The Dodgers and Astros are through to the next round, thanks mostly to their bats. One and possibly two teams will join them later today. Here are the key storylines as the MLB playoffs move forward:
Next week, the Washington Nationals will begin a playoff series for the fourth time in six years. They have yet to win a series. With a healthy Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg—plus Max Scherzer, Daniel Murphy, and others—this year could be different. I wrote about it in my final regular season column for CBS Local. Starting next Thursday, I’ll be recapping the playoffs with a “Five Things You Missed” column.
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.
Nothing excites baseball fans like a young ace. When one takes the mound, there is a palpable buzz in the stadium. There’s always the chance of something special. Tonight at Citi Field, two of the best young pitchers in baseball, Matt Harvey and Stephen Strasburg, square off. There will likely be a lot of strikeouts and few runs, the kind of game purists love.
The sample size is small, but this figures to be the first of many National League East battles between these two. Harvey, of the New York Mets, was taken with the seventh pick in the 2010 draft and has made just 13 career starts, his first coming in July last season. He will turn 25 next March. Strasburg was taken by the Washington Nationals with the first pick in 2009, debuted the following year, and has made 48 starts. He turns 25 in July. As the image above notes, they both have the size—6’4″, 220-225 pounds—of a dominant starting pitcher.
Continue reading A Pair of Aces: Matt Harvey vs 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.
Continue reading Should the Nationals Shutdown Stephen Strasburg?
The Washington Nationals just sort of exist. They are a team, not a franchise. As the eloquent Greg Prince of the Mets blog Faith and Fear in Flushing asked himself after watching a recent Nationals home game: “The Expos left Montreal for this?”
I saw “this” for myself last weekend, making the trip to D.C. with my friend Seth and my girlfriend Megan to visit another friend (Eric) and attend Saturday night’s Mets-Nats game. Years from now I’m confident I won’t be remembering the trip for my first ever visit to Nationals Park, though that is due to my great company and the Newseum’s awesomeness as much as anything else.*
We took the Metro to the ballpark, arriving at 5:30 (first pitch was scheduled for 7:05). We ran into Teddy Roosevelt and he was nice enough to pose for a picture. Like a true journalist, I asked him why he always lost the Presidents’ Race. He didn’t answer or gesture in any way, but given that it was 100 degrees I was impressed he was still standing.
We made our way to The Bullpen, a tent-covered area where fans can drink, play bean bag toss, and chill out in the mist zone. This atmosphere would prove to be far more lively than inside the ballpark.
The lack of energy could not be attributed to a lack of fans—attendance was announced as more than 35,000 and it sure looked more full than most Nats home games I’d seen on TV. The fact that it was a sunny summer Saturday certainly contributed to the strong turnout, but never underestimate the power of the bobblehead.** The first 15,000 fans that night received a Jayson Werth bobblehead. Unlike the real Jayson Werth, the bobblehead did not cost $126 million nor was it batting .219.
My plans for sadistic bobblehead voodoo vanished into thin air just like the mist in The Bullpen because, well, we spent too much time standing in the mist in The Bullpen and were not among the first 15,000 fans.
So of course I blamed myself when Werth was rounding the bases after his first-inning three-run home run, likely thinking to himself, I’d like to see a bobblehead do THAT. The blast, off an R.A. Dickey knuckleball that, replays showed, didn’t knuckle, started and ended the scoring for the evening.
The bobblehead may have lured more Nats fans than usual to the park, but there were plenty of Mets fans as well. I would’ve been able to make a more accurate estimate but we had nothing to cheer about. The Mets offense went 1-2-3 in the first and second innings and didn’t get a hit until David Wright’s two-out single in the fourth. Keep in mind Yuniesky Maya, not Stephen Strasburg or even the scheduled Jason Marquis (who was traded earlier that day), was the Washington starter.***
Yet it was not until the ninth that the Mets got a runner past second base, but Willie Harris ended the game looking at a breaking ball with the bases loaded. The final score was 3-0 and the final hit tally for New York was eight, all singles.
