Stephen Strasburg will celebrate his 24th birthday tonight by taking the mound against the second place Atlanta Braves in a match-up that has obvious pennant race implications. However, there is much more on the line than just one game in the standings.
Before the season, the Nationals devised a program for Strasburg intended to shepherd the hard throwing right hander through his first full season since having Tommy John surgery. Although an official limit hasn’t been established, nor apparently communicated to Strasburg, it is widely believed that the Nationals intend to cap the 24-year old phenom at approximately 160 innings. With a typical stint of six innings tonight, Strasburg’s total for the season would climb to 111, leaving him with about eight more starts before the limit is invoked. Unless the Nationals alter his usage pattern, which GM Mike Rizzo has stated the team will not do, Strasburg will throw his last pitch some time in late August or early September.
The idea of shelving Strasburg in the midst of a pennant race has raised the ire of some in baseball’s old school. Even Strasburg has bristled at the possibility, expressing on several occasions his desire to lead his team to a division title. It also wouldn’t be a surprise if some friction begins to develop within the Nationals’ clubhouse, as other members of the team begin to consider the implications of losing Strasburg. With so much external pressure beginning to mount, will the Nationals’ front office remain steadfast, or waver from its plan?
We are looking at not only competing for the playoffs this season, but also in ’13, ’14, ’15 and beyond. Stephen is a big part of those plans and I will not do anything that could potentially harm him down the road.” – Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo, quoted by ESPN, July 20, 2012
Although several teams have recently given their young starters an early winter vacation, none have ever been forced to make that sacrifice during a pennant race. However, the Nationals shouldn’t allow the temptation of the post season to obscure their better judgment, especially because it wasn’t made on a whim. In consultation with one of the most respected doctors in the field, the Nationals formulated a plan that, if not for the pennant implications, most would agree was in the long-term best interest of not only Strasburg, but the franchise as well. That reality shouldn’t change just because the team is in first place.
Unfortunately, because of the Nationals’ success, many baseball observers have sought to discredit the team’s conservative approach with Strasburg. Not helping matters is the fact that the White Sox have no plans to take a similar precaution with Chris Sale, a 23-year old left hander having arguably the best season of any pitcher in the majors. Some have used the contrasting strategies to malign Washington, when the real scrutiny should be directed toward Chicago. After all, the White Sox haven’t exactly used sound judgment in handling Sale to this point. Back in May, the team shuffled Sale between the rotation and bullpen and even let the left hander pitch through elbow soreness that eventually required an MRI. At one point, Sale’s agent had to intervene to ensure his client’s best interests were being considered. Surely, that isn’t the model the Nationals should be using for Strasburg?
It is our expectation that because we have been diligent in his care and he works his tail off in between starts, he will be strong and able to go every fifth day in September for what we hope is a playoff push.” – White Sox GM Kenny Williams, quoted by ESPN, July 19, 2012
In short, yes I am extremely concerned about the way the White Sox have approached this entire situation with Chris and his future. It is his future, isn’t it?” – Chris Sale’s agent B.B. Abbott, quoted by the Chicago Tribune, May 10, 2012
Every pitcher is different, and there is no one way to guarantee their health. Despite attempts to devise a hard and fast rule for protecting young hurlers, the uncomfortable truth is these decisions must be made on a case-by-case basis. To their credit, the Nationals sat down with Scott Boras, Strasburg’s agent, and Dr. Lewis Yocum, the man who re-built his elbow, before the season and pro-actively decided upon a strategy based on the best information available. In fact, it was a similar approach used by the team with Jordan Zimmermann, who, after a Tommy John surgery of his own in 2009, threw 160 innings last season. Now, Zimmermann is pitching ever bit as well as Strasburg, and, most importantly, doing so without any limits or physical discomfort.
Considering the effort that went into formulating the Strasburg plan, and the positive early results from Zimmermann, the Nationals deserve more than just the benefit of the doubt; they also deserve to be commended. Instead, a backlash seems more likely. That really shouldn’t matter to Rizzo though. If the Nationals can keep their young staff of dominant hurlers healthy, his reward will come soon enough and, perhaps, many times over.