Old School — Why the Nats are making a mistake

Old School — Why the Nats are making a mistake

Much ado has been made about the Nationals shutting down ace Stephen Strasburg in the middle of a pennant race, so I figured I would go ahead and give my own two cents. In case you haven’t heard, the Nationals have said all season they were going to be very careful this season with Strasburg because he is coming off of Tommy John surgery. The plan was to limit him to 160-180 innings, much like they did last season with Jordan Zimmerman. This Saturday, the Nationals shut down Strasburg. having pitched 159.1 innings and finishing 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA, and 197 strikeouts.

Perhaps the Nationals believe he can’t get hurt when he’s not on the field, so his future will be safe.

Well, unless he plays pickup basketball. Aaron Boone

Or carries deer meat up stairs. Clint Barmes

Or sneezes. Sammy Sosa

Or stays in a hotel in New York. Chipper Jones

A dangerous activity if Randall Simon is around.

Or runs in the sausage race in Milwaukee. Guido, The Italian Sausage

Or tries to celebrate a teammate’s perfect game. Aubrey Huff

Or tries to put on socks. Jonathan Lucroy

Or tries to jump on a trampoline. Joba Chamberlain

Or gets on a plane. Keenan Thompson

I think you get the point, but the bottom line is this:

This was a bad decision by Nationals management.

Yes, pitchers are at a risk of injury after surgery and wear and tear on an arm through a long season, but shutting him down isn’t a guarantee he won’t get hurt. Especially when fear of injury is due to some magical innings limit, as if his arm will immediate detonate the moment he takes the mound in the fourth inning of a late September start. Last time I checked, not all innings were created equal. What if his 160th inning is only three pitches long? Will his arm still fall off? Innings can be as few as three pitches, but they can also last an hour. The amount of effort that goes into an inning as a pitcher is highly variable and thus an insufficient way to determine possible fatigue and injury risk.

What is puzzling about this decision is that there wasn’t any medical testing on Strasburg’s arm to see if it was becoming at risk for injury. They didn’t test him for any muscle problems, reduced flexibility or any other objective measurements. The decision is purely speculative based on the number of innings.

Former Cy Young pitcher and current ESPN analyst, Orel Hershiser, believes the Nationals should have run his arm through tests in Spring Training and checked him throughout the year.

“I think in Spring Training you take objective measurements on internal and external rotation, on supination and pronation of the elbow, flexibility of the wrist and hand strength and you have those objective bench marks that you can then make objective decisions on whether the arm is fatiguing or is in trouble,” Hershiser told ESPN. “And those are the first warning signs that when you can’t recover your start to start that you don’t come back, you’re side works are harder, your flexibility is not coming back, you get a muscle spasm that all of the sudden other muscles are gonna have to overwork. So this is just being done on a landmark of just innings, not complete objective data and I think the Nationals have made a mistake.

Orel's bobblehead thinks it's a mistake too.

“I think they’re trying to do the prudent thing to keep him healthy but you cannot predict health in baseball. Pitchers are all scheduled for surgery at some point. Pitchers are all at risk. And if he has a real healthy arm right now and his body is healthy, and you’re just shutting him down, that’s a very hard thing for anybody to take and even his teammates and the whole organization, so it’s a risky decision. It’s a prudent decision, but it’s a risky decision.”

All of this of course would not be such a big deal if the Nationals were a .500 team looking toward next season, but they aren’t. They are in first place in the National League East and hold the best record in all of baseball.

Atlanta Braves catcher David Ross, who plays on the Nationals’ rival, told AJC.com that he believes the Nationals put Strasburg in a bad position.

“It puts everybody–there’s not one person that it doesn’t put in a bad position, in my opinion,” Ross said. “All his teammates, I’m sure, want him to be pitching. I’m sure his manager wants him to be pitching. And I’m sure he wants to be pitching. You don’t hear much from him; he doesn’t say much. But I don’t see how you could not want to go into the postseason.

“You listen to guys like [St. Louis pitcher Chris] Carpenter and those guys saying, he wouldn’t trade having success this year for what he did last year.

“Even though probably affected him, he pushed himself really hard, he wouldn’t trade that for anything,” Ross said. “That says a lot about how much it means to pitch well in the postseason and win a World Series.”

And that is the problem with this whole thing. The Nationals aren’t necessarily going to be good again next year. Look at the Diamondbacks this season. Mostly the same roster from last year, but different results. They were the NL West Champs in 2011, but out of contention this year. The Expos/Nationals franchise has never been to a World Series. A World Series championship opportunity doesn’t come around often, and this team has a chance.

Pitchers are always susceptible to arm injuries, like Hershiser said. Throwing a ball overhanded is not a normal movement for a human arm. Strasburg is just as at risk to get hurt throwing the 50th pitch of a game in April in 2013 as he is throwing the final pitch winning the National League pennant in 2012.

Washington is shutting down a guy who is currently healthy, and in the process, they are hurting their chances to win their first championship ever.

Oh, so you want my solution? If you really have to limit his innings, why not move him to the bullpen as the set-up man for closer Tyler Clippard and institute a no back-to-back appearance rule for the rest of the season? There are 22 games left on the Nationals schedule. He could pitch every other day at one inning each and move his innings pitched total to 170.1.  That gives you 10 more innings within the 180 frame to work with in the playoffs. Considering Strasburg can blow people away with a 100 MPH fastball, he would be great weapon to have in the bullpen during a playoff run.

I know it’s different moving from starter to reliever, but elite talents can make those adjustments and pitch at any time. John Smoltz, Dennis Eckersly and Curt Schilling all did it a different times in their career to accommodate injuries and did it well. And Strasburg is a proven elite talent.

It’s just sad to see management take the ball out of Strasburg’s hands when he wants to pitch, especially since he’s currently healthy. It’s probably difficult to take in the locker room knowing you won’t have your best pitcher on the mound when a lot is one the line. It’s probably maddening to be a Nats fan. And it’s sad that we will be talking about this decision no matter the outcome of the playoffs for Washington.

By Aaron May

Aaron May is a staff writer and videographer for Sports Spectrum. You can catch his weekly columns on college football, college basketball, and Major League Baseball, depending on the season, each week at sportsspectrum.com. Follow Aaron on Twitter-@pplcallmeblue or email him at aaron@sportsspectrum.com.