Monday, September 10, 2012
Strasburg Shut Down
Stephen Strasburg is done for the season. Finished. He will not pitch again in 2012. End of story. Stick a fork in him, coach. He's done.
Even though he is perfectly healthy. Even though he's the undisputed ace of Washington's staff. Even though he's only 24 years old.
But we all knew this was coming. We've known it since before spring training, when the rigid parameters of the Strasburg plan were etched in stone and set into motion.
1. He would have his innings capped somewhere between 160 and 180 innings.
2. He would not receive extra rest between starts
3. He would not be shut down for a while, only to resume pitching if the Nationals were in contention or reached the playoffs
No ifs, ands, or buts about it. There would be no compromise. No negotiations.
It's too bad his season ended on such a low note, as his final start of 2012 was a dud. In fact, it was the second worst outing of his career as measured by the Bill James GameScore statistic. On Friday night he lasted just three innings (tying a career low) against the Miami Marlins, who scored five times off him just ten days after pounding him for nine hits and seven runs (five earned). In this latest beating, Giancarlo Stanton and Rob Brantly took him deep, marking only the fourth time this season that Strasburg had surrendered multiple home runs in a game. His two strikeouts were a season low and, for the first time in his major league career, he walked more batters than he whiffed.
Even though he was slated to make his final start against David Wright's New York Mets on September 12th, the Nationals had seen enough. They pulled the plug on his season. Thanks for all your help, Steve, but we'll take it from here.
Strasburg, who's been losing sleep for weeks, is devastated. He concludes his first full big league season with a 15-6 record, 3.16 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, and 197 strikeouts in just 159.1 innings, good for an NL best 11.1 K/9 rate. Even with his low innings total, he pitched well enough to earn some Cy Young consideration this offseason. Unfortunately, he won't pose a serious challenge to R.A. Dickey or Johnny Cueto and will have to wait at least one more year before he can make another run at the trophy.
He could have several of them waiting in store for him; he's that good. While many fans and pundits alike have roundly criticized the Nationals for voluntarily stripping themselves of their best shorting pitcher, I admire the organization's commitment to the plan they formulated back in February. Even if you don't agree with the strategy, at least give them credit for sticking to their guns in the face of overwhelming public pressure. The bottom line is they're doing what's best for their hard-throwing franchise pitcher. They're protecting him, his arm, and his future, and you can't fault them for that. Tommy John surgery notwithstanding, Strasburg's messy mechanics/violent throwing motion place a lot of stress on his arm, putting him at an elevated risk of serious injury. At the end of the day, the Nats want to avoid another flameout a la Mark Prior (just one victim of the curse of Dusty Baker). They want his arm healthy and strong, able to withstand many more seasons as a frontline starting pitcher. They want to squeeze the most out of the first overall pick from the '09 draft class.
Can you really blame them?
Manager Davey Johnson carefully monitored Strasburg's workload all season long to prevent the All-Star hurler from burning through his innings limit by mid-August. Strasburg averaged fewer than six innings per start and never pitched more than seven in any game. He threw 100 pitches or more in just ten of his 28 starts, twice eclipsing 110 pitches. His season high was 119 in his June 8th start against the Red Sox at Fenway Park. As the season wore on and Strasburg seemed to be fading (4.14 ERA over his last ten starts, including the three worst starts of his career based on GameScore), Johnson scaled back his workload even more. In his past 14 turns, Strasburg came out for the seventh inning just once.
Plus, it helps that the Nats have been through this process before, albeit under totally different circumstances. In 2011 Washington limited Jordan Zimmermann, to 161.1 innings in his first full season back from TJ surgery (but the Nats finished below .500 and nobody was calling for them to keep trotting him out there). And you know what? It worked. He's been even better this season. Maybe the same thing will happen with Strasburg. Maybe he will come back stronger as well. The mere thought of him improving should have National League hitters tossing in their sleep winter long.
But as far as the rest of the regular season is concerned, this move isn't a big deal at all. It doesn't change a darn thing. The Nationals own the best record in baseball and are virtual locks to reach the postseason (99.9 percent likelihood according to coolstandings.com). They still have more than enough starting pitching to carry them deep into October. It's not like Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson, and Ross Detwiler are going anywhere. The lineup is still solid, and the bullpen remains unflappable. A legitimate World Series contending team is left largely intact. If any team could afford to shut down its ace with more than three weeks left to play, it's the Nationals. They can, and will, storm to the finish line sans Strasburg.
But the postseason is a beast of a different nature. Aces such as Strasburg, C.C. Sabathia, and Clayton Kershaw become even more valuable in a shortened playoff series, when every game is do-or-die. A bona fide stopper is worth his weight in gold. He's irreplaceable, priceless, and above all, vital. It goes without saying that Washington's chances of winning the World Series decrease with Strasburg on the sidelines. And while their talented young core (Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, and the aforementioned starting pitchers) suggests the Nats will be October mainstays for years to come, nothing is guaranteed in sports. Injuries and slumps can inflict irreparable damage to a roster. Shit happens (just ask Boston and Philly). These playoffs might be their only shot at a title; the NL East is a tough division with the Braves, Phillies, and Marlins all blessed with established veteran stars and deep pockets. Cincinatti is rolling and the Dodgers have assembled a veritable All-Star team out in Los Angeles. This whole thing could blow up in Washington's face if the Nats wind up letting a championship pass them by.
But that's a chanC. Johnson and GM Mike Rizzo will have to take. Because if Strasburg blew out his arm during the NLDS or fell apart next season, they'd be answering "what if?"s for the rest of their lives. So if he tears his rotator cuff next year and/or breaks down, at least they won't have to second guess themselves for all of eternity. They can rest easy knowing they did everything within their power to preserve his arm.
So Washington will participate in playoff baseball in our nation's capitol for the first time since 1933 without Stephen Strasburg. As for how far they can go, nobody knows. Just as nobody knows how Stephen Strasburg's promising career will pan out.