SAN FRANCISCO — Every five days, when Stephen Strasburg takes the mound for the Nationals there is quiet. While the right-hander pitches, for a few innings at least, no one has to hear the debate over whether or not the Nationals are doing the right thing by shutting him down. There is just him, standing on a mound, and doing what he does so well: pitching.
But almost as soon as he exits, it is there. This overarching conversation about the Nationals’ decision to limit Strasburg’s innings this season that seems to accompany every win the team notches in this charmed season thus far.
Everyone has an opinion. Everyone has concocted a way in which the Nationals could easily make their ace last. And so much of those ideas are based on the misconception, at heart, that this is solely about tallying up innings and when a number is hit.
Here’s a look back at some of the things the Nationals have said about this from the start as well as why, even though the debate rages, not much has changed.
— Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo has never put a firm number on when Strasburg will be shut down this year, but he has been clear on this much: he will be shut down.
Going back to as early as when the Nationals took the ball out of Jordan Zimmermann’s hands last August, after 161 1/3 innings, the Nationals have made it clear they planned to take a similar course with Strasburg. But Rizzo has been intentionally vague on the number because there’s more that goes into it than adding to the total number every five days.
Only manager Davey Johnson has uttered the 160-inning number and he almost always follows it up with something like “that’s what we did for Jordan Zimmermann.”
The general speculation was that this number would be in the 160-inning range because that’s what the team did with Zimmermann. The best speculation to date is that shut down time will come in the 160-180 range but Rizzo will shake is head each time a number is brought up and only allow that there is a point he will determine and that will be that. Shut down until spring training. No ramping back up, no playoff possibilities. Shut down.
Which brings us to the next aspect of this that gets overlooked…
– This is about more than counting innings. The Nationals have examined this from as many angles as they’ve found possible. They’ve involved the opinion of Dr. Lewis Yocum, who performed the surgery, as well as plenty of other knowledgeable sources, and this is the decision that they’ve arrived at.
There is no perfect formula, as ESPN.com’s piece last week laid out extremely well, and the Nationals and Rizzo know they are taking a risk either way and no one will ever know which side was right.
But the idea that the Nationals are simply counting innings is wrong. This is about workload. It’s about stressful innings, about how he warms up, how he rebounds and what he exhibits on the mound. To this point, the Nationals have seen Strasburg showing plenty of signs that he’s in the midst of a normal recovery from Tommy John surgery. Strasburg refuses to use his operation as an excuse when the outings are not up to his lofty expectations but those who are watching for the signs have seen them.
And all of that is part of why…
– The Nationals have planned from Day 1 of the 2012 season not to manipulate Strasburg’s innings in any way. He won’t skip starts unless it’s for the good of the entire rotation. He won’t be shut down for two weeks so that they can save those innings for a later date.
The Nationals were excited about this season when they arrived in Viera, Fla., and they knew they had a good team. Did they know they were going to have the best record in the major leagues on Aug. 15? Doubtful. But they made their decision with Strasburg the way they felt any medical decisions should be handled: without regard for extenuating circumstances.
All the information the Nationals have examined on their way to making this decision pointed them to the idea that treating Strasburg any differently throughout the season would be a mistake. Pitchers like routines, Johnson often says, and breaking Strasburg’s up they felt would only serve to put him in an adverse situation. Skipping starts wouldn’t serve to stress his arm less as he’d have to throw between outings to keep things sharp. Shutting him down for two weeks would come with the same issue.
– Within the baseball community the idea of gradually building up innings in young pitchers is one that is hotly debated. But surgery or no surgery, the Nationals would have a hard time finding it prudent to allow a pitcher who threw 44 1/3 total innings (between the minors and the majors) in 2011 (and no more than 167 total innings in his entire professional career) to throw 200-plus innings in 2012.
The cases of young pitchers coming up, throwing a ridiculous amount of innings without the endurance built up for them to do that over the years and blowing out seem to be just as plentiful as the ones who can handle the load from their rookie season. Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Mark Fidrych, the list could go on.
And it’d be naive to think the Nationals decision makers haven’t taken that into consideration here as well.
– Being in contention hasn’t changed anything for Rizzo. When he made this decision, and said from the start that Strasburg would be shut down, he did it because it was the best medical course he felt he could take for his cornerstone pitcher. He even told Strasburg’s father as much this past weekend in Phoenix — that it was his job to take care of Strasburg.
The pennant race, in that regard, hasn’t changed the decision because it’s still what Rizzo and the Nationals feel is the best medical course to take for him long-term.
What it has changed is the reaction to the decision and the attention paid to it. Teammates do not like the idea, but they understand it and they realize that they have the best record in baseball for reasons that go beyond one superb pitcher. Even if you extracted Strasburg from the rotation, the Nationals pitching staff would still have a 3.32 ERA and that would still be the best mark in the major leagues.
– The debate will continue to rage, no doubt, as the Nationals delve ever-deeper into this season and until the day that the Nationals take the ball out of his hands for the last time this season.
But for now, what we have every five days is the chance to watch Strasburg pitch. Whether it’s right or wrong or what anyone else thinks is best, those starts should be savored now while they can be.