Final Analysis on the Strasburg Shutdown

The shutdown of Stephen Strasburg has taken the tone of an overhyped movie marketed to an increasingly uninterested public. It’s been talked about for so long that when it finally happens, no one’s going to notice or care. The Nationals say they’re going to do it and, judging from the latest statements emanating from the club, Strasburg’s last start will be on around September 12th. Then the rest of the team will head for the playoffs without him. Perhaps they’ll need a coping device such as imagining that he’s injured and lost for the season. Maybe it can be treated as a delusional fuel in a formulaic drama of triumph over adversity in which you know the ending before you walk into the theater, but do it anyone for a moment of predictability amid the randomness of reality.

We don’t know what’s going to happen for the Nationals in the playoffs; we don’t know what’s going to happen with Strasburg in the future, whether this decision will be seen as wise or a retrospective waste of time and energy. If Strasburg were allowed to pitch for the rest of the season, started a playoff game and got blasted, the inevitable snark, “Looks like they should’ve shut him down after all,” would be predictable and reminiscent to Sandy Koufax refusing to pitch in the opening game of the 1965 World Series because he’s Jewish and it was Yom Kippur. Don Drysdale started and got rocked. So began the jokes that the Dodgers would’ve been better off if Drysdale had been Jewish too.

But they’re doing it. At the very least, they’re following through on their statements—statements that began the whole mess in the first place.

Let’s look at some questions regarding Strasburg once and for all and end this manufactured story in advance of its implementation.

What do other players think about this?

His Nationals’ teammates are, to a man, sticking to the script. Jayson Werth put it succinctly when asked about it by essentially saying that they knew it was coming and they’ll move forward without him. It’s best to ignore what the Nationals and their players are saying about this because you’re not going to get an honest answer. I’d venture a guess that they’re saying something drastically different in private than they are in public.

Broadcasters like Ron Darling, who has a foundation to speak out on this subject as a former top 10 starting pitcher in baseball and the intelligence to express it as a graduate of Yale, has ridiculed the notion that Strasburg shouldn’t go beyond X number of innings. Darling takes his old-school sensibilities to the extreme by shaking his head at pitchers who notify their pitching coach and manager when they’re tight or can’t get loose and are removed from games. Darling himself logged a great number of innings and racked up high pitch counts as was commensurate with his era. Darling also lost his fastball before he reached age 30, hung on until he was 35 using his ample mind rather than stuff, and was finished when he could conceivably have had 4 or so more years of effectiveness and paychecks.

Would he trade the work he did in the 1980s with the Mets to hang on for a couple of more years? Would he have wanted to be perceived as self-interested enough not to pitch late in the season or give a few more innings, a few more pitches in the interest of the club and not himself? Probably not.

The culture and era has dictated much of what’s gone on with Strasburg. If this were 15-20 years ago, his innings limit wouldn’t be a story because it wouldn’t exist.

That said, there are undoubtedly people in baseball who think Strasburg is a wimp (and would use a more coarse vernacular than that) because he’s gone merrily along with the puppeteers telling him what he’s going to be doing rather than saying he wants to pitch and taking steps to make sure it happens such as going on a media blitz of his own. There have been the made-for-media soundbites like, “They’ll have to rip the ball out of my hand,” but it’s easy to say that knowing they are going to rip the ball out of his hand.

The “I just work here and do what I’m told” stuff doesn’t wash when he has more leverage than his employers.

Could Strasburg prevent this?

Of course he could. The Nationals and Strasburg could’ve put their money where their guidelines and the “future” are by agreeing to a long-term contract so Strasburg wouldn’t have to worry about financial security and the Nationals would have their investment locked up so they’re not saving the bullets they’re allegedly trying to save for him to sign with another team after the 2016 season. How’s that going to look if the Nats get bounced early in the playoffs and flounder in upcoming years, realize that 2012 was their chance, and then agent Scott Boras and Strasburg leave Washington? Will it still have been the “right” thing to do?

