Managing Strasburg’s Second Half

The Washington Nationals entered the 2012 season with a plan to limit Stephen Strasburg‘s activity. Since the flamethrowing ace recently underwent Tommy John Surgery, this was a medical decision designed to work him back into shape without overexertion. The team never announced a specific activity threshold, but it was generally believed to be around 160 innings, or the normal equivalency in total pitches thrown.

The Nationals followed a similar plan with Jordan Zimmermann last year, shutting him down after 161.1 innings. The obvious difference between this year and last year is that the Nationals are now legitimate playoff contenders.

Last season, the Nationals were fighting to reach .500, so losing Zimmermann after an August 28 start wasn’t as huge of a deal. This year, the Nationals have a great chance to make the playoffs, but their odds of succeeding in the postseason are clearly reduced if the starting rotation lacks its best pitcher.

Seeing as Strasburg has already thrown 100 innings this season — 99 in the regular season and his one inning all-star game appearance — it’s making for quite the interesting dilemma. General Manager Mike Rizzo was adamant that the team would stick to the plan no matter how well it was playing. Given Rizzo’s word, what’s important for the Nationals now isn’t figuring out how to manipulate Strasburg’s starts to keep him pitching into September and October. Instead, with the trade deadline fast approaching, they need to figure out who is going to replace him to increase their odds of making, and succeeding in, the playoffs.

Back in March, Paul Swydan wrote an excellent piece on how the Nationals could manage Strasburg’s playing time, as the current scenario was easy to envision. The Nationals were a very talented team and were considered a sleeper contender by many. One option was to simply let Strasburg pitch and he would get shut down when he hit the predetermined threshold, whether that was late July, early August, or whenever.

Another option was to utilize a six-man rotation so that he started fewer games. Sticking to just five innings per start was another suggestion, as 30 starts at that rate only equals 150 innings. The Nationals ultimately just let Strasburg pitch, and while his innings were managed a bit more carefully than others, he has thrown 6+ innings in 13 of his 17 starts, and six or seven innings over his last seven starts.

The Nationals aren’t going to want to tinker with his innings from here on out, which means it’s inevitable that he’ll get shut down before playoff-time. The team fortified its rotation this offseason by acquiring Gio Gonzalez from the Athletics and signing Edwin Jackson. The Nationals also have a $5 million starter in the minors in John Lannan. The Chien-Ming Wang experiment didn’t go as planned, however, so it’s tougher to fill Strasburg’s role internally.

There are a number of available starting pitchers that wouldn’t replace Strasburg’s productivity, but would lessen the dropoff from him to, say, Lannan or someone else in the Nationals system.

The Nationals have a very solid farm system and could afford to part ways with a few prospects for another starter who may or may not be a rental, depending on his caliber and contract status. Zack Greinke‘s name instantly springs to mind as an example of the type that could sign a long-term extension after being acquired.

A rotation featuring Strasburg, Greinke, Zimmermann and Gonzalez would be downright scary in the future. Nobody else realistically available could come as close to matching, or besting, Strasburg as Greinke.

The Nationals probably wouldn’t surrender a tremendous haul for a three-month rental, but if they believed a contract extension was in the cards, this would represent a major splash that would improve their playoff odds this year and seriously improve the team next season. Matt Garza isn’t as talented as Greinke but is another extension candidate who would lessen the dropoff from Strasburg to someone internally with less of a prospect cost.

If the Nationals don’t want to make that type of splash, they could turn to Ryan Dempster, or even someone like Kevin Millwood, Shaun Marcum, Jason Vargas or Derek Lowe. Perhaps the Marlins could be persuaded into trading Anibal Sanchez as well. There is no shortage of available starting pitchers that could help weather the storm, and while it’s unclear who the Nationals plan on pursuing, it seems abundantly clear that they need someone else.

The returns of Jayson Werth and Drew Storen will help increase team-wide productivity but the Nationals are in a very interesting position with regards to the starting rotation. Gonzalez, Jackson and Zimmermann is still a pretty damn good starting trio for a postseason series, but that extra rotation reinforcement could go a long way towards helping the Nationals make a strong case for being league, and not just divisional, favorites this season.

