The decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg has been talked about all season. The question was, if the Nationals are good enough to get into the playoffs this season, would they still shut him down? While we debated it all offseason and in the beginning part of this season, by the All Star break it seemed like we would likely see playoff baseball in Washington for the first time since 1933. The Nationals are 6.5 games up in the NL East, and even if they fall, they would be in line for a wildcard slot as the team directly behind them in the division, the Atlanta Braves, are currently first in the Wildcard standings. However, even now 130+ games into the season and with the playoffs right around the corner, the Nationals are insisting that they will shut down their best pitcher right before the important baseball starts. It’s a wildly unpopular decision. And it’s a decision that didn’t have to go this way.
Last season, Strasburg had Tommy John surgery. It takes about a year to recover. Pitcher’s arms are incredibly valuable, and yet they are also incredibly volatile. Some look at Mark Prior as a cautionary tale. He was dominant, but the belief was that he threw too many innings to soon and it ended up derailing what looked to be a promising career. However, we don’t know for sure that the innings caused his decline, as many coaches, players and commentators have talked about his awful mechanics on the mound and attribute his decline to that. But since then, pitchers have been more coddled than new born babies. Anytime a pitcher is drafted in the early rounds, he is on a strict pitch count and innings limit through the minors and into the early years of his career. In addition, talented high school and college pitchers are shutdown in the middle of seasons at times, to protect their pitching future. No pitcher was handled more carefully than Strasburg in the minors, yet he still blew an elbow ligament, and had to have Tommy John surgery. This just proves that there is nothing you can do. No matter how careful you are, things happen and pitchers are going to get hurt. They are doing an unnatural thing that arms are never meant to do. Some can take it better than others. Nolan Ryan believes that coddling pitchers is a mistake. There were pitchers in the Rangers system that had never made it into the 7th inning by the time they got called up. He put an end to that and focused on strengthening arms by slowly adding innings. It’s been met with as much success as the shutdown approach. My point isn’t to claim one way is better, just to point out that no one way works. If there were a way to protect pitchers that was consistently effective, it would be done by every team. There is no method.
That brings us back to Strasburg. The Nationals have been extremely cautious with him. They are hoping he will be dominant and help them win games and make it to the playoffs. Well fast-forward to 2012…and that’s exactly what he’s done. The goal is to win a World Series. So shutting down your ace for the most important part of the season, where you are actually close to achieving that goal seems counter-intuitive to even the most casual baseball fan. The Nationals claim that they have a lot of science to back this up. Fine. I believe them. But none of it can be that conclusive. They claim that everyone else has 10% of the info that they have. Fine, but what’s the other 90%? Why won’t they share this information? Perhaps people would get off their back a bit if they did share. Why not shut him down in August, give him a few September starts to get back into it, and have him for the postseason? That makes the most sense to me. They claim they did the same thing with Jordan Zimmerman last season, and no one seemed to question the decision. Well with all due respect, Jordan Zimmerman is no Stephen Strasburg. And, even more obviously, THE NATIONALS WEREN’T IN THE PLAYOFF HUNT LAST YEAR!!!!
I understand being careful. And I get that they want to contend for the long-term, not just this year. But the fact is, no matter how talented your team is, you can’t be sure you’ll be in the playoffs each year. Ask the Yankees. They put together the best team money can buy, and they only get to the first round...though they’ve missed the playoffs entirely recently. Washington doesn’t have nearly as much financial freedom as the Bronx Bombers, but they are still following through with this plan. What if they shut him down this season, lose in the playoffs and never make it back? What if injuries befall them and they lose their window of opportunity? What if they win the World Series this year, and Strasburg never makes it back!!??
The fact is, the Nationals are being careful. You can’t fault them for that. But they had other options available to them, besides the one where they shut down their best pitcher for the playoffs. Any other option has to be considered the better one. And in addition to the decision, which doesn’t seem smart, their resistance to sharing their thinking or information makes them seem paranoid at best and petulant at worst. It’s like they came to a decision, and when everyone came out and said there was a better way, they claim that their way is the best because they know something we don’t. Yet they refuse to share that info. It makes no sense. They owe their fans an explanation. They owe the team an explanation. They owed Strasburg an explanation, and finally gave it to him earlier this week. That’s right. Despite saying that they were going to shut him down all season they didn’t have a conversation with him until September. What are they doing in Washington? No one can be sure that this will help keep Strasburg safe. But the one thing we can be sure about…this decision will make the Nationals a less formidable team just in time to play the most formidable teams in their league in the most important games in Washington Nationals history.