As for the stadium itself: meh. It is very new and there are nice views and it’s clean and…you probably shouldn’t listen to me because I prefer Shea Stadium over Citi Field. In fact, Nats Park is very similar to Citi Field, right down to the food selections: Shake Shack, Blue Smoke, and El Taqueria. The lines are just as long and the ordering process just as maddening. Somehow, in an attempt to avoid a 45-minute wait, I ended up with an $8 grilled cheese. Don’t ask.
While I don’t think the Washington Nationals are, to put it bluntly, necessary—the Orioles snatched up any local baseball fans long ago—there are probably a handful of other franchises that are, currently, just as uninspiring. But at least people like my pal Eric, a New York transplant, have more opportunities to see the Mets in person. And that—Saturday night’s lackluster performance aside—is a good thing.
*During my last trip to D.C. I didn’t make it to the Newseum and I was determined not to leave town this time without seeing it. It was certainly worth it, as aside from the regular exhibits—which included a 25-minute documentary on the history of sports journalism—we saw legendary CBS newsman Bob Schieffer.
**The last bobblehead I got was at a Mets game last year. It was Jason Bay’s, and Bay didn’t even play that afternoon, which was upsetting at the time but in hindsight was probably a good thing. Earlier this season the Mets had an Ike Davis bobblehead night but of course he was injured and didn’t play either.
***Strasburg is scheduled to make a rehab start this weekend and could return to the Nats in September. I don’t understand the point of this. I realize he had his surgery last September and a return later this season would be a typical amount of rehab time, but what is the upside of bringing him back to a last-place team so he can make a few starts?
It’s a crying shame, no doubt about it. But we had to see it coming or at least not be surprised by it. After all, we’re familiar with the list: Mark Prior, Ben McDonald, Generation K, Mark Mulder…
So while the news that Washington Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg will likely need Tommy John surgery and miss the rest of this season and all of 2011 is terribly upsetting, it’s not shocking.
Of course, that’s the last thing the Nationals’ management wants to hear.
CNBC sports business reporter Darren Rovell provides great information on the economics of Strasburg. Rovell says that Strasburg’s starts brought in over 10,000 additional fans to Nationals Park, which translates to more than $320,000 (extra) in ticket sales per start. Strasburg made seven starts, so that’s about $2.3 million. Throw in concessions and parking and you arrive at an estimated $3 million.
The Nationals gave Strasburg the largest contract ever for a drafted player when they agreed to pay him $15.1 million over four years, half of which was paid as a signing bonus. All of that money is guaranteed.
Strasburg was on his way to recouping at least the bonus in 2010 alone. But the injury will ensure that he won’t give the Nats any return on their investment until 2012.
From the teams’ perspective, Strasburg’s injury is yet another example of why no pitcher deserves that kind of guaranteed money. So many of them get injured (and, believe it or not, some stay healthy and still don’t blossom into stars) that it’s hard to justify giving a pitcher such a big contract.
|Strasburg during his MLB debut, easily the most-hyped of the last 20 years. (Credit: dbking)|
Strasburg, though, is such a unique case. He was hyped up so much and was so good in his limited action that the buzz he generated translated into millions for his franchise. If Strasburg can in fact come back and pitch in 2012—more on that in a bit—and create the same type of excitement in Washington, DC (I hesitate to call them “Nationals fans”) that he did in his debut season, he could still prove to be worth the investment.
The Effects of Tommy John Surgery
In an ironic twist, Jordan Zimmermann started for the Washington Nationals the day before the team announced the extent of Strasburg’s injury. Nationals Strasburg fans feeling as if their world is over should look to Zimmermann, who had Tommy John surgery in August of 2009. His road to complete recovery took a full year, but no longer.
Given that Strasburg will have surgery even later in the year than Zimermann did, it’s reasonable to assume that even if he were ready to go by September 2011 he would not return to the Nationals’ rotation until Opening Day 2012. In other words, even with an unusually long recovery he should be able to meet his expected return date.
But will he be the same? We’ve all heard this before: No two surgeries are alike. But given his skills and competitiveness, there are some comparable pitchers to analyze.
