A Strasburgian Failure

The baseball world has been buzzing about two young players this entire season. Mike Trout and his ridiculous 8.7 WAR (over 22% better than any other player) is sending media and fans everywhere into a frenzy, but the more interesting story may be Stephen Strasburg’s pitching dominance before subsequently being shut down for the season.

We’ve always known that Stephen Strasburg probably wasn’t going to pitch a full season. The Nationals made that clear; they didn’t want to overuse their young pitcher. But what we didn’t know is that the Nationals were going to be this good, all but a lock for postseason play.

Back in Spring Training, the Nationals announced that  Strasburg would have an innings limit but didn’t explicitly say what that limit was. They made a similar move last year with Jordan Zimmermann coming off Tommy John Surgery, who pitched 161.1 innings before being shut down at the end of August. As it turns out, Strasburg’s season ended even before he reached that mark, finishing last Thursday with 159.1 innings pitched.

The Nationals have been in first place since May 22nd, but they haven’t changed their strategy for handling Strasburg at all. Maybe that’ll pay off in the future with a long, healthy career for Strasburg, but we’ll never know if saving him now really makes a marked difference. All we do know is the Nationals likely aren’t going to win the World Series without their ace.

Let’s not forget that Stephen Strasburg has one of the greatest unheralded nicknames of all time: Anchorman.

Assuming the Nationals are telling the whole truth about Strasburg being shut down for the year, I think they’re making a big mistake. Not only that, they’ve been completely uncreative in the process. Let’s take a look at what the Nationals could have done to allow Strasburg to pitch further into the season.

My first problem with the Nationals decision to shut down their ace is that pitching an extended amount of innings hasn’t been proved to cause injuries. Really, the more concerning total is pitches per outing (see Prior, Mark and Wood, Kerry). It wasn’t until about the turn of the century that teams really started tracking pitch counts, and younger pitchers are getting hurt at a much lower rate since 2000.

Smartly, the Nationals haven’t been overusing Strasburg in single games. He’s averaging just over 93 pitches per start and has only crossed the 100 pitch threshold in 10 of his 28 starts. Even his season high 119 pitches came on a game with five days rest.

I have an inkling, though, that the Nationals actually did cap Strasburg by a pitch total, not an innings total. It’s just easier to tell reporters that he’ll pitch 160 innings rather than 1600 pitches–it’s just a nicer number. Also, not every inning is created equal. A three-pitching quickie inning certainly puts less stress on a pitcher’s arm than a laborious four-run thirty-pitch inning.

But for now let’s assume that Nationals upper management decided that Strasburg isn’t going to throw more than 160 innings this season. There are still ways to keep him pitching throughout the year.

Once the Nationals took over first place nearly three months ago, they should have adjusted Strasburg’s schedule a bit. There’s no reason to use up all his starts in the regular season when all you can win in the first 162 games is a division crown. That’s nice and all, but the playoffs is a little higher stakes–the World Series is on the line.

There are some rather simple ways to save Strasburg’s arm. You could have the man throw 70 pitches or 5 innings before pulling him. The Nationals have an incredibly deep bullpen with Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen, Sean Burnett, Craig Stammen, and crew, so having the ‘pen cover four innings shouldn’t be an issue. Alternatively, they could also match Strasburg up with a piggyback starter to take the last four innings of every start–say Ross Detwiler or John Lannan.

If they’re really feeling creative, they could pitch Gonzalez, Zimmermann, and Jackson 1-2-3, then go with Strasburg in the 4th game followed by Detwiler. Then in the next rotation go Gonzalez, Zimmermann, and Jackson, followed by Lannan then Strasburg, giving him five days rest between starts. In the next rotation go Gonzalez, Zimmermann, and Jackson followed by Detwiler and Lannan. Rinse and repeat. Strasburg makes two starts every three rotation cycles with starts on five and eight days rest.

Washington could have even follow that schedule at limit him to 70 pitches per outing. They could skip some of his starts or just shut him down for two weeks at a time. They could have ended his season two starts earlier and just saved him for playoff baseball. There are so many ways to use Stephen Strasburg’s 160 innings while still having him in the playoffs, yet the Nationals didn’t have the inginuity to come up with anything other than prematurely curtailing his season.

I hope the Nationals ran through more options than just pitching their young ace for 160 straight innings. I really hope they do. Because if the Nationals make an early exit in the playoffs because of a lack of pitching, their failure to come up with creative solutions may come back to haunt them for years to come.

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