The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. IV, No. 32
June 1, 2012
Tonight in Washington, Stephen Strasburg will make his 11th start of the season, and move past 60 innings pitched in the third frame. By Flag Day, he'll have set MLB career highs in both those categories, and some time in July he'll surpass his professional peak of 123 1/3 innings pitched, set in his first pro season of 2010. You may remember that season: it ended on August 21, in the middle of the fifth inning against the Phillies when Strasburg, to that point one of the best stories in baseball, tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right arm.
That injury, the Tommy John surgery that fixed it and the rehabilitation that followed have left Strasburg pretty much exactly where he was on that steamy August night on the Citizens Bank Park mound: as one of the most exciting, watchable, devastating starting pitchers in the game. He's not the best pitcher in the NL this year, but his 2.64 ERA, 29.9% strikeout rate and 70/17 K/BB are all fantastic numbers that put him in position to claim that crown by season's end. (As it stands, Strasburg isn't the best Cy Young candidate in his own rotation right now -- Gio Gonzalez has been the best pitcher in the league so far.)
As they did a year ago with Jordan Zimmermann, who was coming off his own Tommy John surgery in 2009, the Nationals would like to hold down Strasburg's workload in his first full season in the majors after the injury. Zimmermann, two years older than Strasburg last season, threw 161 1/3 innings last year over 26 starts and was shut down before September. GM Mike Rizzo has indicated that the team wants to limit Strasburg, although he wouldn't commit to a number or a date. When asked in April if that plan had changed, Rizzo said that it hadn't.
Of course, that was when his team was 20 games into a season and had that sheen of April fluke. We're about at the one-third mark now, and the Nationals have moved from cute story to June division leader, with the second-best record in the circuit even after a three-game sweep in Miami at the hands of the Marlins. It's hard to call them a favorite in the division -- all five teams are over .500 and separated by just three games -- but the deeper we get into the year, the more they have to be taken, and have to take themselves, seriously as contenders. The Phillies have looked their age, unable to get their best team on the field at any point in the season. The loss of Roy Halladay for six to eight weeks drops their expectation by a game or two. The Braves have located an above-average offense (third in the league in runs with a huge lead on #4) just in time to see their run prevention tank. Save for Brandon Beachy, every Braves pitcher is performing worse than they did a year ago. The Marlins were among the best teams in baseball in May, as Giancarlo Stanton continued his march to stardom; Stanton is one of the only Marlins contributing at the plate, and the loss of Emilio Bonifacio robs the team of needed OBP. The Nationals, frankly, can look at the competition and be very happy about their chance to win this division.
Limiting Strasburg isn't an arbitrary decision based on the guesswork we all do when it comes to young pitchers. No, the surgery two years ago, rather than his age and experience, is what's driving the thought process. It's common to expect less from pitchers the year after Tommy John surgery, whether that takes the form of lessened in-game endurance, a shortened season, or both. In the case of Strasburg, Davey Johnson has clearly been trying to save his starter some pitches: a season high of 108 and just three of 10 outings reaching over 100. Strasburg has yet to face any hitter a fourth time this season. These measures are noble, but even at that Strasburg is on pace for 31 starts and 180 or so innings -- in the regular season. That would exceed Zimmerman's totals by a fair amount, and at that it assumes Johnson continues to exert significant in-game control over Strasburg's workload, and it leaves open the question of what to do in the Division Series.
Take it back a step, though. Why does a team limit the innings of any pitcher? It's not a humanitarian cause, it's an attempt to get the maximum value for the investment in talent. The Nationals are trying to make sure that Strasburg can make 32 starts and go 220 innings in as many seasons as possible while they have him at a below-market cost, so they can leverage that in the pursuit of championships. They're not trying to save Strasburg's 2020 season, when he'll be full-priced and possibly working elsewhere. They're trying to save his 2013; it's enlightened self-interest, not altruism. If the point is to win a championship, though, and we agree that those chances are neither distributed evenly nor predictably, then does it make any sense to pump the brakes on a player who is one of the difference-makers for this team? We can say that the Nationals' window is 2013-15, when they'll have Strasburg and Zimmerman fronting a rotation for a fraction of market value, with Bryce Harper batting in the mlddle of the lineup and their exciting middle infield coming into its own. Well, put on a sweater, because the window is already open. Those two guys are in the rotation. The middle infield has been frustrating (I've been notably wrong about Danny Espinosa), but is certainly not the problem. Harper? He's the best player on the team.
Contention is what happens when you're busy making other plans. If the Nationals elect to hold back Strasburg because they want him to be the ace of a championship team, they may keep him from being the ace of a championship team.
The reason I can advocate for aggression, relatively speaking, is that pitcher abuse doesn't exist any longer in the major leagues. (It's epidemic in the college game and at lower levels, to the point where you root for lawsuits to end the practice.) Greater awareness of the risks involved, of the development curve of young arms, the trial-and-error of figuring out what the upper bounds of workload should be, bullpen specialization that has routinely turned even good starts into incomplete games…all have led to an MLB in which "pitcher abuse" is a term much like "doubleheader" or "polyester" or "color line," a relic of days long gone by. Just to pick a year, in 1991, the first year in which I started arguing baseball online, there were 153 starts in which a pitcher went at least 130 pitches. There were 25 in which a pitcher went 140, and five of at least 150.
In the entire 21st century, there have been 141 starts of at least 130 pitches, 12 of at least 140 and just one of 150 (Livan Hernandez threw exactly 150 pitches on June 3, 2005). Since 2009 inclusive, just two pitchers have cracked 135 pitches, and in both cases they were chasing no-hitters (Edwin Jackson and Brandon Morrow, both in 2010). The practical upper bound is now 130 pitches. Andy Benes was 23 years old on April 16, 1991, when the Padres let him throw 154 pitches in a 1-0 loss to the Reds. A manager who did that in 2012 would be fired mid-inning.
Strasburg isn't in danger of being abused because no professional pitcher, and especially no young pitcher, is in danger of being abused. If he's merely treated like any 23-year-old starting pitcher, he will be well within the safe guidelines for pitcher usage. The special circumstance of "coming off Tommy John surgery" has to be balanced against the special circumstance of "flags fly forever".
In arguing for 32 starts, 195-205 innings and whatever postseason work is necessary, I'm not planting my flag alongside Dallas Green and Dusty Baker. I'm planting it exactly where any team should: at the intersection of team and player needs. Strasburg starts tonight, and if he's thrown 95 pitches through six innings with the Nationals up 2-1 and the top of the Braves' order coming up in the seventh, he should be out there to face them.