Cooperstown Confidential: Dr. Strasburg and Mr. Clyde

To their credit, the Washington Nationals have handled Stephen Strasburg far better than the Texas Rangers treated David Clyde nearly 40 years ago.

Strasburg has become the most heavily hyped pitcher since Clyde, a tall Texas left hander who predated the Internet, sports talk radio and 24-hour baseball channels. (How much is Strasburg being celebrated? The Topps Company snapped a photo of his very first major league pitch, to Andrew McCutchen, and placed it on his rookie card, which has now been released in limited qualities.) Somehow, Strasburg managed to live up to ludicrously high expectations with his 14-strikeout, two-run, seven-inning debut against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday night. While Strasburg deserves most of the credit, the Nationals can also take a bow for properly laying the groundwork for his debut.

In deciding to start Strasburg in the minor leagues this spring, the Nationals gave him ample time to make the transition to the rigors of professional baseball. They also allowed him to dominate, first against Double-A hitters and then against the Triple-A competition supplied by International League batters.

Less importantly but still significantly, the Nats gave him at least four to five days off between his starts, while regulating his pitch counts (perhaps to the extreme but that’s an argument for another day). Given their tender loving care, the Nats now appear to have a bona fide National League Rookie of the Year candidate in their imposing right hander. Far more critically, the organization may have laid the foundation for having a certified ace, one whom the rest of Washington’s staff can be centered on for several years to come.

In Clyde’s day, the early 1970s, teams paid little attention to pitch counts or extra days off between starts. So there’s really no point in blaming the Rangers for failing to take these precautions; no other team of that era would have done so either. But where the Rangers really fell short was in deciding to have Clyde completely bypass the minor leagues after selecting him No. 1 overall in the 1973 amateur draft. Rangers owner Bob Short made that decision. Ignoring the advice of more knowledgeable people in the organization, Short stubbornly rushed Clyde to the major leagues in desperate hope that he would bolster the team’s sagging attendance.

Pitching in his senior season at Westchester High School in Texas, Clyde had won all 18 of his decisions, with five of the victories being no-hitters, feats that drew the attention of numerous major league scouts. Given his overpowering fastball, his seemingly sound mechanics, and his incomprehensible ERA of 0.18, the consensus of the scouts mandated that he would be the first selection in the June 1973 draft.

The Rangers gladly took Clyde, a native Texan to boot, with the top pick and signed him quickly. Short agreed to give him a record-setting bonus of $125,000, with the idea that he would be promoted immediately to the Rangers’ 25-man roster. Short wanted him to make two starts with the Rangers before being sent to the minors. Short’s ill-conceived plan conflicted with the advice of his Hall of Fame manager Whitey Herzog, who believed that Clyde, just 18, needed considerable coddling and schooling in the minor leagues from Day One.

On June 27, only 20 days after his high school pitching swan song, Clyde made his major league debut against the Minnesota Twins. From a promotional and public relations standpoint, the decision to start Clyde proved an overwhelming success. Rangers fans swarmed the streets surrounding Arlington Stadium, resulting in snarls of traffic jams around the ballpark. To allow as many fans as possible to enter the ballpark in time for the first pitch, Short delayed the start of the game by 15 minutes.

That decision probably thrilled the fans, who filled Arlington Stadium to its capacity of nearly 37,000, but it may have rattled Clyde. With his timing disturbed and his nerves frayed, Clyde walked the first two batters he faced, light-hitting shortstop Jerry Terrell and reigning batting champion Rod Carew. Facing an immediate crisis, Clyde displayed the toughness of a 18-year veteran. Taking advantage of a fragmented Twins lineup that lacked the presence of Tony Oliva and an aging Harmon Killebrew, he struck out the less formidable triumvirate of Bobby Darwin, George Mitterwald and Joe Lis, bringing the potential Twins rally to an abrupt finish.

Clyde ran into more trouble in the second inning. His control still uncertain, Clyde walked Steve Braun, who was leading off the inning. Perhaps trying to take advantage of Clyde’s youthfulness, Braun attempted to steal second, but was thrown out by Ken Suarez, a defensively sound catcher. Given the reprieve, Clyde then walked power-hitting Larry Hisle.

