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Strasburg in elite company in racking up strikeouts

Whether or not the Nationals eventually pull the plug on Stephen Strasburg's season, the young right-hander is on pace to join some elite company in his first full Major League campaign.

Not only does Strasburg's strikeout rate of 11.58 per nine innings lead the Majors by a considerable margin, but it's a mark that's only been bested by Randy Johnson (six times, including a Major League-record 13.41 in 2001), Pedro Martinez (twice) and Kerry Wood (once).

Strasburg fell behind Seattle's Felix Hernandez for the Major League lead in strikeouts after Hernandez whiffed six Royals batters Sunday to jump ahead of Strasburg, 153-151. But consider that Hernandez -- regarded as a quality strikeout pitcher himself -- has worked 37 2/3 more innings than Strasburg.

In other words, the Nats' pitching phenom sits second in the Majors in strikeouts despite ranking 68th in innings pitched with 117 1/3.

Stephen Strasburg's current strikeout rate puts him on pace to join an elite group with Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and Kerry Wood.
Player Season K/9 IP
Randy Johnson 2001 13.41
Pedro Martinez 1999 13.20
Kerry Wood 1998 12.58
Randy Johnson 2000 12.56
Randy Johnson 1995 12.35
Randy Johnson 1997 12.30
Randy Johnson 1998 12.12
Randy Johnson 1999 12.06
Pedro Martinez 2000 11.78
Stephen Strasburg 2012 11.58

"He's got great stuff," Rays infielder Sean Rodriguez after striking out twice during Strasburg's 10-K performance against his team last month. "He's got command of everything he throws. And pretty much he can throw any of his three pitches in any count. It's impressive. Especially being that young."

That might just be the scariest part of it all -- Strasburg only recently turned 24 years old.

Johnson didn't record a strikeout rate higher than Strasburg's current mark until the age of 31. And Martinez was 27 before he put up such numbers. Wood recorded his 12.58 K/9 ratio at 21, but he never posted a number higher than 11.4 the rest of his career.

Even aside from the concern regarding Strasburg's past elbow troubles, specifically his 2010 Tommy John surgery, Washington manager Davey Johnson recently said the right-hander is still "a work in progress."

"He's still learning to pitch in this league," Johnson said. "He's got such good stuff and he gets such great publicity, but he's still a work in progress. He's a perfectionist. It's really all about learning about yourself and not trying to be too perfect."

So what makes Strasburg such a lethal strikeout threat?

Well, as Rodriguez and his Tampa Bay teammates discovered firsthand, Strasburg doesn't necessarily have a go-to two-strike pitch. Instead, the crafty righty has three such pitches in his arsenal.

Strasburg has already notched 40-plus strikeouts this year with each of his three main pitches -- 57 with his four-seam fastball, 46 with his curveball and 45 with his changeup.

If Strasburg had his way, though, a lot of those counts wouldn't even get to two strikes, let alone three. With the Nationals organization pledging to take it easy with Strasburg this season, he has to make the most of his limited pitch counts and innings.

In 37 Major League outings, Strasburg has never so much as recorded an out in the eighth inning. Even a mention of letting Strasburg make a run at his first career complete game quickly gets shot down by Johnson.

"Just attack the strike zone and don't nibble," Strasburg said after striking out 11 in a victory against the Mets on Wednesday. "Just go out there and make them put the ball in play. Obviously, the good pitchers can get through seven in under 100 pitches. So that was definitely a goal. I didn't want to go out there and try and just nibble the whole time and have 100 pitches through five."

Mets manager Terry Collins didn't need to see 100 pitches from Strasburg to be reminded of the San Diego State alum's prowess on the mound. After tossing six shutout innings against the Mets in early April, Strasburg conceded just one run last week in a 5-2 victory.

"He's tremendous, my gosh almighty," Collins said after Strasburg mowed through seven innings with just 94 pitches.

That again epitomizes the conundrum facing Strasburg and the Nationals. When a club's ace is rolling along at just 94 pitches, it's not customary to see a manager turn to the bullpen for the final six outs.

Yet with Washington tied for the National League's best record and leading the NL East by four games entering Monday, sacrificing a couple of innings each game seems like a decent trade-off to keep Strasburg in the rotation a little bit longer before the looming shutdown occurs.

"Oh, no doubt about it," Johnson said when asked if Strasburg would have gone back out for the eighth inning against the Mets in any other season. "He had plenty left. This is a strange year. I'm going to protect him as much as I can so he can go as far [into the season] as he can. But when he was going like that, I was sure tempted to just ride this all the way out."

Based on his current stats, the numbers Strasburg would be projected to put up when the time comes to let him "ride it all the way out" are gaudy. For now, the phenom will simply have to settle for being on pace to join that elite group with the likes of Johnson, Martinez and Wood, assuming Strasburg pitches at least the 162 innings necessary to qualify for such a leaderboard.

Regardless of Strasburg's strikeout rate down the stretch, the focus will obviously remain on just how long the Nationals keep him in the rotation. But don't expect any playoff-contending teams or postseason opponents to miss him if the Nats indeed decide to shelve Strasburg at some point.

To put it simply: "Yeah, he's definitely as good as they say he is," Rodriguez said.

Stephen Strasburg