The Phantom Link Between Strasburg and RG III

The connection between what the Nationals did with Stephen Strasburg in shutting him down at a preplanned innings limit and what the Redskins did with Robert Griffin III only exists in the minds of those desperately searching for one.

It was again mentioned in today’s New York Times in this piece by Harvey Araton. To Araton’s credit, he references that an “a-ha moment” was a “surface comparison” with the unsaid inference that RG III and Strasburg were in no way connected except as a lukewarm defense to what Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo did in shutting Strasburg down and as an indictment for what Redskins’ coach Mike Shanahan didn’t do in leaving Griffin in the team’s playoff game against the Seahawks only to see Griffin severely injure his knee, possibly costing him the entire 2013 season and a portion of the running ability that made him so special.

The equating of Griffin and Strasburg is ludicrous. Because the Nats chose to end Strasburg’s season, the old-school types considered it heresy. Bolstered by the Nats’ loss in the NLDS to the Cardinals, the ill-informed and agenda-driven arguments suggest that had Strasburg been available, the Nats would have blown past the Cardinals and possibly gone on to win the World Series; that Rizzo’s overprotectiveness cost the Nationals that rare opportunity to win a championship—one that is not guaranteed in the future regardless of teamwide talent levels.

The truth is that the Nationals should have won the series against the Cardinals and only blew it because of a mistake they made during the season and it wasn’t shutting Strasburg down. The mistake they made was reinstalling Drew Storen as the closer as if he was a veteran along the lines of Mariano Rivera who deserved to return to his job by status after having missed the majority of the season with an elbow problem. Tyler Clippard had done an admirable job in the role and should have been left alone at least for the remainder of the season. Manager Davey Johnson, however, chose to be his iconoclastic self and hand the ninth inning back to Storen. Storen blew the fifth game of the NLDS after being within a strike of ending the game and the series three separate times with what began as a 2-run, ninth inning lead. Storen was not a veteran who had earned his stripes and had the right to walk off the disabled list and right back into the ninth inning, especially with a team that was streaking toward the playoffs. In fact, Storen didn’t regain the closer’s role until the playoffs, making the choice all the more questionable. (Notice I said “regain” and not “reclaim.” The job was just handed back to Storen based on nothing other than him having been the closer before.)

To make matters worse, this off-season the Nats decided that Storen wasn’t even going to be their closer for the next two and probably three years by signing Rafael Soriano to take the job. So what was the purpose of naming Storen closer for the playoffs if: A) he hadn’t re-earned the role; and B) he’s not their long-term solution?

The Strasburg shutdown was based on paranoia and out-of-context “guidelines” that gave Rizzo the impetus to do what he wanted to do all along: protect himself rather than protect his pitcher. Innings limits and pitch counts are tantamount to the architect of the parameters saying, “If he gets hurt, don’t blame me.” It’s selfishness, not protecting an investment.

Strasburg had already blown out his elbow once while functioning within the constraints of innings limits and pitch counts that went all the way back to his days under Tony Gwynn at San Diego State. The object of this style protectiveness is to keep the player healthy, but nothing is said when the player gets hurt anyway. Compounding matters, they continued down the road of self-interested and random limits based on whatever advice and statistics supported their decision.

If Strasburg gets hurt again, the shutdown will be seen as useless; if he stays healthy, it will be seen as the “why” when it had just as much chance of having nothing to do with it as it did in him needing Tommy John surgery in the first place.

As for the RG III-Strasburg link, no common bond exists other than that Shanahan made a mistake in leaving RG III in the game to get hurt and the Nats yanked Strasburg from the rotation in the interest of “saving” him.

In retrospect, as a guardian of his young, star-level quarterback, Shanahan should have taken RG III from the game, but he didn’t. That’s separate from what the Nats did with Strasburg because retrospect hasn’t come yet and if it does, there won’t be the aforementioned “a-ha” moment in either direction. Both players play for teams based in Washington; both are once-a-decade talents; and both had injuries. Apart from that, there’s nothing that places them in the same category except for those looking for a reason to justify or malign, and that’s not the basis for a viable argument.

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  1. #1 by Todd Boss on February 18, 2013 - 8:26 pm

    Not sure I agree with your take on why Storen was the closer in the playoffs and not Clippard.

    1. Storen was the closer all of 2011, in-arguably. Then he got hurt.

    2. Clippard “won” the subsequent closer battle that initially was Lidge, then Henry Rodriguez and which stretched into May. But it was basically by attrition; the team wanted Clippard in the 8th inning role, and still wants him there.

    3. Clippard was good for a while … but he absolutely collapsed in September. Check the split:

    http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/split.cgi?id=clippty01&year=2012&t=p

    Clippard gave up 21 hits, 3 walks in 13 1/3 september innings. He was gassed, he was awful. So Davey put Storen back in the closer role that was rightfully his. We talk a lot about the narrative of “not losing your job due to injury” in sports, and that’s essentially what happened to Storen for most of 2012.

