The Last Word On Stephen Strasburg's Grounding

Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals pitches against the Miami Marlins at Nationals Park in Washington, DC. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

With Stephen Strasburg having pitched his last game in 2012, the opinions have been flying fast and furious regarding the wisdom of that decision. How to make sense of it all, though?

Well, this is going be more than just one word. A lot more than one word. And they won't be the last words, either. We'll be talking about this one for as long as we're talking about baseball, especially if the Washington Nationals don't win the World Series next month.

But with some pretty exciting things happening in the standings and Stephen Strasburg taking absolute no part in the games until next spring, we should probably start obsessing over some other subjects.

Once I've had my say, of course.

Last week, Jerry Crasnick asked Scott Boras -- Strasburg's agent, naturally -- about the accusations that Boras had somehow dictated Strasburg's workload to management. As usual, Boras's comments were ... amusing:

"Before players are under contract, I have a matter of control," Boras told ESPN.com. "I'll ask a team, 'How much is he going to pitch? What's your plan for him?' That type of thing. But once he's under contract, I don't say a word.

"Do you think Mike Rizzo's personality is attuned to having someone call him and tell him what to do with his particular team? Come on. Certainly, I try to give teams insights and information. But when you're not there every day, how can you make these calls? It's not my place or anybody's place unless you're there. A manager has a job. A general manager has a job, and that's what they should do. They make these decisions. I don't."

I'm getting a mixed message here. Does Scott Boras not say a word? Not even a single word? Or does he "give teams insights and information"? Those two things are, practically speaking, mutually exclusive. I'm not a gambling man. But if pressed to place a wager, I will bet that Scott Boras does occasionally share some words with general managers.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

It seems that Boras is expressly defending himself from the accusation that he actually made the decision to shut Strasburg down, but that seems a red herring, doesn't it? Boras obviously doesn't have the authority to issue any orders regarding Stephen Strasburg's workload. That does not preclude him from playing some role, however advisory.

It does seem clear, though, that the Nationals are sincerely interested in keeping Strasburg healthy beyond 2012, and that they had a plan entering 2012 (before, probably) and once they had their plan, they were going to stick with it. None of which means we shouldn't be skeptical, though. Right?

Well, I guess that depends on whom you ask. From The New York Times last week:

The manager, Davey Johnson, who guided the Mets to the World Series title in 1986, was miffed that local talk show radio hosts and other sports commentators had questioned the team’s judgment.

"Even with all the so-called experts commenting on how to use him, how to get him through October, how to do this, how to do that, I have a little bit of experience on how to handle a pitching staff," Johnson, who at 69 is in his 16th year as a major league manager after a 13-year playing career, told reporters. "None of those scenarios fit. If they did, I would have pursued them."

There's a term for this, right? I wish I could remember what it is ... when someone says you should believe them simply because they know more than you do. Hey, sometimes it's the only thing handy. But that doesn't mean we're obligated to bow to the Great One's knowledge. I don't know anything about doctoring. Doesn't mean I'm not going to question my doctor when he tells me I've got six months to live. While happily (or in this case, sadly) acknowledging that he knows a lot more about cancer than I know, I'm still going to look for a second opinion. Maybe even a third.

I've got a huge amount of respect for Davey Johnson's baseball acumen. Doesn't mean I'm going to assume that he's right about everything. Because he's not. Nobody is.

During Sunday night's ESPN game, Dan Shulman asked Orel Hershiser about the Strasburg Affair.*

* Hey, is there really not a good nickname for this yet? We had Operation Shutdown a few years ago, and the Joba Rules. How has nobody come up with a good one for this thing yet? Here's an idea: "Premature Emasculation" ... Okay, maybe not. Let's keep thinking on it.

