Last season, the Nationals stuck to a strict plan with Jordan Zimmermann’s workload. This season, the team has another workload to manage with intense scrutiny in the person of Stephen Strasburg. While the Nats have hinted at to how they will proceed with him — they don’t want to jerk him around, they will likely keep him to the same 160-inning cap as Zimmermann last year — they have not laid anything down in stone. The reason for that is likely twofold — one, they can’t predict the future, and don’t know how Strasburg will respond as the year progresses, and two, the Nationals are thinking playoffs this year. So the question is, can the team spread out Strasburg’s innings in a streamlined fashion and still be able to use him in the postseason?
There are a few ways that the Nats can play this. Before we dive in, let’s get the caveat out of the way — we really don’t know what the best way is to measure pitcher fatigue, and it probably isn’t by innings pitched. It probably isn’t by total pitches either. Every pitcher is different, and their thresholds should be set differently as a result. But I’m not a doctor, and even if I was, I don’t have access to Strasburg or his medical records, so for the purpose of this exercise, we’ll stick with innings pitched.
The first, and simplest, is to do what they did with Zimmermann last year, which is to just let him pitch the way nature intends things, and let him work until he gets to 160 and shut him down then. Last season, Zimmermann hit 161.1 innings on August 28th, and was shut down at that point. He made 26 starts, and averaged slightly more than six innings per outing. But the decision to shut him down at the end of August was an easy one to make since the Nationals were not contenders last season. They were well out of the playoff picture, and another 20-30 innings from Zimmermann wasn’t going to change that. That might not be the case this year. Not only have the Nationals fortified the team with the additions of Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson, but healthier seasons from Ryan Zimmerman and Strasburg should make a significant difference as well.
One way to get Strasburg innings in September would be to go to a six-man rotation. Under a scenario where the Nats start Strasburg on Opening Day and then strictly on a rotation in which everyone gets their turn one through six from there on out, he would not cross the 160-inning plateau until the last week of the season, assuming that he averaged six innings per start and didn’t pitch in the All-Star Game (for all scenarios, let’s just assume that he doesn’t pitch in the ASG). That sounds pretty good, right? Well, for Strasburg, sure. But what about the other guys? The Nats do have good depth on the bump this year, with John Lannan and Ross Detwiler being capable of starting but not having slots in the rotation at present time. But six-man rotations don’t happen all that frequently, or ever, and adjusting to that schedule could affect the performance of everyone in the rotation. Furthermore, there is the question of value. Do you want to hand 150-160 innings to a guy that wouldn’t normally be good enough to make the rotation?
So then, maybe the idea isn’t a full six-man rotation, but a modified one. Strasburg would throw every sixth day, and the rest of the rotation would fit in around him. In this scenario, averaging six innings a start, Strasburg would hit 160 innings on 9/11 in Flushing against the Mets. If you lowered the bar to five innings a start, you would get through the season at 150 innings, but that doesn’t seem like a practical plan. In that scenario, you need an extra starter, and you are taxing the bullpen for four innings per Strasburg start.
But the five innings threshold is intriguing. While a strict every five days plan wouldn’t be much better — he would cross the 160-inning threshold on September 12th — a plan where you stuck to a strict five-man rotation, i.e., not skipping starts because of off-days, and let Strasburg pitch every time his turn in the rotation came up, he would hit 160 innings on September 27th. Under this scenario, you would use Lannan or Detwiler as kind of a shadow starter. You would get them up in the second inning or so, with the intention of bringing them in for the sixth inning, and pitching at least two innings, but maybe more depending on how the game is going and how taxed the bullpen is. You wouldn’t necessarily need to carry a 13th pitcher in order to make that happen — on most teams, whoever the 12th man on a pitching staff is at any one time is generally underutilized. It uses a de facto sixth starter, but it doesn’t alter the schedule of the other rotation mates, and it reduces the number of innings Lannan or Detwiler would be counted on from the neighborhood of 150 down to 80 or so.
It’s not perfect — rain is going to intervene and force doubleheaders at some point. And it’s not the only other option. You could devise a plan where Strasburg only pitches at home, for instance, but again, the schedules of his rotation mates would need to be altered to accommodate that, and the team has already said they don’t want to jerk Strasburg’s schedule around anyway. Not jerking him around would also likely eliminate a move to the bullpen, as it is much more difficult to regiment bullpen usage. If the Nats want to look at a regimented plan that will spread out Strasburg’s innings throughout the year, the “five innings whenever his spot in a five-man rotation comes up” plan is likely the closest they could get with a streamlined, fairly simple plan.
The reward to such a plan is that it gives the Nats an opportunity to measure the risk of crossing that 160 inning plateau if the team finds itself in the hunt. If Strasburg hit 160 innings on September 27, he could make one make one more start during the regular season — in the penultimate game of the year — on regular rest. Or, if the Nats have a spot already locked up, he could be saved for their first postseason game. In other words, the team would have the option of considering letting him go significantly past 160 innings. Under the other scenarios, or if they just do what they did with Zimmermann, then he will hit 160 innings so early that the layoff between when they shut him down and the start of the postseason would be too significant.
Stephen Strasburg may be one of the best pitchers in the game, and the Nationals are unlikely to reach the postseason without him. No matter what course of action they choose, if they are set on 160 innings as his threshold, they are going to have a difficult decision to make at some point during this season. But if they can be disciplined with not only his starts, but everyone else’s as well, there is a way to keep Strasburg in the rotation all season long and give themselves the option of squeezing another 20-30 innings out of him should they qualify for the postseason should he be healthy enough to throw them.