Convinced that they needed to run against Clyde, the Twins again opted for the stolen base. This time Hisle made it, putting himself in scoring position. Clyde then struck out Phil Roof, but yielded a two-out home run to right-handed hitting Mike Adams. Now facing a two-run deficit, Clyde again walked Terrell and Carew, but watched Suarez snuff out Carew on the back end of a double steal. Obsessed with stealing bases against Clyde, the Twins ran themselves completely out of a bigger inning.

The Rangers came back to tie the score in the bottom of the second, the rally seemingly revitalizing Clyde. He again handled the alleged heart of Minnesota’s order with ease, with a ground out, a pop-up, and a strikeout. After the Rangers scored a single run in the third, Clyde retired six of the next seven Twins he faced, leaving the game on the good side of a 4-2 score. Working five eventful innings, Clyde piled up eight strikeouts and seven walks, giving up only one hit and two earned runs in an eventual 4-3 win for the Rangers.

All in all, it was a wild but fairly impressive debut for Clyde, though well short of the results put forth by Strasburg in his inaugural game. Once Short took note of the sellout crowd in Arlington, he decided that Clyde would not go to the minors after two starts, but would remain a Ranger for the rest of the season. Unfortunately, Clyde struggled to match his initial effort. By season’s end, Clyde’s numbers looked unsightly: an ERA of 5.01, 54 walks in 93 innings, and a record of four wins against eight losses.

Although Herzog had argued against rushing Clyde to Texas, he still regrets not fighting harder with Short over his plan. Herzog has also admitted to leaving Clyde in games for more pitches and innings than he should have, simply because he felt forced to give fans a longer look at the young phenom. “He was really mishandled,” Herzog told The New York Times several years ago. “He was wild and the other hitters started sitting on his fastball. He never had the advantage of going to the minors and pitching against kids his own age.”

Clyde’s pitching only worsened in 1974. He failed to gain the favor of Herzog’s replacement, Billy Martin, and a new pitching coach, Art Fowler. Both Martin and Fowler, who had reputations for favoring veteran pitchers over youngsters, considered Clyde to be overrated. At one point, Martin did not pitch Clyde for 17 straight days. On another occasion, he did not use him for 12 straight days. Whether Martin’s opinion of Clyde was accurate or not, the failure to pitch him for such long stretches did little to aid the young pitcher’s development.

Another factor did little to help Clyde. At the time, the Rangers featured several veteran players who enjoyed the night life and social drinking, and not necessarily in that order. Running with teammates like fellow left-hander Clyde Wright, catcher Dick Billings and infielder Jim Fregosi, Clyde fell into bad habits. He began to drink heavily, one time arriving late for a team flight while wearing the same clothes from the previous day.

So who’s most to blame for Clyde’s failures? While Clyde, whose career was later affected by arm problems, has to be held largely accountable for his excessive drinking, it appears that the Rangers unwittingly conspired to derail his promising career. Beginning with Short’s decision to forego minor league seasoning, continuing with Billy Martin’s mishandling of him and concluding with the questionable influences of veteran teammates, the Rangers seemingly did all they could to ensure that Clyde would fail. That certainly wasn’t their intention, but it was nonetheless the result.

So far, the Nationals have not repeated the Rangers’ many mistakes.

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Comments

  1. Thomas J. Comer said...

    The Nationals have some good baseball minds at the helm, especially Mike Rizzo.  He was our scouting director here in AZ and signed some great young players for us.  Believe me we miss his acute knowledge of the game and ability as a talent evaluator.

    Strasburg is in good hands.

  2. Greg said...

    I don’t think your Clyde Wright comparison is on point at all.  There is a huge difference in physical and emotional maturity between an 18-year-old kid coming out of high school and a young man about to turn 21 having finished his junior year in college.  The better comparison to use with Strasburg is Mark Prior, who had a similar pedigree, makeup, and talent level entering the amateur draft. And Strasburg and Prior look like twins on the mound, a fact which could end up haunting Strasburg in the long run. 

