Stephen Strasburg shut down the Rays on Wednesday, striking out 10 in seven innings pitched, notching his ninth win of the season while winning his sixth consecutive start. Not team wins, not decisions -- his sixth consecutive start. The past four have been especially impressive: 40 Ks in 26 innings pitched with just 23 baserunners allowed and a 2.08 ERA. These are the individual data of dominance, the symptoms of superiority.
Leave the kudos for later: He’ll be an All-Star, he’s a Cy Young contender, he’s all that. If you’re a Nats fan, this is exactly what you signed up for in 2009 (when he was drafted) or even sooner, if you understood that your guys were going to pick this generation’s one-and-only out of San Diego State with the top choice in the draft.
But in a nutshell, those numbers also capture the agonizing logistical challenge the Nationals have in front of them, because Strasburg traveled past another not-so-little number: His halfway point to 160, the innings total that he’s “supposed” to pitch if plans are set in stone and circumstances aren’t allowed to change and if we want to pretend that general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Davey Johnson are actuarial obsessives instead of men charged with players and possibilities. Strasburg’s 14th start of the season put him at 84 frames so far.
How good is Strasburg? As J.R.R. Tolkien might have said, his stuff pierces cloud, shadow, earth and flesh. But it’s the last of those things that might make you wonder, because even after a night like tonight, Strasburg is mortal. He’s had to go under the knife before, and the nightmare is that by pushing too hard too soon, he might have to again.
One old theory on pitcher workloads was that you wanted to be careful with guys younger than 24; before then, they were in “the injury nexus,” as I think my old colleague Jonah Keri (now of Grantland fame) liked to put it. Strasburg is 23, a month away from his 24th birthday.
Johnson has been entrusted with generational greats before, of course. He was the man in the Mets’ dugout when Dwight Gooden came up as teenage phenom in 1984. You can’t place the provenance of Gooden’s eventual breakdowns to any one thing -- overwork at such a young age? Being a kid on that team of good-time charlies? Getting coached to throw more breaking stuff early on? If you want to plead any of those for why Gooden will merely be well-remembered as a treasure, and not as a guy you’ll see in Cooperstown, you’d have a case.
But as distant as 1988 is to the present in terms of workloads or offensive environment, it puts the concerns about Strasburg into some perspective when you notice that at this time of year in Gooden’s season, he had made 15 starts to Strasburg’s 14, thrown 112 1/3 innings to Strasburg’s 84 and delivered 1,571 pitches to Strasburg’s 1,332. Gooden was also in his fifth full season in the majors. And as history records, Gooden needed shoulder surgery in 1989, the first in a series of injuries.
So, as far as Strasburg and the Nats are concerned, that sounds reasonable, right? Strasburg’s working less and has had considerably less mileage on his arm now than Gooden did by then. Well … maybe. This was also Strasburg’s second start of the season with more than 110 pitches, which will alarm some folks, especially since they’ve come in two of his past three turns. That’s the development I find more troubling than his innings or his starts or even his cumulative pitch count.
Even if you’re generous and want to note that 120 pitches is the standard we ought to be using for the hard line between OK and overworked for most pitchers, it’s worth noting that even that reliable defier of pitch-count paranoids, Justin Verlander, threw only three such starts in his age-23 season back in 2006, and his last one (on September 2) pretty much gassed the rookie for the remainder of the season -- and the postseason, when Verlander The Invincible would have made a big difference in the World Series against the victorious Cardinals.
And that’s the other nightmare scenario: They pile even more work on Strasburg to no happy ending, not unlike what the Cubs asked of Kerry Wood in the National League Division Series in 1998, only to find that they had asked too much of their wunderkind top gun.
None of this is guaranteed bad news for Strasburg, of course. Every pitcher is a unique talent. Every pitcher creates his own possibilities. Verlander didn’t break, even if he did wear down in 2006. Despite years of confident assertions that Livan Hernandez’s arm was going to fall off throwing the workloads he was tasked with, it never did. (Livan could probably still throw 230 innings if you asked him. They wouldn’t be good innings, mind you.)
And there is no talent like Strasburg’s. Now that we’re beyond the theory of what might have been the case, now that Strasburg is beyond the halfway point, you can bet that he’s not going to throw “just” 160 innings -- not pitching like this. Not even if the Nats try to give him additional rest around the All-Star Game by kicking him to the fifth turn post-break, and not even if they give him a two-week trip to the disabled list due to “tired arm” or some other malady general enough to be plausible. At this point, his trajectory’s going to take him past all of that.
To some extent, the cap has become so much nonsense, but that’s because Strasburg has made it so at the same time that the team’s bid to win is making it so. In the broad strokes, the Nationals have been as moderate as you could wish for in managing his workload up to this point, even as they tried to temper expectations by having tossed out that “160-inning cap” notion in the first place. You can fidget -- as I do -- over the pitch counts accumulated over multiple starts, but if Strasburg keeps upsetting all these good intentions, it’s because he’s the real deal.
Don't feel sorry for the Nats, that they have this call to make. There are 29 other teams that would kill for the chance to be making the tough choices Rizzo and Johnson will have to make. Simply as an observer, I say enjoy it while it lasts, because like Gooden 25 years later, we'll still be talking about Stephen Strasburg 25 years from now.
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