Shutting Down Strasburg

September 10, 2012
 
The Strasburg situation in Washington has to be the most bungled, mismanaged, unnecessary, and flat-out stupid controversy of the 2012 season.
 
It has been terrible for Strasburg. According to his manager, Strasburg is ‘torn up’ about the decision. In a season where he’s a) recovering from surgery, b) continuing to learn how to, you know, pitch in the major leagues, and c) doing a fantastic job of it, Strasburg has had to contend with the added annoyance of having to answer months of questions about his team’s decision to impose an innings pitched limit, which will keep him from playing down the stretch, in the postseason, and potentially in the World Series. Now he faces the difficult task of feigning enthusiasm as the team he helped lead to an improbably division championship attempts to win the World Series, while he watches from the sidelines.  
 
It has been, and has the potential to be, frustrating for the other National players. Most of the Nats players, I’m guessing, would like to play in the World Series this year. And most of them have at least some understand that their chances of winning that World Series would better if Strasburg, one of the top-ten pitchers in the league, had the chance to pitch for them once and a while.  
 
It has the potential to be frustrating for fans of the Nationals. This has been a fantastic, exciting season in D.C., but if the Nats don’t win the World Series, the entire legacy of this 2012 season will be one unanswerable question: ‘What if they had played Strasburg?’
 
*             *             *
 
I feel slightly bad for the Nationals management: the higher ups with the team probably didn’t expect to be in contention in the NL East this year. After all, 2012 was the year the Marlins were supposed break out. And the Phillies and Braves weren’t exactly slouches last year. The Nationals finished 21.5 games back last year: they weren’t supposed to win this year.
 
Viewed within the contexts of those expectations, the Nationals decision to limit Strasburg’s innings this season made perfectly good sense: And the decision to start pitching him in April rather than June was reasonable: give the kid Opening Day, and shut him down when the team is trailing some combination of Philadelphia, Miami, and Atlanta in September.
 
The difficulty arose when the Nationals turned out to be contenders. At the end of June, the Nationals were in first place, 3.5 games ahead of the Mets. At the end of July, they were still in first, 2.5 games ahead of the Braves.
 
The failure of the Nationals is a failure to adjust to a new set of circumstances. When 2012 was supposed to be a building year, it made sense to shut their young ace down in September. When it became clear that the Nationals had the chance to win a championshipin 2012, that plan stopped making sense.
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On a game-usage level, there were many, many things that the Nationals could’ve done to make sure that Strasburg would be able to play in the season. Just from the top of my head:  
 
-They could have gone to a six-man rotation.
-They could have limited his pitch counts or his innings per game drastically. Cut him back to 60 pitches a game, or four innings.
-They could have skipped some of his starts.
-They could’ve had him take turns with someone in the pen. The Nats have other pitchers who can start. 
 
Instead, the Nationals did nothing. They stayed the course on a plan made in March, and they stuck to it like it was carved in granite. Stephen Strasburg would reach his inning pitched mark, and then Strasburg would be benched. He wouldn’t be allowed to pitching if the race got close, and he wouldn’t be allowed to pitch in the postseason.
 
The Nationals reluctance to change directions was one problem. It is at least evidence of rigid thinking. Of inflexibility. Stubbornness.
 
But the decision itself is not the team’s most egregious mistake. I think the mistake, the real idiocy of this whole awful situation, is not the ‘what’ of it. It’s the how.
 
I’ve followed this story entirely through various sports news channels, and while I can’t claim that I’ve heard every sound bite that comes from the front office, it has seemed to me that the great majority of conversation that should have occurred between the General Manager and the Ace Pitcher has occurred first through the intermediary of those various sports channels. We have Mike Rizzo coming on the radio saying that Strasburg has an innings pitched limit. Then we get Strasburg talking to a reporter and saying that he hasn’t heard anything about a pitch count. Then we get Rizzo saying to someone that Strasburg doesn’t get to make decisions about the team.
 
I don’t know why this has been the case. I don’t know why it’s seemed that for the majority of this season, Stephen Strasburg has sounded like the guy who knows the least about what’s going on with Strasburg.
 