    4. Storen got scattered saves in September; i’m not sure I agree with your statement that Johnson “installed Storen back into the closer role” for the playoffs. Check the game logs:

    http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/WSN/2012-schedule-scores.shtml

    The team only had 8 save chances the whole month, and by mid September Storen was basically back in the role.

    5. What is up with the ridiculous unwarranted shots at Davey Johnson? He’s a hall of fame, incredibly respected manager in this game.

    6. Storen absolutely earned back the closer role. Again, look at his Sept/Oct splits.

    http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/split.cgi?id=storedr01&year=2012&t=p

    Drew put up a 1.17 ERA in September/October of last year. How can you say he didn’t earn his job back?

    7. How can you claim that the Nats POSSIBLY knew that “Storen wasn’t their long-term solution” at closer based on the Soriano signing? Do you possibly think that Rizzo knew that he was going to be signing Rafael Soriano on October 1st, 2012? And even if he did know that … what would that have possibly had to do with the usage of Storen for the playoffs??

    Why couldn’t Storen keep the lead? My pet theory is because he was over-worked in the series. Storen was throwing his third straight night in Game 5, and he was “wasted” basically in the game 3 blowout. That is the move that I think Johnson wants back. Would a fresher Storen have gotten through the bottom of St. Louis’ order?

    As far as Strasburg goes; the part of the whole narrative that never seems to get reported is the involvement of the doctor. Its played out as if Rizzo just commanded an innings limit; No, the team worked with the surgeon just as they had done with Jordan Zimmermann the year before, came up with a rehab plan, came up with a graduated workload increase plan, and stuck with it.

    If Strasburg had gotten open heart surgery instead of elbow surgery, and his heart surgeon had advised only throwing 160 innings in 2012 … would we be having this same argument? Is it simply that people are uninformed or overly optimistic about Tommy John surgery and how long it takes these guys to really recover safely?

    • #2 by admin on February 18, 2013 - 8:44 pm

      The entire point of having a ridiculous lead for a playoff spot is to rest the players for the playoffs. They put Storen back in at closer because they wanted to put Storen back in as closer. A better argument for using Storen as the closer and putting Clippard back in as the set-up man would be to say that Clippard, as the set-up man, would be doing the heavy lifting before the comparatively easy ninth inning racking up the mostly meaningless (nowadays) save stat. Clippard was gassed? Rest him.
      I’m not buying this “rightfully his” stuff. Storen had been the closer for one year. As I wrote, he’s not Mariano Rivera and he has no right to expect anything. I’m not blaming him, but if the Nats provide the argument that he shouldn’t lose his job due to injury, then why didn’t they make him the closer as soon as he returned? Or after a month when he’d become acclimated and was ready to pitch on back-to-back days again and they weren’t nursing him back into shape?
      Clippard did slump in September, but you’re taking it slightly out of context. There were two games in which he got blasted and allowed 6 runs and 7 hits in two appearances with 1.1 innings. Other than that, he was okay.
      You’re going down the wrong road if you think I’m taking “shots” at Davey. I love Davey. He was managing the Mets during their glory days in the 1980s and is a fine manager. But that doesn’t alter the fact that he is arrogant, hardheaded and contrary just for the sake of it. Trust me. It was his lack of discipline and ego that severely interfered with a Mets team that was so talented it should’ve won at least three pennants during those years and wound up with only one.
      I didn’t say that they “knew” Storen wasn’t their long-term solution at closer in October. I’m not sure where you’re getting that. That was after-the-fact when they decided to jump in on Soriano. I found it to be an odd decision with Clippard and Storen in the bullpen, but I have no issue with it.
      You may be right about Storen having been overworked, but it wasn’t as if he got shelled by the Cardinals in game 5. It was walks, dinks, dunks and bad luck more than anything. I’d have stuck with Clippard and it has nothing to do with Storen blowing game 5.
      Regarding Strasburg, you’re missing the point. You can find a doctor to tell you whatever you want him to tell you and there’s really no historical context to say, “This will work” in keeping a pitcher healthy. And I’m not saying they’re wrong for being overprotective of him because I don’t know that either. As I said last year, the easiest and best way to keep Strasburg’s innings down would’ve been to go with a 6-man rotation. It’s unique, but no more unique than this new trend of shutting one of the best and most dominant pitchers in the game down a month before the entire reason for playing: the playoffs and World Series.

  2. #3 by Todd Boss on February 21, 2013 - 3:15 pm

    The Nats didn’t have a “ridiculous lead” for a playoff spot. They didn’t clinch the division until October 1st. They had to play their guys and try to win basically until the 2nd to last day of the season.

