- David Schoenfield, SweetSpot blogger
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Let's revisit one of the most important storylines of the 2012 season: Stephen Strasburg's innings limit, which might or might not exist at around 160 to 180 innings.
Strasburg, who starts Wednesday night for the Nationals against Tampa Bay, has pitched 77 innings in 13 starts. While he has dominated -- his strikeout rate of 32.9 percent (11.9 K's per nine innings) leads all major league starters -- the Nationals have carefully handled his workload, as he's averaged just less than six innings per start. His average of 93.9 pitches per start ranks 100 out of 130 pitchers who have started at least 10 games.
The pitchers who have averaged the most pitches per start so far are, not surprisingly, veterans and aces: Justin Verlander (112), CC Sabathia (112), James Shields (110), David Price (109) and Matt Cain (108).
But you expect those guys to carry a heavier workload; they're not 23 years old and they're not coming off Tommy John surgery. Another way to examine how cautious the Nats have been with Strasburg is to compare his workload to those of other recent 23-year-olds. The following chart lists the 10 23-year-olds who averaged the most pitches per start since 2000 (minimum 20 starts) plus some others I wanted to include.
As you can see, there have been big changes in how young pitchers have been handled over the past decade. Four of the top five pitchers on the list came in 2000. Even when Felix Hernandez averaged 107 pitches per start in 2009, he topped 120 just once. Clayton Kershaw was 23 last season when he won the Cy Young Award, and he topped 120 just twice. Strasburg did throw 119 pitches in his June 8 start at Boston in which he struck out 13 in six innings (he threw 13 pitches to the final two batters he faced to escape a bases-loaded jam), but that's been his only start of more than 110, and he topped 100 just three other times.
In fact, that Boston start might be an example of why it could be difficult to keep Strasburg on such a tight limit. There might be occasions when Davey Johnson needs a few extra pitches or a couple of extra outs from his best pitcher.
From 2007 to 2011, for example, there were 52 seasons in which a starting pitcher had an ERA of 3.00 or better (minimum 162 innings). Forty-one of those pitchers averaged at least 100 pitches per start. Only two averaged 95 or fewer -- Chris Carpenter in 2009 (95.4, actually) and Jaime Garcia in 2010 (93.2). Carpenter, as you might remember, was coming off two seasons of injuries, and Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan handled him very carefully.
But if we're looking for some sort of guidebook the Nationals are following, Garcia is a pretty close match. Garcia, like Strasburg, was 23 years old. He was a rookie but coming off Tommy John surgery in 2008. Garcia made 28 starts that year and threw 163.1 innings. The Cards shut Garcia down after a Sept. 13 start, with 20 games left in the season. By then they were 7 games behind the Reds and 7.5 out of the wild card, so it was a pretty easy decision to shut him down. Garcia had just seven starts in which he threw 100 pitches and topped out at 111.
The difference, of course, is the Cardinals were out of the race. The Nationals are likely to still be in it. If Strasburg pitches the whole season and makes 31 starts at six innings per start while averaging 94 pitches, you end up with 186 innings and 2,914 pitches. Compared to others on the list, that's still a pretty conservative workload (and, in fact, it matches up quite nicely with Verlander's rookie season, in which he pitched 186 innings and threw 2,968 pitches).
The Tigers, by the way, made the playoffs that year. Verlander made four more starts in the postseason, throwing an additional 21.2 innings and 406 pitches. He was gassed by season's end and allowed 17 runs in those 21.2 innings.
It still seems the best-case scenario for the Nationals would be to find a way to have Strasburg skip a few starts. Maybe you skip his final start before the All-Star break and pitch him fourth or fifth in the rotation coming out of the break. Maybe you give him a couple of extra days off between starts in late August or early September. If you keep him to the Garcia workload -- 28 starts, 165 innings or so -- it's also more likely he'll have his dominant stuff ready for the playoffs.
Because if the Nationals do make the postseason, he has to pitch.