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Eric is an accountant and statistical analyst from Philadelphia. He also covers the Phillies at Phillies Nation and can be found here on Twitter.

39 Responses to “Managing Strasburg’s Second Half”

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  1. Mike says:

    I know this isn’t the point of this post, but the post seems to assume that Rizzo has actually committed to the 160ip cap. Last I heard (and the article this comes from is definitely dated), he’s walked that back:

    “I don’t have a specific pitch count in my mind, a specific innings count in my mind. I am going to refer to my experience as a farm director, as a player development guy, and knowing his body. In conjunction with Davey Johnson and (pitching coach) Steve McCatty, when we feel he’s had enough, we’re going to shut him down.”

    Doesn’t mean they won’t still shut him down, of course, just that there’s a lot more grey area now.

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    • Jack says:

      Linking to Bleacher Report is generally a bad way to prove your point.

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    • jorgath says:

      Yes and no. Davey Johnson has said that he’s got an innings limit. No one actually knows what the limit is. Best impression is “somewhere between 160-170, depending on how he’s doing, and we’re not going to pull him at 3.1 innings in a game just because he’s crossed that threshold.”

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  2. Chris says:

    Wasn’t Strasburg just recently quoted as saying no one in the organization has talked to him about shutting down early this season? If they are indeed shutting him down early, isn’t it a bit strange he hasn’t been personally informed of it?

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  3. NatsFan73 says:

    There was a Boswell article in the Washington Post a week or so back, discussing how few pitches per inning the Nationals were averaging. Given the near total access that Boswell has to the highest levels of the Nats organization, it smells to me like the wheels are starting to turn on extending Strasburg’s innings limit on the basis of how easy his innings have been…

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    • Bob Loblaw says:

      The Nationals currently average 15.95 pitches per inning, which is 7th in MLB. League average is 16.26 pitches per inning.

      Strasburg is averaging 16.19 which is pretty close to average.

      I’m not sure you can really glean anything from that, since on a 6 inning basis, he throws about .4 pitches less than league average.

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  4. NatsFan73 says:

    IMHO they should move him to the bullpen. That way they can easily manage his innings AND keep him fresh for the post-season AND use him in high-leverage situations. Then they move him back to the rotation for a couple of starts at the very end of the season to make sure he’s stretched out for the playoffs.

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    • Sam says:

      I sort of agree. Skip his turn in the rotation a few times, maybe make him an extra days rest starter like Pedro was occasionally with Boston, and then when he has gone over the limit, perhaps see if he can give you an inning or 2 out of the bullpen just in the playoffs every other day or something. That way if you aren’t starting him, at least the last 3 or 4 innings of a game could be Strasburg, Clipp and Storen (assuming he is healthy.)

      All that said, I have always thought that the innings limit was much more of an arbitrary figure than something like pitch count.

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  5. MK says:

    The issue I have with a trade for an SP is that there is nearly no way for the player to return enough value to justify the trade. Based on his first half performance Stras is worth one win/month. So if he gets shut down in early September the team loses one regular season win if they were to switch to someone that is replacement level. However, I would imagine with expanded rosters the team could cobble together a fifth starter out of Lannan, Duke, Maya, and extra bullpen arms that could pitch better than replacement level for a month given the limited exposure. I am not convinced losing Stras for a month will keep the Nats out of the playoffs.

    If the nats make a move for an SP it really is for the playoffs. If the Nats went to the World Series Stras would likely accumulate at least 1.2 wins for the month of October since pitchers throw more often in the playoffs and given he is worth one win/mo. However those innings would go to E Jax who is better than replacement level, about 0.5 wins/mo in October. Essentially, the Nats would lose 0.7 wins when Stras gets shut down.

    So my conclusion:
    – A trade for a player worse than E Jax doesn’t make sense.
    – The Nats would be trading prospects in hopes of adding 0.7 wins over their current team (Any regular season wins will be worthless, the Nats are going to the playoffs even if he gets shut down)

    I’m not sure the wins added would justify the prospects required to make a deal.

