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.
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.