Nats must repair Strasburg's psyche
When I tore my hamstring tendon in 2003, I knew my career was in jeopardy. Speed was how I got it done, and in an instant I was missing one half of the legs that gave me value.
The rehabilitation was rough. Scar tissue and ice bags, surgery and Double-A assignments. But without a doubt, the hardest part was believing in my post-surgery ability and my body again.
Stephen Strasburg has been shut down, and the private-flight plan the Nationals had for their top gun crash-landed into his worst start of the year on Friday.
I can appreciate what the Nationals are trying to accomplish. Every player has thought about the moments when he has felt like a piece of property. The itch you feel when you wonder whether you are just a depreciable asset in the machine of big business. But the Nationals have been setting a new tone. They sent a message loud and clear that they want Strasburg for the future, not for two months, even while knowing that playing beyond September does not happen that often. Even with the greatest of faith in one's organization, you may never see the postseason again. Now is only now.
So they had a plan built to create quantifiable limitations on Strasburg. Arm angle, pitch counts, inning caps. Combine these elements with genuine concern for his well-being and the future of their franchise arm, and you have a shutdown date. But they could never predict how this all will play on his psyche. And his last start could not have gone much worse.
Strasburg is a fierce competitor, so there is this perception that those personalities just get angry and will steam all offseason, pumping themselves up to come back even better. But fierce competitors are throughout the big leagues, and with fierceness surprisingly comes insecurity and doubt about your ability. Injury is the prime way that can shake your confidence foundation to its footing.
Fierce competitors also want to win as much as they want the ball, and to Strasburg's credit, he was concerned about his team. He was the ace (no disrespect to the stellar work being done by Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez); he was the guy who had the stuff you depend on the most to get the ball and give your team the best chance to slap up that "W" at the end of a game. Sure, the Nationals are truly a great team this year because everyone has shown ace material when needed, but Strasburg could not relinquish his ace throne and go out on his terms. He had no power to finish what he started. This ties high achievers up in knots. As Strasburg said of the plan to end his season prematurely, "I don't know if I'm ever gonna accept it, to be honest. It's something that I'm not happy about at all. That's not why I play the game. I play the game to be a good teammate and win."
As a ballplayer, that is a hard reality to accept. You battle back from a devastating injury after being a show-stopping box-office dream with the act to back it up. Then you recover so well that you can be considered the ace of the best staff in the game by overcoming not only the physical toll it takes to get back but also the mountain of confidence markers you have to pass just so you get to the point that you don't think your arm will detach from your body on the next curveball you throw.
What is of greater concern for the Nationals is how they went so far to protect Strasburg and, in doing so, may have placed doubt where it wasn't before for him.
Confidence is the most fragile part of any player's equation. It comes and goes, it rises and falls, and sometimes your talent is the only thing that gets you through. I remember when my father had a stroke at the end of one spring training when I was playing, and I was a shell of myself for a good chunk of that season. Then-Phillies hitting coach Hal McRae told me that it was a credit to my talent to even be hitting as high as I was hitting given my mind was with my father. My field focus was all over the place, but I could hang in there enough to hope to get to a better place. Still, you can't get to that better place when the ball is not in your hand.
Everyone in the major leagues is good. Everyone. The difference between a good team and a mediocre team is microscopic when you really look at it. The Royals' and Rockies' lineups will give any pitcher a nightmare or two even if they are 30 games out of first place. The same is true for individual players, and often the key point of differentiation is confidence and how well they can keep it intact. Life may come at you to shake that no matter how much yoga you do, but belief in the unseen, whether in self or one's faith, is critical to sustained success, no matter how nasty your splitter.
The Nationals have a lot of repair work to do with Strasburg as things stand now, just as they spent all this energy to protect his golden arm. The care it took to engineer and maintain such a plan with so much media pressure and pressure from Strasburg's supporters was astonishing. Yet it is going to take an equally smart plan to make sure his mind is right from this disappointing finish. He has to sit on the sidelines for a potentially champagne-doused postseason that may never come around again. If nothing else, Strasburg knows how fragile health is in this game. He knows and was almost living proof that one pitch can end a career, so this is extremely frustrating for him that he will no longer pitch this season despite not being injured.
But what is of greater concern for the Nationals is how they went so far to protect Strasburg and, in doing so, may have placed doubt where it wasn't before for him. He now is worried about letting his team down; he now knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that he can be emotionally unavailable and distracted on the mound, a place where he used to be comfortable. He knows he can be shaken to his core. It was like the time I got into that batter's box, a place that had been home to me for my entire life, but all of a sudden I couldn't focus. You begin to know that it could happen again at any time, and that changes what you know about everything.
The Nationals have done just about everything right this season. They have a talented group that is also a true team. That's a dominating combination. This is a moment for the organization to truly shine for Strasburg, not just by winning it all but also by taking the time to help him gain perspective on this decision. He is still young, and the worst thing for his development would be for his baseball family to miss the point that just because he made it through this season in one piece, it doesn't mean he is whole.