There’s been a strong tone of parentalism coming from the front office; a sense that Mike Rizzo is trying to communicate that he’s the boss. There’s little in the way of flexibility: the purpose of Rizzo’s comments have been to a) communicate that the decision on Strasburg is his decision, exclusively, and b) that he’s made his decision, and will not reconsider it.
 
To my mind, this attitude is needlessly defensive. And it’s needlessly confrontational. Rizzo has escalated an issue that should’ve been resolved in June into something that will dominate all future discussions about this baseball team, for the rest of this year.
 
I don’t understand why Rizzo didn’t go to Strasburg first, rather than addressing the situation to the media. I don’t know why it has seemed, repeatedly, that Stephen Strasburg is the last guywho hears about any of this stuff. I don’t know why the team’s decision has been so staggeringly uncompromising about their decision. I don’t understand why no one had the foresight to realize that a young pitcher in his first big-league pennant race might be reluctant to sit on the bench and rah-rah his teammates in the playoffs.
 
And: I don’t know why this has been allowed to turn into such a needless line-in-the-sand drama, when there were so many avenues available that would’ve allowed for a reasonable compromise.
 
Because Mike Rizzo and the Nationals are probably not wrong about the central decision. It is very wise to limit Strasburg’s innings. It’s a good plan. They’re absolutely right to be careful with Strasburg.
 
But Rizzo and the Nationals have made a holy mess of how they’ve tried to implement their plan. They’ve left Strasburg, a central player for this young franchise, deeply upset. At the very least, they’ve jeopardized the chance that Strasburg would sign a long-term deal with the team to buy out some of his free agent years. They’ve reduced the chances that the Nats will advance far in the 2012 playoffs.  And if the team doesn’t win the World Series this year, their players and fans will endure an off-season debating the ‘what-if’ of a needless, unnecessary, stupid controversy that the team and the General Manager have fostered all summer long.
 
*             *             *
 
Since I’ve hammered away at Rizzo and the Nationals front office, I want to change directions a bit:
 
Davey Johnson’s decision to bench Strasburg prior to his last ‘allowed’ start was an act of real, decisive leadership. Instead of letting Strasburg twist in the wind for five days before making one last dead-man-walking start in 2012, Johnson put a stop to the charade. If the higher-ups in management couldn’t bother to make adjustments that would allow Strasburg to participate in the playoffs that he helped the Nationals reach, Davey Johnson wasn’t going to let a visably upset pitcher suffer the indignity of one last pity start.
 
That was real leadership. I wonder if the upper management noticed.
 
Dave Fleming is a writer living in Wellington, New Zealand. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com
 
 

COMMENTS (13 Comments, most recent shown first)

LesLein
I think that once the Nats emerged as a contender, the logical thing would have been to cut back his starts beginning in June so that he would be available late in the regular season and the post-season.​
4:51 PM Sep 17th
 
Marc Schneider
I appreciate the concern with Nationals fans, but I have to say very few people in the DC area are upset with the decision to shut Strasburg down. As far as the integrity of the game, they aren't trying to lose. If a football team refuses to play a player that suffered a concussion, are they hurting the integrity of the game? (And the fact is, MLB has always done this with the ridiculous playoff system that potentially has a 100 win team playing an 80 win team in a one-game playoff.)

I don't see how the various solutions mentioned by the author would have been any better. If they pitched Strasburg four innings at the time, what's the point? You are just using up the bullpen every time he pitches. There may well have been better ways to do this, but none of the solutions he advances seem obviously superior.

The fact is, Strasburg helped the Nats get to a position where they are highly likely to win the division. If they had not pitched Strasburg until June or had drastically limited his innings, perhaps they would not be where they are now. If they don't win the World Series, certainly people will wonder what would have happened if they had Strasburg. But the playoffs are a crapshoot and the odds are they wouldn't win even if they had Strasburg. There are lots of reasons why the Nats might not win the World Series. You can say "what if" about almost every team that doesn't win every year.

