We're about to start the second half of the 2012 regular season, and as I count them, there are three big surprises. People love surprises! You, of course, already know what they are, but I might as well summarize right quick.
The Baltimore Orioles are presently in playoff position. One is free to wonder whether they belong there -- their run differential, for example, is worse than that of the Mariners, and 79 runs worse than that of the Red Sox -- but their record is their record, and for the time being Orioles fans have more to look forward to than trying to trade veterans for prospects who might become veterans who might get traded for prospects.
The Pittsburgh Pirates are presently in first place. And this isn't like the 1994 Rangers, who were in first place in the AL West at 52-62. The Pirates are in first and well over .500, which is a line they haven't bested since Miley Cyrus was born. The Pirates have been good and, unlike the Orioles, they have the numbers to back it up, so they might have some staying power.
And the Washington Nationals are presently in first place. By a full four games, for that matter. The Chicago White Sox are a surprise, and the New York Mets are a surprise, but there are tiers, here, and the Orioles, Pirates, and Nationals occupy the top one by themselves. They weren't supposed to do this. They weren't supposed to do close to this.
Everybody's writing second-half prediction stories, because that's the thing to do, and all of those stories address these three surprises. With the Orioles and Pirates, it's all about the team. Can the teams keep it up? With the Nationals, things are much more focused on an individual. Can the Nationals -- who are probably exceeding even their own expectations -- really shut down Stephen Strasburg early? How could they do that in this kind of season?
Talk began early that Strasburg would face an innings cap, coming off Tommy John surgery. General manager Mike Rizzo says that the 160-innings figure you see floating around is a media creation, but the team has acknowledged that Strasburg isn't to be pushed too hard. The Nationals' plan was all very reasonable in March and April. Since then the team's played like one of the best teams in baseball, and now the Nationals have one hell of a dilemma on their hands. One wouldn't think that whether or not a plan is reasonable would depend on the conditions, but here we are.
This story is heating up, and it isn't going away. As the Nationals have continued to play well, Strasburg's innings have piled up. This isn't a matter of Strasburg just being a good young pitcher who needs to be protected. Strasburg might need to be protected, and he isn't simply good; when he's pitching, he's one of the very best. Among starters, his ERA ranks no. 13, his FIP ranks no. 2, and his xFIP ranks no. 1. No starter has generated a higher rate of strikeouts. No starter's strikeout rate is even particularly close. Strasburg can't compare with a Justin Verlander's stamina, but on a per-inning basis, Strasburg is about as good as there is.
"They're going to have to rip the ball out of my hands," Strasburg said on MLB Network Radio.
"I have no clue how many innings I'm going to throw this year," he said. "I've answered that question multiple times, and nobody's said anything to me. I feel great right now."
The Nationals have a lot of ground to give, meaning they'll probably stay in the race. Strasburg's innings aren't going to start counting backwards. This is going to be treated like a countdown, and it's going to be impossible to avoid. The Orioles and the Pirates will draw plenty of attention should they remain competitive, but everybody's going to weigh in on Strasburg, probably multiple times. It's going to be treated like maybe the biggest decision of the year.
And while I don't know if it's the biggest, it's unquestionably the most fascinating. Nothing about either side of the argument changes. It never has, and it never will. On one side, Strasburg needs to be handled carefully, because he's young and fragile, and because his future is more important than the present. On the other side, nothing's more important than the opportunity to win a World Series right now, and who's to say how much Strasburg can handle?
That last part is the critical part. That's precisely what makes this all so captivating. With just about any decision in baseball, you can come up with probabilities, mathematical arguments for or against. You can reason your way through things. One can't come up with probabilities here. At the very core of the quandary is the matter of Strasburg's injury risk, in the short-term and the long-term. The Nationals would like to be ultra cautious because they don't want to prevent Strasburg from being what he could and should be. But nobody really has a clue how great or small the risks are. The Nationals can't say Strasburg has an X-percent chance of hurting his shoulder if he gets up to Y innings. Actually they could say exactly that sentence. But they can't fill in any numbers for the variables.
It's a complete unknown. While it might not be 100-percent guesswork, it's a lot closer to guesswork than science. The Nationals have the idea that they should be careful with Strasburg, and it's probably better that they're too careful than too aggressive, but all the error bars overlap and it's impossible to know the right answer. This is basically a whole season out of Johan Santana's no-hitter. Terry Collins didn't want to let Santana throw so many pitches. He did, and now there's no going back. Is Santana okay? If so, will he remain okay?
Just as a part of Collins was hoping for Santana to allow a hit, you could make the argument that the Nationals should want Strasburg to show signs of fatigue. That would make the decision a lot easier. So far, there are zero signs of fatigue, and countless signs of brilliance. I cannot imagine what it's like to have to worry about this. This is an issue that twists the stomach in knots.
The arguments for and against shutting Strasburg down haven't changed, and they won't change. In that way, we're all just having the same conversation over and over. But with this particular question of risk and reward, the right answer is effectively unknowable. And that's why we won't mind the conversational repetition. This could be one of the great baseball dilemmas of our time, and I can only thank everything there is to thank that I'm not the one who has to resolve it.