Should the Nationals Shutdown Stephen Strasburg?

I’ve never agreed with basketball coaches who remove their best player as soon as he or she gets into foul trouble. Two fouls in the first half? The coach calls for a sub almost reflexively. The thought is that if the player stays in the game, he might foul out and therefore not be available later. In other words, he won’t get to play as much as he usually does. But of course he might not foul out. By removing him for long stretches, the coach is guaranteeing he will miss significant minutes.

And that brings us to Stephen Strasburg, the 24-year-old star pitcher for the Washington Nationals. It had been speculated for months, but recently Washington general manager Mike Rizzo made it official: Strasburg will be shut down for the season after reaching an innings limit of approximately 160. Strasburg has thrown 145 innings to this point, meaning the first-place Nats won’t have their ace for the last 2-3 weeks of the regular season or the playoffs.

With a seven-game lead in the National League East, the Nats are a near-certainty to make the playoffs for only the second time in franchise history and the first since 1981, when they played in Montreal as the Expos.

At least the conservative basketball coach will tell you he removes his player in the first half to make sure he’s available for the end of the game, which the coach believes is more important (and maybe it is). The Nationals sense foul trouble for Strasburg in the form of stress on his expensive arm, have decided to take him out of the game, and aren’t going to put him back in, even when it matters most.

You don’t need to be a baseball insider to know the Nats had two fairly simple alternatives with Strasburg: (1) continue to pitch him every fifth day until the season is over or (2) rest him now so he can pitch in the playoffs and still stay within the innings limit.

The “inverted W” is one theory for Strasburg’s injury history. (Credit: MissChatter)

Instead, after consulting with various experts, Washington believes it is in Strasburg’s best interest, health-wise, if he pitches straight through to his limit and is shut down, as opposed to stopping and starting again (or not stopping at all).

I appreciate that Washington is trying something new because conventional practices are not keeping pitchers healthy. Stan Conte, the Dodgers’ senior director of medical services who published a paper on baseball injuries in 2001, found that injury rates increased every season from 1989 to 1999. He has since reported that despite a slight dip between 2000 and 2006, injury rates have continued to rise since. Conte has said that a starting pitcher has a 50 percent chance of spending time on the disabled list in any given season.

Something has to change in the development of pitchers or nothing will change as far as injury rates. The Nationals are certainly mixing it up. But at what cost? And for what reasons exactly?

Remember Joba Chamberlain? The Yankees tried everything to keep his arm healthy, but he tore a ligament in his shoulder last June and didn’t pitch again until this month. Justin Verlander, on the other hand, has started at least 30 games and averaged well over 200 innings since his first full season in 2006 and has hardly ever missed a start. There is no concrete evidence that says the Nationals’ plan will prevent Strasburg from getting hurt. In fact, instead of rest, fixing Strasburg’s mechanics may be the best form of injury prevention.*

*The link takes you to a thorough article on the “inverted W,” the term used to describe, in short, when a pitcher’s throwing elbow rises above his shoulder during his delivery. Strasburg is referenced, as is Mark Prior and other pitchers who employ the “inverted W” and have injured their arms. As far as “fixing” this, it’s possible that a change in mechanics would lessen Strasburg’s effectiveness.

Given that Strasburg missed most of last season recovering from Tommy John surgery, it is prudent of the Nationals to watch his innings this season. But to shut him down instead of skipping a few starts is indefensible. First of all, Strasburg will eventually start up again, so who’s to say there is a magic number for time off? Secondly, Strasburg’s next time on a mound won’t be Opening Day 2013. He will continue to pitch in the offseason anyway. Perhaps those pitches should be thrown in, I don’t know, the playoffs instead of a bullpen workout.

Rizzo, the G.M., talks about how Washington is built for the future and how they want to protect their investment. But what about maximizing that investment? Playoff appearances and World Series opportunities don’t come around every year. Rizzo’s right: the Nats do look like a team that will compete for many years. But you never know for sure. Just as we’ll never know whether sitting Strasburg in October was the right decision.

All we know is that the Washington Nationals have a better chance to win the World Series in 2012 with Stephen Strasburg, but he won’t be pitching.

2 thoughts on “Should the Nationals Shutdown Stephen Strasburg?”

  1. Tommy John surgery is farily proven in terms of long term healing but there is a statistically proven recovery threshold that pitchers cannot cheat. Is it precautionary? Yes. But they have mastered Tommy John Surgery to the point where the human body cannot heal correctly before a certain time. In other words, you can be the best Orthopedic Surgeon to a point until God or natural healing comes into play. This 160 inning limit is just that. Could Stas finish out the year? Sure. But you are taking a risk with arguably one the the best arms in the last 20 years. Also, people recommend that he shut down for a few weeks and restart come October. From what I hear, pitchers arms are like train engines. It takes a long time for them to get warmed up and it takes a long time for them to shut down & the time in between is filled with lots of maintenance. That’s why some starting pitchers complain about not pitching every 5 days or being moved to middle relief.
    I’m a Nats fan. I’m really one of the only ones I know. My dad was a Senators fan too. We are both on cloud-9 right now. One thing we do know is the Nats are deep. But as a fan you always want the best odds for winning and Strasburg is the Ace, no doubt. It would be awesome if Strasburg could finish out the year but it just won’t happen. It’s like convincing the horse trainers of “I’ll Have Another” that it’s been 34 years since the last triple crown. GMs are a rare type of person, just like horse trainers. Still, the Nats have 2 other pitchers in their starting rotation that have been named NL pitchers of the month. That has not happened since the 1979 Astros. Source: http://www.natsinsider.com/2012/08/zimmermann-is-nl-pitcher-of-month.html
    So, it’ll be great if the Nats make the postseason. We have seen nothing in DC for the longest time. Lord knows the Redskins have fed us enough WIN NOW propositions. I think most DC fans are willing to be patient so they can ‘have another’ in 2013. Hopefully.

    1. John, good insight; thanks. I didn’t get into the Nats playoff chances without Strasburg too much because that wasn’t the focus of my story, but I have given it some thought and I agree with you. The Nats starting pitching depth is tremendous. My Mets went to Washington recently and I was happy they were missing Strasburg only to realize they had to face Detwiler, Jackson, and Gonzalez. Worst ERA among them? 3.69. I didn’t even mention Zimmermann, who only has 9 wins but has the second best ERA in the NL. Perhaps Rizzo is factoring that into his decision.

      But still, Strasburg is electric and I really think baseball fans are being robbed at the chance of seeing a great young arm in the playoffs. That’s no reason to risk an injury to Strasburg, but I think Jayson Stark and others have done a great job of culling some opinions from various medical experts to show the verdict is uncertain. Remember, there’s a 50/50 chance Strasburg ends up on the DL next season no matter what.

      The frustrating part is that we’ll never know if the Washington front office was right or wrong. All we can hope for is that Strasburg stays healthy for a long time. Even as a fan of your division rival, I love watching young pitchers dominate. Thanks again for reading and writing.

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