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    • NatsFan73 says:

      It could be worth it if they land an extension-worthy starting pitcher. EJax is on a one year deal. Gio/Zim/Jax/Grienke? doesn’t miss a beat from Strasburg, and Stras/Grienke?/Gio/Zim would make mincemeat of NL hitters in 2013

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      • MK says:

        It would be nice to have that rotation for 2013, but Grienke will be available as a FA this offseason. You’re going to have to pay FA market value for those wins in an extension or as a FA. In my way of thinking the extension should not be considered as part of the trade.

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    • Thaps says:

      Not disagreeing with your wins assessment, but I do think that you have to think that the one possibility (and personally I think the Nats will stand pat and this will all be moot) that would validate giving up some prospects for someone like Greinke is that they truly feel like having him around for a couple months gives them an edge in signing him long term. And/or the Lerners and Rizzo would view it as another Werth-esque move that is as much about signifying to other free-agents that they are serious about winning in DC.
      I would like to know what it would take to get Dempster for the rest of the season. If the price is pretty low, then it has to be a pretty enticing option for Operation Fill Strasburg’s Shoes.

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      • MK says:

        You’re right, if they can get an Grienke it does make more sense. However, this leads to the next question, does it make sense to sign Greinke to a FA contract? Maybe, the farm system lacks depth for right-handed SPs beyond Meyer (IF Giolito signs he’s still likely at least 3 years away). On the other hand there are going to be a number of players that could get expense over the next 3-4 years through arbitration (Desmond, Stras, Zimnn, Espi, Ramos, Detwiler).

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      • Well-Beered Englishman says:

        MK, if you had Stras, Znn, and Greinke in arbitration and Gio inked, I can’t imagine arbitration with Detwiler being a significant issue. Heck, they could bring in Joe Blanton; that’s kinda what he does.

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      • Well-Beered Englishman says:

        I typo’d with the Greinke in arb thing.

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    • Dan says:

      Doesn’t WAR assume that the relationship between runs allowed and total WAR is linear (and uses a 10 “run/win” slope). I would argue that because of the Nats’ subpar offense, Strasburg’s high quality innings are even more valuable. Essentially, because the Nats play so many low-scoring games, it means there are more high leverage innings.

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      • Ivan Grushenko says:

        Except that the Nationals’ offense is almost exactly average, with -0.5 Batting Runs Above Average. So according to your logic, Strasburg’s high quality innings are averagely valuable.

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  6. Jon says:

    If the Nats want to keep his innings down, just make him a “sunday starter” from here on out. The extra rest will help his arm recover and keep his innings down until playoff time. In Japan pitching once a week seems to help keep their arms healthy even though they tend to throw more pitches per start than MLB pitchers do

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    • sopcod says:

      It seems so obvious to me that this is the thing to do. I can’t believe anyone would think that not having him in the playoffs is acceptable. Just skip a few starts down the stretch and you can have your cake and eat it too, so to speak.

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  7. Snapper says:

    Just let him pitch, and pull him after 6, or 5 if you have a big lead.

    Pitchers get hurt, that’s what they do. There’s no evidence that babying helps at all.

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    • Brian says:

      “Pitchers get hurt, that’s what they do. There’s no evidence that babying helps at all.”

      Then consider the opposite argument:
      Overworking young pitchers can seriously harm their future career.

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  8. Galt says:

    The Nationals don’t have a night off starting tonight through July 27th, and then don’t have another night off through August 15th.

    So that’s 1 day off in 34 days. They also have two scheduled double headers during that time. So they have 35 games in the next 34 days. I have to imagine that they will move to a 6 man rotation for at least part of it

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    • mike k says:

      My guess is Gorzelanny pitches the “extra” game. I don’t think the Nats will actually go to a 6 man rotation besides that. You want to give Gio and Zimmermann the innings.

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  9. Snowblind says:

    What I’m much more interested in, is not how to “shut him down” but rather how to “spin him back up” in time for the playoffs.

    Pitchers are creatures of habit. How do you reduce his workload or have him skip starts, then have the Nats clinch, then get him back into action a couple of times in the last week or two of September in enough time to be in peak form for the divisional series? Is he the sort of pitcher who does better on longer rest to begin with? Or the sort of pitcher who is not as sharp if he’s not going every 5 days? Or somewhere in between?

