Matt Harvey vs. Stephen Strasburg: who’s actually better and why?

MLB

The answer lies not in their stats, but in their swagger.

In 2009, Stephen Strasburg came out of San Diego State University as the consensus number one pick in the nation. The Washington Nationals, at the time, were fortunate in that there was very little brain work that needed to be done to find the player they were going to take with that first overall pick. Comparing and contrasting that with what happened to the Houston Astros with Brady Aiken and it’s not to be disregarded how the appearance of a once-in-a-generation talent can help a club to make the decision. When there is debate as to who the number one pick should be, it’s not only about their performance as their careers move along, but how making the wrong pick can cost people their jobs. Had there been another, less heralded prospect available and the Nationals had felt strongly enough about him to shun Strasburg, then it would have been a big story that could either have exploded in their faces or turned into a massive victory. Looking at the 2009 first round, the Nationals might have chosen to take Dustin Ackley – a bust – first overall. Or they might have fallen in love with a player who’d fallen to number 25, Mike Trout.

With hindsight, whom would they prefer? The answer is simple and it’s Trout.

Obviously any team with a conscientious scouting staff and general manager who’s in tune with the realities of developing players will perform due diligence before making the pick. Factors such as physicality, makeup and ability will dictate that “this is the player we want.” It certainly helps to have that consensus number one sitting there so there’s a built-in excuse if he doesn’t make it: “Anyone else in our position would have picked him too.”

The Nationals were lucky to be in that position two straight years in 2009, the year they selected Strasburg, and 2010 when they took Bryce Harper.

Along with that consensus number one status comes a lot of pressure on both the player and the club. That and the combination of recommendations from supposed experts, formulas and paranoia is what led to the Nationals babying Strasburg to the degree they did. He wound up getting hurt anyway, missed a large chunk of the 2011 season after Tommy John surgery, and, in what is now known as a notorious decision, he was shut down at a prescribed innings limit in 2012 as the Nationals were heading toward the playoffs.

Strasburg acted as if he was upset about the shutdown, but he went along with it through the prodding of his agent/puppeteer Scott Boras as well as the Nationals’ staff. Had he truly demanded that the shutdown not have occurred and demanded to pitch, what could the Nationals have done?

Matt Harvey, on the other hand, was a known prospect but wasn’t as obvious a star. Picked seventh overall in 2010 by the New York Mets former front office regime led by the unfairly maligned and savvy talent evaluator Omar Minaya, Harvey was drafted before recognizable names Chris Sale and Christian Yelich. Even as he made his way through the minors, no one knew he’d develop into a pitcher whose attitude and stuff are comparable to a young Roger Clemens.

Amid all of Strasburg’s obvious talent with a searing fastball, knee-buckling curve and superior changeup, there’s a wishy-washiness to him that indicates a troubling lack of intensity and that he’d be just as happy working as a stockbroker making big corporate bucks as he is being a star athlete. To him, baseball appears to be his job and he’s out to maximize the amount of money he makes from it. His agent, that his free agency is pending after 2016, and that the performance hasn’t lived up to the expectations – in large part because of injury and babying – make him a trade target. He’s allowed the subjugation of his personality and career to his agent and bosses. He lets that agent be the hatchet man and his bosses dictate to him how he’ll be used when a true competitor would stand up for himself in ways that Strasburg has been reluctant and unwilling to do.

To Harvey, baseball is not only his job but a means to be famous and recognized as the best at what he does. There’s an attention-whore aspect to Harvey that is irritating many in the Mets organization and leads to public embarrassments after which the team has to do its best to clean it up, but it’s also a way to make the organization money with the now ubiquitous “Harvey Day” promotional device. While it’s Derek Jeter who Harvey purports to emulate, his behaviors have been compared to Jeter’s nemesis and bizarro counterpart, Alex Rodriguez.

Like Strasburg, Harvey needed Tommy John surgery. Strasburg accepted it as a matter of course in a cold, analytical way. Harvey demanded to try and rehab it without surgery so he could pitch. That’s not just a medical plan of action, but an insightful indicator of what makes the two young stars tick.

It isn’t a matter of “Which one’s better?” but of “Which one would you rather have?” It’s not connected to contracts, agents (both are represented by Boras), age, team control, and ability. It’s about who you want on the mound in a big game. Strasburg had more hype coming out of college, but Harvey has the “it” factor in that he would neither allow himself to be shut down as his team is charging toward the playoffs, nor would he let the glare of the post-season spotlight shock him into terror.

Harvey’s nickname is the “Dark Knight of Gotham” and he’s embraced that nickname. He loves being the center of attention in New York, relishes the love and lust he engenders (on and off the field), and wants heads to turn when he struts by. Strasburg’s nickname is “Stras” and his only apparent interest in darkness is that it be dark enough that no one’s able to see him. He’s allowed himself to be co-opted by his agent and organization and hasn’t fulfilled the promise he showed when he was drafted and everyone knew who he was and what he could be.

This isn’t about stuff, WAR, and draft status. It’s about the individual. Going by those factors, there isn’t one team in baseball – including the Nationals – who wouldn’t pick Harvey over Strasburg.

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