Final Analysis on the Strasburg Shutdown

All Star Game, Ballparks, CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, MVP, Paul Lebowitz's 2012 Baseball Guide, PEDs, Players, Playoffs, Politics, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors, Umpires, World Series

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.

//

Advertisements

Managing Like Mauch

All Star Game, Books, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, Movies, MVP, Paul Lebowitz's 2011 Baseball Guide, Players, Playoffs, Politics, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors, Umpires

Billy Martin said (it was in one of his books that he’d had ghostwritten) that when he managed against Gene Mauch, all he would do is sit back and wait for Mauch to make a mistake due to overmanaging—bunting, pitching changes, some control-freak maneuver that would backfire.

In 1986, the Red Sox benefited from one such mistake in game 5 of the ALCS in Anaheim. The Angels were ahead 3 games to 1 and leading in game 5 by the score of 5-2 when Don Baylor homered off starter Mike Witt with one out and a runner on in the top of the ninth inning to make the score 5-4. Witt got Dwight Evans to pop up for the second out; with Rich Gedman batting, Mauch pulled his starter in favor of veteran lefty Gary Lucas. Witt later said that not only could Baylor not have hit the low and outside pitch out of the park again, he couldn’t have hit it at all; Witt also said he regretted not fighting harder to stay in the game.

Lucas, who wasn’t the Angels closer, had pitched to Gedman three times in his career and struck him out each time. Gedman was 3 for 3 that day at the time and had homered off Witt earlier in the game.

There was an argument to go with the percentages and yank Witt for Lucas; there was also an argument that his staff ace Witt could handle a hitter whom he’d dominated to the tune of an .095 batting average in the regular season before that playoff series.

Lucas drilled Gedman with the first and only pitch he threw.

The Red Sox went on to win the game and the series.

In retrospect it was a ghastly mistake; in practice, it was an arguable decision.

But Mauch was a slave to the numbers and it exploded in his face.

It’s easier to go by the stats; it’s easier to have an numerical explanation for why a manager does what he does than to trust his instincts and his players and do what could be criticized later.

Mauch managed nearly 4000 games in the big leagues without making it to the World Series in part because he had some bad teams; and in part because he panicked and squeezed when he should’ve let up.

Last night as Chris Carpenter was pitching a gem against the Phillies to lead his Cardinals into the NLCS against the Brewers, there were calls on Twitter for him to be yanked as the Cardinals led 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth with Chase Utley, Hunter Pence and Ryan Howard due to bat.

Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa—oft-criticized for overmanaging and using 5 relievers to get 5 outs—left Carpenter in the game in part because he doesn’t have a dominating closer; in part because it was his horse pitching and pitching brilliantly.

The pitcher that was supposed to come into the game in the eyes of many was Marc Rzepczynski. The reasoning for this was Howard’s 4th trip to the plate against Carpenter and that Howard is awful against lefties.

It was stat-based; it had reasoning behind it; and it was ludicrous.

What those who are so invested in the numbers don’t seem to quite understand is that baseball is not a strictly scientific endeavor in which you mix the formula and achieve the desired result. For LaRussa to take Carpenter out of the game at any point in the ninth inning as it transpired would’ve been maniacally controlling and borderline deranged.

If he had a Mariano Rivera-style closer, then okay; but he didn’t. He had Arthur Rhodes and Rzepczynski; the rest of the Cardinals bullpen consists of pitchers who have all been interchangeable in the role of late-inning reliever and should not be given precedence Carpenter—a Cy Young Award winner and one of the best pitchers in baseball over the past 7 years.

Utley hit a rocket to the warning track in center field; Pence grounded out; and Howard grounded to second base and collapsed in a heap between home and first with an achilles injury.

The Cardinals won.

But that’s secondary to the premise of there being a nuance to managing that the hardest of the hard-core stat people simply do not get. They don’t know the history; they don’t understand people; and they adhere to the numbers because they don’t have a grasp of humanity to allow them to do something against their vaunted books and calculations.

The same was true when Howard came to the plate in the seventh inning as Carpenter ran the count to 3-0 and Howard swung at the pitch, just missed hitting it out of the park, and flew to right field.

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel was apparently supposed to tell his number 4 hitter and biggest RBI man that he should be taking on 3-0 and trying to walk.

That’s not what got the Phillies where they were; that’s not why Manuel is respected by his players; and that’s not how Howard accumulated the resume to get the massive contract he signed.

The players are there to play; you have to put the game in the hands of the players; if you don’t, you’d be amazed how fast the turn on you; how easily and quickly they can and will get you fired.

The enduring image from that 1986 ALCS isn’t what happened on the field in game 5 nor how the Red Sox came back to win the series; it’s Mauch standing in the corner of the dugout, waiting for the final out to be recorded to win his first pennant after so many years on the precipice; with Reggie Jackson standing next to Mauch in part to celebrate with his manager, in part to make sure he was on camera.

It was an out that Mauch had waited for 25 years to be recorded.

It was an out that never came.

//