The money aspect is a bit silly as well. Boras is looking at $200+ million in contracts over the next ten or so years for his client, but it’s not as if Strasburg is a third year player, waiting for arbitration and making a pittance in comparison to what other starting pitchers are making nor is he encumbered by the new rules regulating how much bonus money a drafted player can make. He received a $7.5 million bonus to sign and is being paid a guaranteed $3 million this season. It’s not an amount of money that’s on a level with what he’ll make if he stays healthy from now through 2016, but it’s substantial. The “future” argument could be rendered meaningless and the concerns about his health tamped down if the Nationals and Strasburg agree to a down-the-line contract for mutual benefit.

The Nationals arguments for the shutdown

GM Mike Rizzo can chafe at the repeated questioning of his decision—and I do mean his decision since he’s gone to great lengths to make clear that he is the decider—but he brought this on himself. The Nationals could have kept quiet about the innings limit without giving a number. This isn’t politics and they didn’t need to provide a background to sell to the world as to why they’re doing what they do. But they did. Rizzo can cite medical studies until the end of time suggesting that this is the “right” thing to do, but it seems as if they had an end in mind and made sure they had the medical data to back up what they were doing. If they went to a truly independent doctor and that doctor said that he saw no physical reason to make Strasburg stop pitching if the Nationals and Strasburg do X, Y, and Z, then it would oppose what they want to; what’s safe for them to do; and more importantly, what Boras wants them to do to protect his client.

The NY Times published a piece about Strasburg on August 21st. In it, random cases for both sides are cited. Jordan Zimmerman has been healthy and very good in 2012 after operating under these identical constraints last season and after having undergone the same Tommy John surgery that Strasburg did. Pitchers who have not been under such limits are also mentioned. Greg Maddux, Matt Cain, CC Sabathia on one end; Steve Avery, Mike Witt, Bret Saberhagen on the other.

It never ends if you continually point of examples where there’s no baseline breaking point of what’s enough—no one knows.

The Nationals could very easily have copied what the Tigers did with Justin Verlander in 2006 when he was the exact same age as Strasburg; has an almost identical pitching style; both had very short stays in the minors; and the 2006 Tigers and 2012 Nationals made rapid and relatively unexpected leaps into title contention. But Verlander pitched in the playoffs and World Series and Strasburg won’t.

People can mention the Tommy John surgery as a notable difference between Strasburg and Verlander, but the surgery is supposed to make the ligament stronger than before. Why should it be an issue if Strasburg’s recovered from it? Wouldn’t the wear-and-tear prior to the surgery be more of a reason to limit him than after it?

In the NY Times article, the ones who stay healthy with a bigger workload are referred to as “physical freaks”; the ones who get hurt are considered the normal end result of overuse. But you can’t reference studies and reams of reports to justify Strasburg’s case and chalk durability up to random “freakishness”. It doesn’t mesh.

If you look at any medical malpractice trial, any lawyer can find a doctor who’s willing to say whatever is in the best interests of his client be it the plaintiff or the defendant. Are they truly independent doctors who are providing the truth to the entities—the Nationals and Boras—who are retaining them? Highly doubtful.

This isn’t to say the Nationals are wrong. Protecting that gifted arm is a wise thing to do, but doing it at the expense of their own personal interests and not taking steps to prevent this shutdown from becoming reality when the Nationals are going to need him most showed a remarkable lack of foresight.

They could’ve gone to a 6-man rotation; they could’ve shut him down at mid-season for 3-4 starts; they could’ve done a number of things to have him available for the playoffs. They didn’t.

And the idea that the Nats didn’t expect to be this good, this fast is contradicted by reality. If they didn’t have an intent on trying to win, then why did they gut the system to get Gio Gonzalez? Why did they pay Werth all that money before the 2011 season? Why sign Edwin Jackson?

The Nationals tried to win and are winning. This is not the developmental phase of a team that they hope to be good 3 years from now. Their future is now and Strasburg is not going to be a part of that “now” as soon as the clock strikes midnight on his season—that midnight is apparently coming on September 12th.

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