    The Nationals were the worst team in baseball before the year Strasburg was drafted, and they paid Strasburg a king’s ransom because they had to.  Strasburg wasn’t a “find” at the number one pick.  This wasn’t like drafting Albert Pujols in the 13th round, or Mike Rizzo’s famed pick of Brandon Webb in the 8th Round.  And the handful of starts the Nats doled out to Strasburg in the minor leagues did not assist in his development.  It merely delayed his eligibility for salary arbitration, which is the only reason the Nats held him back as long as they did.  Strasburg was ready to pitch in the big leagues the day after he was drafted.  It’s not as if he suddenly developed command, increased his velocity, or established another pitch while in the minors.  He is the same pitcher now as he was at San Diego State.  I don’t see how the Nationals deserve any credit. 

    Before you join the bandwagon in vaulting Stephen Strasburg to Mount Olympus and giving the Nationals organization any credit at all, let’s see how he’s doing 10 years from now.  Can Strasburg avoid a catastrophic arm injury like Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson avoided in their long careers?  Or if he does suffer a serious arm injury early in his career that requires surgery, can he bounce back like Roger Clemens did?  Can Strasburg deal with failure (which will eventually happen) and the trappings of wealth and fame, or will he suffer the fate of Dwight Gooden, who was an even better pitcher at an earlier age than Strasburg?  We don’t know, because it’s far too early to tell.  We only know that Strasburg has to overcome a lot of odds before he enters the Hall of Fame, although he certainly has Hall of Fame talent.  But so did Mark Prior.

  3. BlftBucco said...

    Why give Clyde Wright a bad rap? Although he had his demons with alcohol, he didn’t join the Rangers until 1975. 

    This was a season in which David Clyde pitched mostly at the AA level. He made only one appearance for the Rangers in a late September game.

    The damage was done in 1973-1974. Prior to Clyde Wright joining the Rangers.

    I agree, I like what the Nationals are doing with Stasburg

  4. Bruce Markusen said...

    Greg, the comparison between Clyde and Strasburg stems primarily from the amount of hype attached to each pitcher. Prior was not nearly as hyped as either Clyde or Strasburg.

    I don’t know why you’re jumping all over me for “vaulting Strasburg to Mt. Olympus.” Where in the article did I do that? I have no idea if Strasburg will be a star in three years, five years, ten years, or ever. I think the Nats have proceeded cautiously with him, which I believe to be a smart approach given his age and relative lack of experience. College ball is still a long way from major league ball, an enormous jump.

  5. Ryan said...

    A bone of contention, I was born in 1973 so to say that is “nearly 40 years ago” is offensive.  Possibly accurate but only when rounding to the nearest 10.  Interestingly (to me) I would have gone to Westchester High School had it not closed down, but I’d never heard this story.

    As another poster pointed out, it is difficult to compare an 18-year old straight out of high school to a guy who has had another couple of years to mature in what is similar to the minor leagues, other than the hype surrounding the circus I guess.  Since Strasburg could have gone to Stanford, and since this is not the 1970’s major leagues, I’ll hope that he won’t fall into the traps that Clyde did for off the field activities.  As to whether his mechanics hold up or not, that will be the big question.  I’ve read he does have some flags on him, but not as much as Prior … more comparable to Smoltz.  If he goes as far as Smoltz, while it may not be an epic career, it would be hard not to call it a successful one.

  6. Northern Rebel said...

    I happened to live in New Britain, Ct and saw Roger Clemens pitch the clincher of the AA team’s championship game.

    it was obvious he was a man amongst boys, and was going to be a great one.

    His start wasn’t as fleet as expected, but there is no doubt he lived up to his hype, despite the whirlwinds now blowing about in his life.

    The key is mental toughness, No matter your talent. I wish young Strasburg luck, and I’m glad my Sawx are in the AL!

  7. Marc Schneider said...

    You can’t assume that any given pitching prospect, no matter how talented, will become a great pitcher and make the HOF.  But, logically, some will.  I understand the desire to hold off putting Strasburg in the Hall after two starts—I remember Ben McDonald, after all—but there seems to be a rush by some to assume he will be a bust, almost as a reaction to the hype.  The apotheosis of this was Steve Phillips saying he would trade Strasburg for Roy Oswalt.  All young players are risks to some degree, but, clearly, the odds on some are better than on others. Just because Prior flamed out doesn’t mean Strasburg will as well.

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