Stephen Strasburg’s injury history doesn’t define the Washington Nationals’ right-hander, but the various ailments have played a role in his career. The former No. 1 pick has seen his share — and then some — of time away from the field, most recently landing on the 10-day injured list Wednesday with a neck strain.
“I know it’s frustrating,” manager Dave Martinez said, “because he feels like he lets the team down, lets me down.”
For Strasburg, that feeling isn’t entirely new. His career has had tremendous ups — such as his 2019 World Series MVP award — as well as a series of lows that have kept him off the mound. The time away doesn’t forestall future triumphs, just as his past injuries didn’t prevent Strasburg from becoming a three-time All-Star or a World Series champion.
But there have been plenty of injury hiccups — and a few major gulps — along the way of his 12-year career.
Strasburg exploded onto the scene as a rookie, striking out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates batters in his major league debut — a sign of things to come. But there was soon another sign of what’s to come: an early trip on the 15-day disabled list in July 2010 for right shoulder inflammation.
He returned quickly. But midway through his third start since returning, Strasburg was injured again — and this time, the injury was cataclysmic. The then-22-year-old tore his UCL, requiring elbow reconstruction surgery that set the phenom considerably back after an impressive rookie year in which he threw 68 innings with a 2.91 ERA.
Strasburg returned for five starts in 2011, and he stayed largely healthy through the 2012 campaign, when he earned his first All-Star nod. He was shut down ahead of the playoffs in 2012, though, so he wouldn’t go over his pitch limit. And barring a mild lat strain in 2013, Strasburg stayed upright in 2013 and 2014 — the latter year he started 34 games, the most in the majors. But injuries would crop up again.
2015: The issues began in spring training, when Strasburg injured his left ankle. While he began the season on time, Strasburg thought his sprained ankle may have adjusted his mechanics ever-so slightly, resulting in soreness in his back.
Between May 5 and May 29, Strasburg couldn’t pitch more than five innings in all five of his starts — and he departed after one inning May 29. He returned a month later and looked strong for 32/3 innings of a July 4 start. Then he abruptly departed that start with an oblique strain that sidelined Strasburg for another month.
Strasburg finished the season well, but he also had fibrolipoma — a benign growth — removed from his back during the offseason. That operation wasn’t a concern heading into the next season.
Strasburg was scratched from a June start against the Los Angeles Dodgers and Clayton Kershaw because of a weight room incident, and he soon landed on the 15-day disabled list with an upper-back strain. The pitcher had two dislocated ribs popped back into place after the mishap in the weight room, and he said that was the reason for the tightness in his back.
Strasburg didn’t miss much time for that injury. He landed on the injured list again in August 2016 with right elbow soreness, missed the better part of three weeks, returned for 21/3 innings and left again. That time, an MRI on Strasburg’s elbow revealed a partially torn pronator tendon, ending his season. But he didn’t require another elbow reconstruction surgery, which would have threatened his career.
Strasburg threw 175 1/3 innings in 2017 — his most in three years — and earned his third All-Star nomination. But once the season ended, Strasburg wasn’t sure he ever wanted to earn a spot in the Midsummer Classic again.
The right-hander didn’t appear in the All-Star Game, but he attributed the change in routine to what caused a nerve issue in his right elbow that caused him to miss three weeks. “I just know that little lapse, for whatever reason, it pushed me back a bit,” Strasburg said in December 2017.
“It started making my arm hurt. My arm felt good before that, then it was, like, after that, it just didn’t feel right.”
Strasburg’s midsummer struggles cropped up again 2018. First, he landed on the disabled list for more than a month because of right shoulder inflammation, leaving his start in June against the San Francisco Giants after two innings.
And while Strasburg pitched 4 2/3 innings in his return July 20, Strasburg was sidelined just six days after he was activated, this time with a cervical nerve impingement.
Strasburg would return to finish the season, but he made just 22 starts — his fewest since returning from elbow reconstruction surgery.
When Strasburg is healthy, strong starts are the likeliest outcome. He helped lead the Nationals to the 2019 World Series and finished the regular season with a 3.32 ERA in 209 innings — the most in the National League. That production warranted a new seven-year, $245 million contract to keep him in Washington.
But after five innings across two starts in 2020, Strasburg’s season was cut short. He required carpal tunnel surgery in his hand to correct numbness in his thumb when he pitched.
Strasburg returned this season thinking the injuries might be behind him. He had taken care of the numbness in his hand through surgery, and he had an entire offseason to prepare for a return to his old workload. But in Strasburg’s second start of the year, the pitcher’s velocity was down and his command was off.
And while the Nationals initially played down any injury concerns, Strasburg went on the 10-day injured list April 18 with shoulder inflammation.
More than a month later, Strasburg returned. But in his third start back from injury Tuesday, Strasburg’s accuracy and velocity were again off. The team placed him on the 10-day injured list with a neck strain Wednesday, and Martinez said an MRI showed nerve irritation in his neck.