As long as the Washington Nationals are playing baseball -- and Baseball Prospectus puts the team’s odds of making the playoffs at 100 percent -- the arguments will continue about whether Stephen Strasburg should still be on the mound.
For those who haven’t been following baseball’s so-called Great Debate, Strasburg’s season is scheduled to end next week, a full month (or more) ahead of his team’s, because the Nationals don’t want to risk injuring the pitcher’s right arm, which underwent surgery two years ago.
Arguing over the team’s decision is missing the bigger point, though. The question isn’t whether the Nationals should shut down Strasburg. It’s how they could have allowed the best interests of their most dominant pitcher to collide with the best interests of their team.
There’s no way to know how Strasburg’s arm would respond to 30, 40 or even 50 more innings of use. But the anecdotal evidence is hard to ignore -- the long list of precocious big-league pitchers who threw a ton of pitches in their early 20s and then burned out early or, for that matter, Johan Santana, the New York Mets pitcher who has been on and off the disabled list since his 134-pitch no-hitter on June 1.
Strasburg is 24 years old. In September 2010, he had a tendon surgically removed from his leg and attached to his right elbow. (Whether the injury that necessitated the surgery could have been avoided by making some minor adjustments to his delivery is a column for another day.) He was out of baseball for almost 12 months, and was able to log just 44 1/3 innings last season. Limiting him to 160 or so this year seems plenty rational to me.
Among the Nationals’ defenders, the Washington Post has been especially generous with praise. Last week on the sports page, Mike Wise became the latest in a long line of Post columnists to applaud the team for having the courage, amid some pretty heavy fire, to follow through with its plan to shut down their ace at about 160 innings. Even the newspaper’s editorial board -- taking a break from its critique of the president’s handling of the deficit and the Syrian civil war -- has editorialized in favor of the Nationals management.
But why let him rack up those innings by mid-September of the franchise’s most promising season in 79 years?
It didn’t have to be this way. Every spring, baseball clubs try to make an honest assessment of their chances of reaching the postseason. If the Nationals thought they had a shot -- and with two additional teams eligible for the playoffs this year, there was at least some cause for optimism -- they could easily have created a smarter pitching calendar for Strasburg, one that would have enabled him to reach about 140 innings after his final regular-season appearance, leaving him with a surplus of 20 for October.
One way to do so would have been to simply delay his first start several weeks. After all, a win is a win, whether it comes in April or September.
Another way would have been to gradually ramp up his innings, as the Baltimore Orioles did with their top minor-league pitching prospect, Dylan Bundy. The Orioles ultimately decided that Bundy wasn’t quite ready for the majors, but if he had been, he would have had plenty of innings left for the team’s stretch run and postseason.
Even if the Nationals didn’t think they had a shot at the playoffs, when mapping out Strasburg’s 160 innings, why not start at the end of the season and work backward, rather than just sending him out on Opening Day and letting him pitch until he hit his limit?
Once it became clear that the Nationals were legitimate playoff contenders, they could have made some small adjustments to conserve Strasburg’s innings. They might have stretched out the time between his starts here and there -- remember that he’s only a few years removed from college, where he never pitched more than once a week -- and pulled him from some games a little earlier.
Why didn’t they? Maybe the Nationals were simply so unaccustomed to winning that they couldn’t quite believe it was -- finally -- happening to them.
Whatever the reason, there’s no getting around the fact that when your team is all but assured a playoff spot in the middle of September and you are shutting down your most effective pitcher, you have done something terribly wrong.
In the Post last week, Wise urged readers to look at Strasburg’s last couple of starts as his playoffs -- “his reward for being as responsible as anyone for putting a once woebegone franchise into commanding position of a pennant race.” It’s a nice thought. But if I’m a Nats fan, the better Strasburg looks during my final glimpses of him, the worse I’m going to feel.
(Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. A long-time contributor to the New York Times Magazine, he is the author of the best-selling “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning,” “The Challenge,” and “Death Comes to Happy Valley.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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