The Washington Post had an article today where the Washington Nationals players discussed, in varying degrees of concern, GM Mike Rizzo’s plan to shut down All-Star starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg somewhere around 180 innings pitched this season, which would void him pitching the last two-to-three starts of the regular season and any potential playoff games. The players, generally, are resigned to the fact that they may have to play in the playoffs without their ace starter. Some are less happy about it than others. Their reaction is not shocking.
That decision, made in conjunction with team doctors, trainers and ownership, is final, according to multiple public statements by Rizzo. I won’t link to them all, because it would take all day just to track them all down. But my favorite was when Rizzo told MASN, during an in-game interview, he would “sleep like a baby,” secure in his decision he was doing the right thing for the player and the organization.
Rizzo was asked about the criteria for the innings limit. He replied:
“I think it’s workload, it’s [analysis] of how he works, how many stressful innings has he had, how many 30-plus pitch innings has he had. We’ve got a litany of documentation and information that we’re gonna use, and we’re gonna supplement that with the advice of our surgeons. Our medical director and a lot of people are gonna be involved in this decision to give us a road map on how to handle it. Ultimately, when it’s gonna happen will be my decision, and we’ll move on.”
So despite all the hand-wringing by some in the national media that couldn’t name three Nats players if you spotted them Strasburg and Bryce Harper, Strasburg will be shut down and will not be available for the playoffs. Of course, around here we’ve known this for, oh, about a full calendar year. But that’s not stopping anyone from bloviating for the sake of a few more page views or ratings points.
As for his teammates that will have to carry on without him, the players are simply myopic. It’s their competitive nature, and the nature of the business. For some of them, this may be their last (only) chance at the playoffs. OF COURSE they want their best pitcher available. Some of them have no use to look 3-4 years down the road — or even next season, for that matter. They are taught from a very young age to sacrifice everything for the chance to win a championship. This runs counter to everything they’ve ever known about competitive athletics.
In fact, that’s the basis for most of the argument against the shutdown: the playoffs are not a sure thing. Teams should sacrifice everything — including the long-term health of their greatest asset — for a chance of winning this year. Take your chance when you have it. Flags fly forever.
But Rizzo the executive has many more things to consider, both for the player and the organization. This shutdown isn’t to prevent future injury, but to hopefully prevent injury this year, while he’s still recuperating from major ligament replacement surgery and while his arm is tired after the stress of first full season following surgery. Shoot, they’re still limiting Jordan Zimmermann this season, his second following surgery, with hopes that he’ll still be “fresh” in October. Davey Johnson has been (not so) quietly giving Zimmermann innings off the entire second half of the season.
It’s hard to argue the success the Nats have had with Zimmermann’s surgery, recovery, rehab and performance this season. They have a blueprint.
Generally, the formula says to increase a starting pitcher’s workload by about 20 percent each season until he reaches his natural limitations, i.e. allowing only game situations dictate a pitcher’s workload. In the case of an injury/rehab, all sorts of factors are considered, including “stressful” innings where the pitcher throws more than 30 pitches in a given inning. It’s generally to avoid pitchers throwing with “tired arms”, an accepted industry application where it’s believed pitchers are more prone to injury.
Pitchers get hurt. It’s unavoidable, regardless of any precautions. But if the medical professionals the Nats use and trust have developed these plans with the player and organization’s long-term goals in mind, then it’s hard to argue with it, unless you’re hunting for page views or television ratings — or a fan with little appreciation for anything other than a “win now” attitude.
We won’t know if the decisions the Nats are making are correct for several seasons down the line. Nothing is guaranteed. But their investment in Strasburg is big enough that sacrificing his availability the latter part of this season is worth the gamble. Rizzo knows he’s opened himself up to criticism. But he also believes with conviction this is a team built to contend for several seasons, not just this year.
It’s ballsy for Rizzo to fly counter to everything we’ve been taught about competitive athletics. He may “sleep like a baby” with this decision, but his career ultimately will be judged by it regardless.