The isssue about whether there is justification for the 160 inning limit is another thing. Mike Marshall has all these theories about pitching that no one looks at, primarily because no one likes Mike Marshall-other than Jim Bouton I guess. ON the other hand, he isn't the only person in America with a degree in kinesiology. Presumably, the Nats have consulted with a lot of pretty good doctors. And Scott Boras has done his own research. So, I doubt that the decision is as arbitrary as the author seems to imply.
10:18 AM Sep 12th
 
Robinsong
I still think that the article and many commentators have unfairly neglected the value of a public commitment. The Nationals made as determination that going over 160 innings or using Strasburg in any other way than they planned to use him over the long term (as an every fifth day starter expected to pitch a little over 100 pitches unless getting shelled) presented presented an unacceptable risk to their playoff or championship chances over a number of years. You can question whether the available evidence supports this determination, but business leaders make this kind of risk management decision with evem more imperfect information every day (I know since I lead Enterprise Risk Management at a major company). They decide to publicly commit themselves to this decision - this has the virtue of taking the pressure off the pitching coach, medical director, and manager to make a decision based on performance or pain. As Billy Martin repeatedly showed, the damage from overusing a pitcher often does not show up in the year that you are overusing him - it shows up a year or two down the road. It would be very poor decision-making on their part if they changed their beliefs in response to a playoff run. To have Strasburg available for the playoffs at the current usage pattern would have meant being willing to go over the planned limit by over 40 innings. And for what? The Nationals fifth starter has a 1.9 WAR; Strasburg is at 2.7. Over 3 postseason starts, the difference is less than a tenth of a win, and that assumes that Strasburg stays effective at the same rate. This threatens the integrity of the game enough for the Commissioner to intervene and risk the Nationals' playoff chances for the next decade???
10:13 AM Sep 12th
 
tkoegel
I agree that--once you assume that Strasburg was going to be shut down in the next start or two--the Johnson decision was a good one. I would give Johnson a D-minus on communication. The only reason I wouldn't fail him is that he did tell Strasburg FIRST. But then he goes to the media and, instead of just saying, "I don't think he was effective and now is the time--I have no further comment" Johnson feels compelled to say that Strasburg's problem was "mental"? Geez. Why does the media need to know that, even if it was true? You've now called your best prospect a head case or (probably as it was intended) just mentally checked out under the stress. Really poor personnel management decision.

I am skeptical whether there is much science behind the original 160 inning limit. Without knowing more about it, or about the science behind it, it's hard to speculate as to whether different ways to approach a limit would be as protective (e.g., the six-man rotation or 60 pitches per game approach). In general, it seems like the whole question of arm injury/strength/conditioning is in the dark ages. Mike Marshall (the old Dodgers and Twins reliever, not Belinda Carlisle's ex-boyfriend the right fielder) has a Ph.D. in kinesiology and has his own theories about these things. But it doesn't seem like anybody else really has a clue about a scientific approach.

I agree with the other posters--excellent article.
3:10 PM Sep 11th
 
julesig
Good article. It seems the Nats have made at least three mistakes here, including the ones you mention.

First, they decided in March to use innings as a measure of Strasburg's health/fatigue, rather than direct observations of his arm/body.

Second, they went public with this measure, rather than simply say "We will be watching him very closely and if we need to shut him down, we will."

Third, as you highlight, they never adapted to the possibility of making the playoffs, which was harder to do (but not impossible) because of the second mistake of going public.

As for integrity of the game, I'm not sure if that's the right phrase to use, but it does seem like the point of baseball is to win championships, and this whole saga has lost sight of that. Sure, if Strasburg is hurt or fatigued, it is the right call to sit him down. But that doesn't seem to be the case. The only thing truly hurt here is Mike Rizzo's ego.
2:30 PM Sep 11th
 
Robinsong
I agrre with sprox. Teams both in the NFL and MLB often risked their players' future by making playing a test of a combination of manhood , drive, and team spirit. I always thought that Billy Martin's use of his pitchers reflected a lack of integrity, assuming he guessed that he was destroying pitchers' arms. The integrity of the game is not fundamentally damaged when a manager rests his starters after clincing the pennant. Integrity is not damaged when a team rests a player for the long term interests of a team. When you go to a ballpark you have no guarantee on who will be playing. Integrity is the players putting forth their best efforts on the field that day. Even then, I would not feel cheated because a pticher did not throw his best fastball in order to protect his arm or a player did not crash into the wall (I think Dodger fans would have much preferred that Pete Reiser was more careful). I also disagree with Bowie Kuhn's decision to force the Braves to play Aaron on the road when he was sitting on 713 home runs.
11:51 AM Sep 11th
 
sprox
I'm no fan of "the decision" but ...

