For weeks I have tried my best to avoid commenting on the topic of the Stephen Strasburg innings shut down, as I am quite sure I have never seen a more hotly debated baseball topic amongst those that have little to no vested interest in the decision, not to mention on a subject that was decided upon months ago, prior to the Nationals 2012 breakout season. In general, I think the majority of the Nationals fan base has come to accept that Strasburg will not be pitching in the playoffs, assuming the club reaches the postseason for the first time since arriving in Washington eight years ago. In fact, the NatsGM fan poll last month asking “If the decision were up to you, would you shut down Stephen Strasburg” resulted in 77% voting in favor of ending his season early. However, when popular stand-up comedian and Washington Nationals fan John Conroy emailed me asking what the Nationals should do, I quickly got to writing.
What do we know as facts? We know that when he was drafted in 2009, the Nationals signed Stephen Strasburg to a major league record $15.1 million dollar contract which included a $7.5 million dollar signing bonus, quite an investment especially for a pitcher. We know that Stephen Strasburg injured his pitching elbow in August 2010 while pitching in Philadelphia, forcing him to undergo Tommy John surgery, and kept him out the majority of the 2011 season. We know that Jordan Zimmermann suffered the same injury almost one year to the day prior to Strasburg, and after the Nationals monitored and limited his innings to 161 in 2011, he is now a candidate for the National League Cy Young Award, leading the Nationals to want Strasburg to mimic the same rehabilitation schedule Zimmermann previously followed. Finally, we know that injuries to pitchers has reached an epidemic level in major league baseball, with many theories as to why, yet there is little knowledge as to how to prevent them.
Now the problem… what do we not know? If the Nationals shut Strasburg down in a few weeks, will that keep him healthy for the duration of his career, or even for just a few seasons? On the other hand, if the Nationals continue to pitch him until the final day of the season, whenever that might be, will the extra stress of the increased workload hinder the length of his career? The Nationals made a considerable investment when they signed Stephen Strasburg, and they should do everything within their power to protect him from further injury in future seasons. There is little to nothing more valuable than a true #1 starter in baseball, and the opportunity to have someone with his ability and talents front the rotation for the majority of the decade makes the Nationals a fearsome organization.
What else don’t we know? Assuming the Nationals make the postseason, will the absence of Strasburg hinder the team winning a World Series? Look at this problem through the lens of the Texas Rangers – they have made the World Series two years in a row and see themselves as a legitimate contender again this season, do you think Texas GM Jon Daniels and the Ranger clubhouse would not sacrifice almost anything or anyone to win a championship: I certainly believe they would. Then again, who is to say that the Nationals are not “good enough” to overcome his absence and win a championship? Obviously Stephen Strasburg makes the Nationals a better team, but Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler are more than capable of replacing him in the rotation and leading the team to a playoff victory. None of us, including the only person making the decision GM Mike Rizzo, will know the answer to any of these questions prior to the shut down.
This topic has been discussed and over-analyzed in recent weeks, and I feel the only point that has yet to be made is this: Since this decision was made by Mike Rizzo last winter, no variable involved in the decision has changed except that the team has exceeded expectations thus far in 2012. While many of us would be tempted to let this sway our decision, this likely was never a variable in Mr. Rizzo’s decision, and therefore, is the reason he will stay the course. As Rizzo pointed out a few weeks ago, this choice is his and only his, and at this point, he knows and has accepted that this decision will be the defining moment in his career as a general manager. He will receive criticism from the media, a few veteran players, and from the vocal minority of Nationals fans, but his track record since taking over should earn him the benefit of the doubt that this decision is correct.
As a baseball guy and someone with GM in the title of his website, I completely sympathize and appreciate the unpopular stance GM Mike Rizzo is taking with Strasburg, foregoing potentially short-term gains in an effort to protect Stephen’s future health and prioritizing the Nationals long-term success. After studying Strasburg’s last 4 starts rather closely, his fastball velocity has decreased from 95-97mph earlier this season and settled in closer to 93-95mph, and his fastball command and control has been inconsistent as well, early signs that his workload is beginning to take its toll. Considering the higher injury risk and shorter career duration for pitchers that throw with well above-average velocity, and the indisputable fact that Strasburg makes the Nationals better in the short-term, these reasons naturally tempt me to change my mind. That said, the only known fact is that every doctor with knowledge of this surgery says one should limit the workload of a pitcher in his first healthy season returning from Tommy John surgery, and bearing in mind every other factor and consideration is an unknown and in the hands of the baseball gods, I fully support the organization’s decision to shut down Strasburg at the appropriate time next month and hope the rest of the fan base does as well.
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