If there’s truly nothing wrong with Strasburg’s shoulder and it’s simply his elbow that needs work, it’s fair to expect he’ll make a full recovery. Modern medicine is an incredible thing, and has recently done wonders for a long list of aces.
|Player||Date of Surgery||Date of Return|
|Josh Johnson||August 2007||July 2008|
|Chris Carpenter||April 2007||July 2008|
|Tim Hudson||August 2008||September 2009|
|A.J. Burnett||April 2003||June 2004|
|Jaime Garcia||after 2008 season||September 2009|
|Ryan Dempster||August 2003||September 2004|
|Carl Pavano||May 2007||July 2008|
|Shaun Marcum||September 2008||July 2009|
As this table shows, Strasburg should be ready to pitch next September, but unless the Nats are miraculously competing for a playoff spot, there’s absolutely no reason to let him pitch in the majors until 2012.
The pitchers on this list not only came back somewhere around 12 months after having Tommy John surgery, but returned to pre-injury form. Johnson, the Florida Marlins ace, is an incredible story. He was in the big leagues only 11 months after surgery and went 7-1 that season. He was a 15-game winner a season ago and currently sports a 2.36 ERA.
Hudson is having an even better season. His 2.24 ERA is third best in the league. In St. Louis, a pair of “Tommy Johners” are performing well. Carpenter, second in the Cy Young voting last season, has 14 wins and sub-3 ERA. Garcia, who pitched in the minors last year before earning a spot in the Cardinals’ rotation at the start of this season, is a favorite for the Rookie of the Year award.
Over in the American League, Pavano is having a nice comeback season with Minnesota (15 wins). Marcum, who like Garcia first returned to the minors before being named Toronto’s Opening Day starter in 2010, is also pitching well—he had a one-hitter earlier this month.
Skeptics will point to pitchers like Mike Hampton, B.J. Ryan, and Darren Dreifort, guys who never returned to pre-injury form after undergoing Tommy John surgery. But it seems that for most pitchers who had the surgery in the past 10 years, there is usually an explanation when it doesn’t work out. Hampton had several other injuries, as did Dreifort, who missed time for knee, hip, and shoulder problems. Ryan’s velocity never really returned, but he had such an unconventional throwing motion that it’s possible he had shoulder issues as well.
Consider this: nine pitchers selected to the 2010 All Star game—including standout closers Billy Wagner, Joakim Soria, and Brian Wilson—had Tommy John surgery at some point.
My guess: Strasburg comes back and is just as effective as before. Like Prior, Strasburg does have a lot of “arm action” in his delivery, so whether he re-injures his arm like Prior did several times (although he never had Tommy John surgery) is another story.
Note: I wasn’t going to mention Rob Dibble, but I couldn’t help myself. For those of you who don’t know, Dibble is a former major league pitcher who is now the color commentator for the Washington Nationals television network.
My friend Eric, who lives in DC, made me aware of Dibble’s shenanigans months ago. Forced to listen to him if he wants to watch baseball on TV, Eric described Dibble as a huge homer who constantly shouts ridiculous phrases. While watching online video highlights of a Mets-Nats game a few months ago, I was able to confirm this. More recently, I came across an article pointing out how Dibble argues with the home plate umpire despite replays showing the calls were clearly correct.
Dibble is one of many (but perhaps the most frustrating example) who gets paid to cover sports despite being severely unqualified. It obviously helps that Dibble was a big leaguer—a two-time All Star who had a blazing fastball and a nasty temper, but whose career was cut short because of arm injuries.
Dibble’s own career path makes his latest statement on Strasburg even more troubling. In response to Strasburg’s removal from last weekend’s game against the Phillies, Dibble, on his Sirius XM Radio show (this guy is employed by two organizations?!) said, “OK, you throw a pitch, it bothers your arm, and you immediately call out the manager and the trainer? Suck it up, kid. This is your profession. You chose to be a baseball player. You can’t have the cavalry come in and save your butt every time you feel a little stiff shoulder, sore elbow.”
He wasn’t done. “Stop crying, go out there and pitch. Period.” There’s more, but you get the point. Dibble got hammered by the media for his comments even before it was announced that Strasburg would need surgery. Now that it’s clear—as if it wasn’t already—that Strasburg was not “crying” about nothing, Dibble looks like an even bigger fool, if that’s possible.
To their credit, the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network has removed Dibble from the broadcast booth since he made his ridiculous comments, and it was recently announced he wouldn’t be making the upcoming road trip either.