... there is no cause to call into question the integrity of the game

They've been announcing for several weeks that the kid has an innings limit in order to allow the arm to fully heal after a grueling season following major surgery - this was the advice given by his doctors - and right or wrong the team is going to follow along

I personally find it MORE offensive when management ignores a players' medical issues in order to get him back in the game sooner than medical advice would normally allow (concussions, neck problems, back problems, knee problems etc)

If you are a fan of the Nats and do not support the decision of the team, you can simply choose to not watch and not go to games


7:30 PM Sep 10th
 
hotstatrat
Well, they could have limited Strasburg's innings all those other ways, but those might not have been better ways for Strasburg's elbow. Perhaps, nay, probably this was more of a medical analysis of the way to get the best use of him with the least risk.

2:09 PM Sep 10th
 
ksclacktc
"I fail to understand the integrity of the game comment. If Selig forced the Nationals to keep playing Strasburg, it would not only be unprecedented,.................".

Of course its unprecedented, no team has ever shut down their best pitcher like this before. As for the integrity of the game, when fans buy tickets to see a team the Nats or any other team play they are sold under the premise the game is fair and above board. That is why MLB comes down so hard on players being involved with gambling. If Selig doesn't encourage teams to handle this much differently in the future it will become a big problem. The Nats blew the situation, they have known about it for awhile, and Selig said nothing.
1:48 PM Sep 10th
 
Robinsong
I fail to understand the integrity of the game comment. If Selig forced the Nationals to keep playing Strasburg, it would not only be unprecedented, it could blow up in any number of ways. What if Strasburg gets injured this season or next? Both he and the Nationals would have good grounds for a lawsuit. What if Strasburg loses - quite likely - and Selig gets roasted for hurting the team. The Nationals - if anything - would seem to have an interest in burning out Strasburg, since not all of Strasburg's career may blong to them and since winning the WS has a big financial payoff for a team. Bill views the Nationals' decision as reasonable and so do I. The six-man rotation might hurt both Strasburg and the other pitchers. A seriously different usage pattern might mess up the bullpen. The Nationals made a reasonable decision in game theory terms - a public commitment that binds them and keeps them from temptation while letting Strasburg know what will happen and showing they have his long term interests at heart. Johnson's decision is also a good one - surprise Strasburg so that he does not distort his pitching style knowing that is his "last" start. I think the Nationals showed courage in sticking to their long term strategy.
12:41 PM Sep 10th
 
brewcrew
The obvious comparison is Gooden but whether thats meaningful to the discussion I have no idea.There are so many variables involved, both with Strasberg personally, plus how hard it is to win it all, that without knowing the future one can't safely say what is the right decision...What if he now has a long, HOF carreer but never makes it back to the playoffs? What if he pitches and they win the series and then he blows his arm out next year? What if they shut him down and he still gets hurt? It seems the Nationals are trying to control things that can't be controled.
12:25 PM Sep 10th
 
ksclacktc
Davey Johnson seems to have been flexible enough to adjust to times and change to meet the new thinking. What he knew in the 80s was the old school thinking he learned from Earl Weaver. Give him credit he adjusted.
As for Rizzo, he strikes me as another egotisical leader who likes the recognition. The Nats success this season has an element of luck that Rizzo is not humble enough to realize. He believes the success is due to his decision making almost entirely, and he loves the recognition. Be careful Mike.
As for "The Decision", what about the integrity of the game. Where is Selig? It seems to me that MLB has always tried to sell that the game as honest, and that fans can count on it being that way. Ha!Ha! Why don't we hear anything about that. One can envision any of a number of situations that could occur the remainder of the season and call the integrity of the game into question.​
8:57 AM Sep 10th
 
Trailbzr
Does Dave Johnson have a history of burning out pitchers who work hard for him; the way Billy Martin did? (I've sent Bill a Hey! question along this line.)
7:08 AM Sep 10th
 
 
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