    It seems to me that the Nats were going with the hot hand. Clippard was going good enough, Storen came back and they didn’t want to upset a good thing. They were in first place and looked respectable for the first time in organizational history. I didn’t disagree with the decision to keep Clippard as the closer at the time, nor did I disagree with moving Storen back to the closer spot in September when clearly Clippard was gassed.

    Why wouldn’t you buy that Storen had “earned” the closer spot? Is it because of his age? I mean, how many effective veteran relievers are really out there right now? 3-4? Storen pitched really well in the closer spot in 2011, then got hurt and was moved out of the spot. So yeah, it isn’t like he was “demoted” out of the closer role because of performance. I mean, would you say that Craig Kimbrell of the Braves has “earned” the closer spot in Atlanta right now? What’s the difference between Storen and Kimbrell, all things considered? Both young, both have performed well in the role.

    I’m not taking anything out of context for Clippard’s slump in September. You clearly don’t watch this team like I do; it wasn’t just an outing here and there. Clippard struggled most of the 2nd half of the season, and bottomed out in September. You can see this at a macro level by comparing his numbers in 2011 and 2012 in total; he went from a 1.83 ERA to a 3.72 era, from a 209 ERA+ to a 107 ERA+. His fip, xfip, siera all worse from year to year. Pick a stat and Clippard regressed.

    Here’s your DIRECT QUOTE from the blog posting:

    “…To make matters worse, this off-season the Nats decided that Storen wasn’t even going to be their closer for the next two and probably three years by signing Rafael Soriano to take the job. So what was the purpose of naming Storen closer for the playoffs if: A) he hadn’t re-earned the role; and B) he’s not their long-term solution?”

    This quote implies that the Nats knew they were going to replace Storen going into the 2012 playoffs. Which I think is ridiculous and said as much above. What part of that paragraph am I mis-reading?

    Strasburg’s Doctor quote: the nats didn’t just “find a doctor” to tell them what they wanted to hear. They talked with THE doctor who performed the surgery. Why don’t you put yourself in Rizzo’s shoes and tell me you would have acted differently; the doctor who performed the surgery tells you that for the long term best interests of the pitcher (and by implication the club, since he’s the star arm of the organization under club control for at least 4 more seasons) you need to limit his work load in the 2 years following this surgery. How arrogant would you have to be as a GM to ignore the doctor and just say, “ah he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, Strasburg can go through 200+ innings.” You’d probably sound as arrogant as the hundreds of know-it-all sports writers and bloggers who blasted Rizzo for the decision.

    • #4 by admin on February 21, 2013 - 4:03 pm

      Are you contrary just for its own sake? Like arguing about the taste of Shedd’s Spread vs. I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter?
      I’m sorry, but collapses in recent years aside, an 8 1/2 game lead on September 12th is a “ridiculous” lead. At worst, it’s safe enough to rest your closer for a few days.
      We can argue about Storen and Clippard as the closer—it’s not why they lost—but if you’re comparing Storen to Craig Kimbrel, you’ve completely lost your mind. Kimbrel has thrown 160.1 big league innings and struck out 283 batters with an ERA of 1.46. No one other than someone trying to create a false argument based on nothing could compare the two. Storen performed “well” in the role for one year and then got hurt to be replaced by someone who performed as well or better than Storen did; Kimbrel blows big league hitters away and does it while they know the fastball is coming and still can’t catch up to it.
      You reference stats when they convenience you (as in the Detwiler as the 12th best pitcher in baseball and this latest comment) then talk about having “watched” the Nats more than I have. Which is it?
      The quote you referenced implies nothing of the sort. It says directly that they’re not completely sold on Storen. I find it difficult to believe that the playoff game he blew (not entirely his fault) were the final arbiter in replacing him, which makes it all the worse that they inserted him into the closer’s role for the playoffs when he hadn’t been doing the job all season long when they built up their lead.
      Of course you can find a doctor to say whatever you need him to say. Have you ever seen a trial in which both sides, plaintiff and defendants, find a medical professional to twist matters in the direction of the side that’s paying them? It’s easy. I wouldn’t say it’s arrogance that’s driving Rizzo’s cautious handling of Strasburg. I’d say it’s paranoia. And if you find a doctor that can say for certain that X is going to get hurt a Y time, then he’s either a liar, a lunatic or validating what the person signing the checks wants to hear. Doctors are not God; they don’t have all the answers. Were the Nats following these guidelines when Strasburg got hurt in the first place? Yes. And they didn’t work. No one’s saying to abuse him, but to pick an arbitrary number of innings and say that this will prevent injury is nonsense. If you remember, it was the pioneer of Tommy John surgery, Dr. Frank Jobe, who influenced Tommy Lasorda to trade Pedro Martinez because he felt Martinez wasn’t going to stay healthy as a starting pitcher. They don’t know the future and the shutdown of Strasburg was passed off to the doctors by Rizzo, making it a case of abdicating the responsibility, something I certainly don’t want in my GM.

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