mound, anyone watching saw that things were unlikely to be negative for anyone but the Pirates: Strasburg threw seven frames, striking out 14, walking none, and scattering four hits. Merry Strasmas, everyone.
There was more of that in his following starts, with the right-hander punching out 92 batters over 68 innings, giving him 12.2 whiffs per nine and a 5.4 K/BB to go along with a sub-3 ERA. Strasburg's four-seamer often approached 100 mph, though he would sit a few ticks below that, and his change-up -- a 90 mph display of ridiculousness in baseball stitching -- induced swings-and-misses at a laughable rate.
It's fair to say there hasn't been an arm in the game like Pedro Martinez's since Pedro himself entered the league, but Strasburg -- with his devastating array of velocity, command, and movement -- is the closest reminder of that time that exists in baseball today. Pedro improved as he aged, until his arm began to betray him; it's frightening to imagine how improved Strasburg might become when experience combines with his innate ability to get outs.
That arm was lost to us for most of 2011, though, thanks to recovery from Tommy John surgery. The Nationals were careful with him, limiting his pitches and innings, but sometimes, if it's bound to happen, that's just the way things go with pitcher injuries. He arrived again in September, this time with an even more impressive K/BB and ERA, and it was safe to say that hitters still hadn't figured him out despite the layoff.
The first 157 innings of his career feature over 11 punch outs per nine, with just over two free passes per nine against that. The seven hits per have a lot to do with his unhittable nature -- yes, he lives and breaths the same DIPS-filled air that the majority of arms do, but he gives his victims fewer chances to tempt he ball-in-play lottery thanks to his breathtaking stuff. Strasburg isn't infallible, but more than anyone except for maybe Justin Verlander, he's an arm opponents expect no quarter from each time out. The kicker being, of course, that he's all of 23 years old, and the Nationals are still somewhat in the hand-holding stage with their most important hurler.
Boston loves their latest rookie sensation, Will Middlebrooks, but, as great as his .312/.342/.541 line in 2012 is, he has nothing on Bryce Harper. Washington's Harper is at .285/.369/.515, a rate that amounts to a difference of OPS+ of just two percent, but the gap needs more context than that: Middlebrooks is 23, while Harper is just 19.
For perspective, think of how impressed you are and were with Xander Bogaerts, both in 2011 and 2012. The then-18 and now 19-year-old has produced in Single- and High-A, with the caveat of age on his side. Harper is actually two weeks younger than Boston's most-precocious prodigy, and started his pro career a year later -- Harper did not have the benefit of time in the Dominican Summer League.
His performance in the majors, compared to what he did in Double- and Triple-A, should remind Sox fans a bit of what happened to Hanley Ramirez. Was this obviously-talented slugger just bored with his lot, stuck in the minors with talents dwarfing those around him? It's entirely possible that was the case, even if it's a bit armchair psychiatrist to assume so, especially after seeing him explode onto the scene in the bigs.
Boston may have a Middlebrooks fall to them in the later rounds, or get lucky that no one else decided betting on Jackie Bradley was worth it in the first round, but their continued success means that the Strasburgs and Harpers of the world are shut off to them, lest they exist internationally on the free agent market. This is a case of seeing how the other side lives when things work out for them, when the first-overall selection is actually as good as advertised. The Nationals drafted Strasburg and Harper because of where they used to be, but the pair are significant reasons for why Washington finds themselves where they now reside: atop the division, with the franchise's first real shot at the playoffs since they were located in another country.