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  10. HiGuys says:

    Please more graphs and less speculation

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  11. Jealo says:

    It will not help Strasburg to take him out of his routine and then put him into high pressure playoff situations as a reliever. They should just pull him and wait to strike next season.

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    • vivalajeter says:

      That’s my feeling as well. There’s talk about having him go to the bullpen, pitch once a week, skip starts, etc. Isn’t it possible that messing up his routine will make it more likely that he gets hurt? They’d have plenty of egg on their face if they implemented a strategy to protect his health, and that strategy led to a major arm injury.

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      • bstar says:

        But there’s going to be far, far more egg on their face if they shut him down and the Nats miss the playoffs by a game or two.

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      • vivalajeter says:

        bstar, that’s absurd. There’d be much more backlash if they altered his routine and he wound up getting hurt.

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  12. Juan Chapa says:

    With Stras, you have to think long term. Keep him on a pitch limit. And,
    let him have a few starts in the post season. He earned that, and it
    will give him more experience. Additionally, you have to improve the
    bullpen for a post season run. The Rangers found that out the hard
    way last year. But, they improved their pen this year. Garza is a good
    candidate, as he has post season experience, and would cost less then
    Greinke. However, they also should go after a solid reliever (i.e. the
    Padres’ Huston Street). This may be costly, but they have an
    opportunity to go to the World Series, and improve their pen with
    a shutdown closer (and lessen the presure on Stras). It was he that
    got them to where they are. He should be rewarded and protected.
    He just needs to be monitered, and closely examine symptoms
    that arise. He’ll be fine (its his second season after surgery) with
    limits, and a few starts in the post season. The pennant race and
    post season experience he’d gain would be invaluable.

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    • Shaun Catron says:

      The Nationals have two shut down closers. Drew Storen (coming back from injury) and Tyler Clippard (perfect since taking over the job).

      I agree they need one more arm though.

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  13. KB says:

    I would like to see the evidence that innings limits in the 1st year after Tommy John surgery help prevent future injuries to pitchers. I have real doubts that this is the case. Too many things can change between this year and next year for a team to think that it will be in a position to win it all again. The Nationals should let Strasburg pitch. I can see not allowing him to throw too many pitches – but shutting him down after 160 innings seems inane to me.

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    • Jake says:

      This isn’t entirely a TJ-thing; Strasburg has never pitched a full season yet (and I don’t believe Zimmermann had when he got TJ); because Strasburg’s arm injury stopped his rookie season halfway through (and he only pitched one month last year), the 160 (or 170) inning cap is as much ramping up workload year-to-year as it is a post-Tommy John limit. And however you feel about only giving a pitcher 40 more innings per year, I think that’s pretty standard practice around the league.

      Another argument is that shutting him down is a signal to prospective free agents/draftees that the organization will take care of its players, and not risk injury to them just because the team’s doing well one year (here, it’s not an argument about whether there actually is an additional injury risk, but just whether other players perceive a potential injury risk).

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      • WeWantAPitcher says:

        Well I guess we should only hit fast guys lead off because that’s pretty standard practice around the league too.

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  14. williamtheconquerorworm says:

    The Nats will shut Strasburg down at 160 or so innings. They committed themselves to the innings limit and are stuck with it. The number wasn’t pulled out of a hat. It was arrived at in consultation with medical experts. The legal and PR consequences of going against medical judgment, letting Strasburg go past the limit, with him reinjuring himself, would be disasterous for the Nats.

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  15. Shaun Catron says:

    Step 1: Pitch him 140 innings
    Step 2: Move him into the bullpen down the stretch (if still in contention)
    Step 3: Stretch him out in the last week of the regular season and let him throw 4-5 innings
    Step 4: Move him into playoff rotation
    Step 5: ???
    Step 6: Profit

    or just stop babying the kid and let him pitch.

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  16. Hurtlockertwo says:

    Not pitching in a game doesn’t mean he wouldn’t throw at all, he still has to work out (to inlcude throwing) to maintain his fitness. In any sport where you must maintain a skill your muscles must be trained to reproduce that action over and over. I would think a reduced schedule vice a total stop may be more beneficial in the long run.

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