Hershiser's response:

Well, I hope they're making the decision on objective data. Just not an eye test and just not an innings count, because the objective data of a shoulder program, having benchmarks from spring training of where his strength was, what his internal and external rotation of his shoulder, the elbow, how was the flexibility there, the wrist, the whole lever system of the arm works together, and if he has no marks of being below where his benchmark [illegible] on strength and flexibility, then they're shutting down a very healthy pitcher that could really help them, and it's unprecedented for someone like this to be shut down going into this pennant race.

I'll get back to Hershiser's substantive comments in a moment, but I do want to point out that the Nationals are hardly "going into this pennant race". They won the pennant race a long time ago. Anyway, a bit more of this conversation:

Shulman: Now, they're doing this because he's so young, and--

Hershiser: coming back from Tommy John--

Shulman: --history suggests that young pitchers whose innings increase significantly from one year to the next are at risk of injury. So they--

Let me break in right there ... This sounds like Shulman is referencing the so-called "Verducci Effect" ... which of course has been debunked, and debunked, and debunked again. Young pitchers are at risk of injury, and there's reason to think that young pitcher who throw a ton of innings, or a ton of high-stress pitches, are particularly at risk of injury. But the theory that there's some magic number of increased innings that leads to a higher risk simply hasn't been

Back to the booth...

Hershiser: I think we're all at risk of injury, when you take the mound and are scheduled for surgery at some time. I understand they're being prudent about this. But this just doesn't pop up. I understand they have built themselves to win, and to win for a long time, and this is the foundation of the organization. But there are 29 other teams trying to build to win, and to win for a long time. When you get your shot, I think you gotta go for it.

Shulman: By letting him continue to pitch, until there's a warning signal?

Hershiser: Yup. Until the strength, the flexibility, he doesn't recover from outings, "You know what, he was so tender coming out of the last outing, that his side work, they had to shut him down in his side work" ... You have heard nothing about any evidence, other than the eye test, and the innings, that this is why they're shutting him down.

Often, I suspect, by the time you shut a guy down because he's not recovering from outings, it's too late.

In 1988, Orel Hershiser threw a huge number of innings: 267 during the regular season, and 43 more in two postseason series. He did not break down immediately; in '89, Hershiser pitched 257 innings and pitched almost exactly as brilliantly as he had the year before. He was 31, and heading for the Hall of Fame. Or so it seemed. Instead, Hershiser were merely average for the rest of his career, because his arm was shredded.

Hershiser has said it was all worth it, that he would trade his World Championship in '88 for a Hall of Fame career. Fair enough. But the Dodgers didn't have to win the World Series that season. They could have lost the N.L.C.S. to the Mets. They could have lost the World Series to the Athletics. What if they'd lost one of those series? Would Hershiser still be happy about throwing all those innings from 1987 through '89?

We'll never know.

One thing I keep noticing, though, is this bizarre belief that if only Stephen Strasburg is allowed to pitch, the Nationals will win the World Series, or probably win the World Series, or maybe they won't win the World Series but they'll have a lot better chance with Strasburg than without him.

It's just not true. With Strasburg, the Nationals' chances of winning the World Series are somewhere between 10 and 15 percent. Without Strasburg, the Nationals' chances of winning the World Series are somewhere between 10 and 15 percent. With him, maybe it's 12.8 percent. Without him, maybe it's 10.6 percent.

Most of the discussion seems to be centered around what the grounding of Stephen Strasburg means to the Washington Nationals. But I don't think all that many folks really care much about the Washington Nationals. I think most folks care about themselves; in this context, that means most folks really, really want to see Stephen Strasburg pitching in big games next month.

I want to see that, too. But not if it means I can't see him pitching next season, or if it means he won't be pitching brilliantly for the next 15 season. For a long time, the balance was swung far too much in favor of winning today. The Nationals probably haven't found the perfect balance. But if we have to swing a bit too far the other way, at least for a while, there are worse things.

I'm like you, probably. I prefer the Chris Sale model, or the Kris Medlen model. Those guys were young and/or injured, too, and yet both are on track to pitch in postseason games next month. But let's give it a year or three, shall we, before deciding for sure that the Nationals didn't know what they were doing?

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