Should the Washington Nationals continue to pitch Stephen Strasburg into September and the postseason or should they hold firm to their innings limit for him? In a ‘lose-lose’ situation, manager Davey Johnson and the rest of the coaching staff have a huge dilemma on their hands.
In 2010, his first season as a professional baseball player, Stephen Strausburg underwent “Tommy-John” surgey to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow. The surgery forced him to miss the next twelve months, but it also put an emphasis on the protection of his right arm. He made his big league return on September 6, 2011. In today’s medical world many athletes overcome such injuries that in recent past would have ended said player’s career. Many pitchers bounce back after “Tommy-John” surgery, but there always remains a vulnerability for them.
Since before the season began the plan by the organization was to limit Strasburg’s innings count to anywhere from 160 to 180 innings for the year. Back on February 20 in Viera, Florida, Nats general manager, Mike Rizzo said “There’s not going to be a whole lot of tinkering going on. We’re going to run him out there until his innings are gone and then stop him from pitching” (The Washington Post).
I don’t think anyone however, (the Nationals included) predicted that they would be one of the best teams in baseball this year. At the end of August they have the second best overall record behind the Cincinnati Reds and have a five game lead over the Atlanta Braves for first place in the National League East. Such a pitch count on ‘franchise-player’ is understandable, especially for a ‘basement dweller’, but the Nats have put themselves in a position they have never been in before. They are primed for their first playoff appearance in team history. Not since before their move from Montreal to Washington D.C. has this organization been to the playoffs. If the Nationals shut down Strasburg and then get eliminated in the playoffs they will face the expected scrutiny and judgement of their decision. “If only Strasburg were pitching” is what they’ll hear from the fans and the media. But if they decide to keep him pitching and they lose in the playoffs anyway, those same critics will lament their decision as ‘selfish’ and ‘near-sighted’, one that could jeopardize the future of their team.
Even before his season-ending elbow injury in 2010, Strasburg had yet to build up a desirable amount of major league innings. From the time he was drafted in June of 2009 to the time of his Nationals debut a year later, he had only amassed 44 innings pitched in the minors and majors combined. In May Strasburg commented on his lack of innings and his vulnerability to injury;
“I think what led me to get hurt was not being in as good of shape,” Strasburg said. “When you’re only throwing five innings in the minors and then you come up here and throw 90-something pitches your first game and then expect to do that every five days, it’s a big adjustment. You look at what I was used to in college, we were done at the end of May. It was a long year. I needed to be in better shape than I was in college, and I can say I wasn’t as in good of shape as I was in college. I think that’s what led to breaking down and having a serious injury” (The Washington Post).
In his first full season as a starting pitcher, Strasburg has been the man. As of today he is 15-6 with 186 strike-outs and an ERA of 3.05. Clearly he is the ace of the Nationals and is one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. Now Washington is at a crossroads. As the season enters its final month it appears they are going to make the playoffs. Do they sit him when the team needs him most or do they shut him down in order to protect his arm? Does sitting him ‘rub off’ wrong on his teammates? Is he above everyone else and too special to risk playing? Whichever decision they make, the Washington Nationals are in a ‘no-win’ situation. Unless of course they somehow win it all without him.