Strasburg Ambiguity Mars The Nationals’ Magical Season

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How can anyone involved with the Nationals justify looking into Stephen Strasburg’s face and telling him that while the team is on its way to the playoffs and is a legitimate World Series contender that because of a random number of innings and the edicts of one person’s dictatorial, unchecked authority, he can’t be a part of it?

The number (supposedly 160 innings or thereabouts), so random and capricious with no ironclad guarantee that it’s going to help him stay healthy over the long-term, predicates that Strasburg should resist and use his power over the situation to escape it.

There are so many compelling stories with the Nationals that the looming shutdown of Strasburg is marring all they’ve accomplished and it’s coming down to the self-proclaimed final word, GM Mike Rizzo. Given the number of GMs who’ve been celebrated in recent years and either found themselves fired (Omar Minaya); on the hotseat (Jack Zduriencik, Dan O’Dowd); or seen their reputations shattered (Billy Beane), Rizzo might not even be there in 2015. Manager Davey Johnson and pitching coach Steve McCatty are going along to get along, but Johnson’s style in his prior stops and the atmosphere in which he spent his formative baseball years—the Earl Weaver Orioles of Jim Palmer throwing 300+ innings—do you really think Johnson, at age 69, wants to hold back on the once-in-a-lifetime arm of Strasburg when he might be writing his ticket to the Hall of Fame with another World Series win? A win that could hinge on Strasburg being allowed to pitch? Do you believe that McCatty, who saw his own career demolished by Billy Martin’s and Art Fowler’s abuse, doesn’t understand the limits of a pitcher and when he needs to have the brakes put on? It’s inexplicable to hire qualified people to do their jobs and not let them do them; to have experienced baseball people whose in-the-trenches understanding of the game are dismissed in the interests of self-protection and “I’m not gonna be the one that’s blamed if he gets hurt.”

That’s what Rizzo is doing. It’s got nothing to do with studies or protecting the player; Rizzo is protecting himself. No one else.

The implementation of pitcher workloads has become a circular defense and is a logical fallacy. Because Jordan Zimmerman underwent the same Tommy John surgery as Strasburg and was limited to 160 innings last season, it’s presented as validation for Strasburg’s final number of 160 or so innings. But they’re two different pitchers with two different levels of talent and two different thresholds along with dozens of other variables that aren’t being publicly accounted for in the interests of a short and sweet, salable list of “reasons” to place Strasburg on the sidelines as the kid who has to take his piano lessons while the other kids in the neighborhood out enjoying the sun and playing ball.

No one’s saying to abuse him as the Cubs, chasing a dream and trying to slay ghosts, did to Kerry Wood in 1998. But to just say STOP!!! and be done with it is a different form of abuse.

Strasburg doesn’t want to have his season ended prematurely, but if the Nats get to the playoffs or World Series, he’s not going to be a participant; or if he is, it will be after a month of barely pitching. It’s ludicrous and could also hinder his career rather than save it. Strasburg has to have some recourse. Saying all the right things and being a willing accomplice are separate. If I were Strasburg and his representatives, I’d push back. Agent Scott Boras, no stranger to hardball as a former player and negotiator, knows the terrain of arm-twisting organizations in the interests of his clients. Strasburg and Boras have a large share of the say-so in this situation. The point of power is to use it. If it’s put out publicly that Strasburg won’t sign any long-term deal with the Nationals if they continue to put their constraints on his career, what’s going to happen? Strasburg could refuse to report to the club next season and force his way out of Washington; he could be a test case because the Nats are not operating in his best interests. The blowback of Strasburg tearing at his chains legally and in a public relations blitz would be fierce and Rizzo wouldn’t have a choice but to back down.

The number of great players in sports who have been part of teams that made it to the pinnacle of team achievement or came thisclose but didn’t close the deal are legion. Ernie Banks, Don Mattingly and the new Hall of Famer Ron Santo are three of dozens of examples who would’ve traded years of their careers for a title shot.

Exacerbating this travesty is that the Nationals—or simply Rizzo and Rizzo alone—didn’t take steps such as the 6-man rotation to specifically prevent the need to end Strasburg’s season in September.

