Commentary

Counting on Stephen Strasburg

Nationals' strategy is short-sighted; ace should be available for playoff chase

Updated: May 17, 2012, 8:05 AM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

One hundred and eleven seasons ago, the American League began play. One charter member, the Senators, played in Washington from 1901 through 1960 before moving to Minnesota. A second incarnation of the Senators played 11 more seasons from 1961 until 1971 before moving to Dallas to become the Texas Rangers in 1972. In 2005, Washington received another team, the old Montreal Expos from the National League, who are entering their eighth year as the renamed Nationals.

All total, major league baseball in Washington has been played for 78 seasons and the Senators/Nationals have made the playoffs exactly three times: in 1924, when they beat the Giants in the World Series; the next year, when they lost the World Series to the Pirates; and in 1933, a World Series loss to the then-New York Giants. That's it.

[+] EnlargeStephen Strasburg
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesStephen Strasburg is averaging more than a strikeout an inning this season.

The Nationals are now in first place and have been the fashionable pick to challenge for the NL East since the end of last season. Yet, in a stunningly nonsensical development, Nationals management, GM Mike Rizzo in particular, will limit Stephen Strasburg, the team's best pitcher and the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft, to 160 innings this season whether the Nationals are in first place, fighting in a September pennant race or need him for a one-game playoff. On his present schedule, Strasburg would be shut down Sept. 8, just as the lights to baseball's big stage go on.

The reason for this apparent caution is the season-ending elbow surgery Strasburg suffered in his rookie season of 2010. The Nationals, or so goes the narrative, are protecting a young player's career, taking the long view, acting responsibly.

Though Rizzo and the Nationals have yet to explain exactly why and how 160 innings became the failsafe number that would protect Strasburg from injury, it is roughly the same number of innings the Nationals' other prized pitcher, Jordan Zimmermann, threw last year after coming off of elbow surgery -- which is about as much of a guide as using your kid's birthday as your lottery ticket number. Zimmermann is 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, Strasburg is 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, and that's where the similarities and the science stop. The rest is all cosmetics: The number 160 looks responsible enough, containing the heft of about 25 starts but is not so burdensome that anyone would mistake Nationals manager Davey Johnson for arm-killing Joe Torre.

The problem is that injuries cannot really be managed or predicted, for the human arm was designed to throw underhand (see: softball, fast-pitch) not overhand, and certainly not roughly 90 miles per hour 3,500 times a year (not including spring training, side work, warm-ups and playoffs). Strasburg was a pitching prototype, big and strong, powered by his legs, owner of a 97-mph fastball with the kind of power mechanics that made pitching coaches salivate. The Nationals did everything right, limiting his minor league innings, keeping him on a tight pitching schedule when he came to the big leagues in 2010, only to see him blow out his elbow after all of 68 1/3 innings.

A couple of years earlier, Boston Red Sox right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka went 18-3 in 167 2/3 innings (the lowest number of innings in baseball history a starting pitcher threw to achieve that win total). Despite, the light, Strasburg-projected workload, an undisclosed hip injury limited Matsuzaka to 59 1/3 innings in 2009 (after he also pitched in the World Baseball Classic that spring). He pitched 153 2/3 in 2010 and 37 1/3 innings last year, before he required Tommy John surgery on his elbow. He is scheduled to return this month.

In his second full year in the big leagues, in 1985, Roger Clemens -- another 6-4, 200-plus-pound prototype -- needed shoulder surgery after 98 1/3 innings. By comparison, 6-foot, 170-pound Greg Maddux posted 14 consecutive seasons of 200 innings, leading the league five straight seasons from 1991-1995, and topping 260 innings from 1991 to 1993.

The greatest con in baseball over the past 20 years has been the elevation of the general managers. While fans still scream about firing managers, the GM's influence and salaries have risen while scrutiny of their decisions and of their accomplishment has diminished. The deification of the general manager follows the similarly disturbing trends of an overreliance on statistics as well as the lack of accountability demanded of front offices and others in power.

The Red Sox won two World Series under his watch, but Theo Epstein was perhaps the worst general manager in history at signing free agents, eclipsed only by Jim Hendry, the man he replaced in Chicago. In New York, Brian Cashman has spent $1.8 billion in payroll over the past decade yet has won exactly as many championships in that time as the Miami Marlins.

The truth is, despite receiving the Hollywood treatment from Brad Pitt, the general manager today is a better-paid bureaucrat. Some are better at evaluating young talent than others; others are better at spotting free agents. None held to the accountability standard of players or managers. All profit from the false currency of important-sounding phrases like "sample size." Cashman and the Yankees sounded wise and smart and responsible with the infamous "Joba Rules" to protect the career of Joba Chamberlain, but he has never pitched 160 inning yet still needed Tommy John surgery on his elbow after 28 2/3 innings last year.

[+] EnlargeMike Rizzo
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesGM Mike Rizzo has a lot invested in Stephen Strasburg.

The more constructive baseball minds watch their pitchers closely for signs that something is wrong and then determine why, not arbitrarily when, to intervene with a pitcher. Neither Zimmermann nor Strasburg was injured due to heavy workload. Neither injury has been attributed to overuse: both pitchers had thrown fewer than 70 innings when their injuries occurred. Statistics have their place in the game, just as the game has its place without statistics, but Rizzo's logic seems more geared toward keeping up the appearance of being diligent.

Some pitchers have motions that scream Tommy John or rotator cuff surgery because of the violence or quirk in their deliveries. Justin Verlander, Kerry Wood and Tim Lincecum make scouts cringe. Some of them, like Wood, wind up on the operating table. Others, like Lincecum, win consecutive Cy Young awards and confound experts by pitching 200 innings a year. Those players cannot be shut down because with their mechanics, injury could occur at any time. They have to be allowed to pitch as long as their bodies last, monitored when fatigue sets in. None of this is exactly astrophysics.

And there are anomalies: Mark Prior, he of the perfect pitching motion, has had arm trouble that has derailed his career.

If the goal of shutting down Strasburg is to keep him fresh to avoid tired-arm periods, then the Nationals should spend money on a six-man rotation or stagger Strasburg's starts, skipping him judiciously (which Johnson has inexplicably said the team won't do), to ensure that he is available to pitch big games throughout the month of September. Either that or the club could take the radical step of furloughing him for two weeks -- essentially a two-start break -- which would be the equivalent of a stint on the disabled list. Two pitchers in recent years, Orlando Hernandez and Pedro Martinez, both routinely missed starts in the period following the All-Star break to get ready for the postseason stretch run. While it is true that most teams can't find five starters to get them through a season, the Strasburg situation has made it clear that within 10 years, six-man rotations may soon be the norm, even as the price of pitching rises.

As their ill-conceived idea has been questioned, Johnson and Rizzo can't agree on the same message. Rizzo has since said Strasburg isn't on an innings count -- even though he said as early as last summer he had already calculated the innings limit in his head, while Johnson says Strasburg's innings for 2012 have already been determined.

All of this, of course, is nonsense, simply the illusion of responsibility for the sake of appearances. If the Nationals actually go through a magical summer and the city of Washington has a chance to experience playoff baseball for the first time since the Dust Bowl, Strasburg the ace should pitch when needed. If he doesn't, fans should line up and pay for something else (there's this kid, Robert Griffin III, who will be in the area) and the city should demand a $611 million refund -- in cash -- from the Nationals for building a stadium for a team that isn't trying to win, and especially for a front office that prefers looking smart to actually being smart.