When the Washington Nationals benched star pitcher Stephen Strasburg before the 2012 playoffs, general manager Mike Rizzo had this to say to any who opposed the decision: “We’ll be back and doing this a couple more times.” The implication was that the Nationals would get back to the playoffs and be in position for a World Series run in subsequent seasons. It was equal parts arrogant and naïve, both at the time and in retrospect, as the Nationals were bounced in the first round and did not make the playoffs the next year. They returned to the top of the National League East this season and will likely enter the playoffs, as they did in 2012, with the best record in the league. But the franchise can never atone for its mistakes two years ago.
In 2012, his first full season after Tommy John surgery in September 2010, Strasburg was April’s NL Pitcher of the Month and an All Star. He finished the season with 15 wins, a 3.16 ERA, and 197 strikeouts in 159 innings. Omit his final five starts—after he found out he would be shut down before the playoffs—and his numbers look even better. His peripheral stats improved the next season, but the Nats were a .500 team until a strong September, and missed the playoffs.
The Nationals were not worse in 2013 because of some lingering effect of the Strasburg shutdown. But it proved Rizzo’s hubris. Consider the 2006 Mets, a juggernaut much like the ’12 Nats. After coming within a game of the World Series, most expected them to get back the following year. They didn’t. In fact, they haven’t made the playoffs since. Injuries, slumps, and botched free agent signings can derail a season.
While it doesn’t seem like Rizzo regrets his decision, he recently told the New York Daily News: “I still think about the disappointment of ’12. It fuels me. It makes me pay more attention to detail. It makes me work a few extra hours. And I think the guys feel this way, too.” No amount of hard work or focus can change Rizzo’s fateful decision. The Nationals had a chance at a deep playoff run and undermined their efforts by benching their ace. They’re lucky to be back.
As Billy Madison told his chubby third grade classmate, “For the love of God, cherish it! You’ve gotta cherish it!”