It’s easy to suggest that what the Nats have built will be sustainable and they’ll have multiple opportunities to make it back again and again; that with Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and the young pitching staff, they’ll be contenders for years to come. Facts and history say otherwise. It’s not true that they’re absolutely going to have chance after chance. Ask Dan Marino if he’s stunned by never having made it back to the Super Bowl after his sophomore season in which he demolished the NFL record books and carried the Dolphins to the NFL’s ultimate game. Then ask him if he’d have sat by quietly if the coaches and front office decided that he’s thrown too many passes after 13 games and they were sitting him down to lengthen his career. You can say it’s not the same thing, but it actually is the same thing. Strasburg is a baseball player; he’s a pitcher. Sometimes, regardless of how they’re handled and babied, they get injured as happened with Strasburg two years ago. Nothing is to be gained by sitting him down with numbers that have no basis in reality. Yet that’s what the Nats are doing and it’s not about protecting anyone other than the GM of the team, which makes it exponentially worse.

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Why The Nats Were Stupid With Strasburg

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The same variances in human beings that allow a pitcher like Stephen Strasburg to throw 100-mph logically dictate that he is different from another pitcher who achieves his results in another manner. So much goes into throwing a baseball and determining velocity, control and movement that it’s absurd to come up with a baseline that applies to every pitcher and expect it to work.

Arm speed, flexibility, leverage, mechanics, timing, hand size and other factors are relevant when determining how a pitcher does what he does. Would it make sense to compare Strasburg, a tall righty with an effortless motion, with Tim Lincecum? Lincecum is listed at 5’11” but is probably closer to 5’9”; he has a violent, all-out motion. How do you look at both pitchers and say that they should be smashed into the same category when they’re unique individuals?

Without getting into the randomness of innings limits and pitch counts when adhering to an all-encompassing set of rules for every pitcher, I have a question: If the Nationals were so intent on limiting Strasburg’s inning to 160 this season, why didn’t they do something to make sure he wasn’t going to surpass that number without being forced to sit him down for extended periods in August and September?

Why didn’t they use a 6-man rotation?

Years ago the 4-man rotation was what every team used. Then teams slowly began incorporating a fifth starter amid the perception that pitchers were being “babied”. The 5-man became the norm. Then managers like Tony LaRussa began delegating responsibilities to certain relievers for specific situations. That was copied and eventually twisted with LaRussa being blamed for managers who couldn’t think for themselves becoming brainless automatons whose decisions were based on not being criticized for doing something against current convention than for making a team-oriented move to win without caring about perception or having a robotic answer when they’re second guessed.

The 5-man rotation and bullpen-based strategies have been in practice since the late-1980s. Since some teams are now obsessed with pitch counts and innings limits, why are they sticking to what is now an antiquated strategy in the amount of times their pitchers are sent to the mound?

A 5-man rotation averages 32.4 starts each per season. A 6-man rotation would average 27 starts per season. Strasburg has thrown 99 innings this season in 17 starts. That’s an average of 5.8 innings per start. If he had the reins taken off—within reason—and was allowed to make 32 starts, that would come to 186 innings. In 27 starts, that would come to 156 innings. That’s exactly where they want him to be without counting the post-season. A post-season which the Nats are well on their way to participating in and will need Strasburg if they want to have a chance at a championship.

Presumably veterans Edwin Jackson and Gio Gonzalez wouldn’t have been happy about the extra rest between starts, but perhaps making this strategic change would allow them to increase the volume of pitches they’re allowed to throw per start to something commensurate with the extra rest. If Jackson is limited to, say, 115 pitches in the 5-man rotation, why not raise it to 130 in the 6-man and not have to use the bullpen so much?

What makes this worse is that the Nationals weren’t going to be digging for bodies to fill out the sixth position in the rotation. They have veteran lefty John Lannan toiling in the minors, earning $5 million and wanting to be traded. They’re not a club that was short on starting pitching and they had the personnel to do it.

Now they’re in a box. Everyone knows the innings limits and pitch counts attached to Strasburg and the Nats are stuck to giving him extra rest between starts or shutting him down completely to prevent him from surpassing his limit. This is not the way for him to keep his rhythm, maintain his command and stay sharp, but it’s where they are. It could’ve been avoided if they were smart. But they weren’t. Now they have to figure something else out because they didn’t do the obvious thing and use six starters instead of five.

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