Should the Nationals Regret the Strasburg Shutdown?

I defended the Nationals’ decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg before the end of the regular season and prevent him from pitching in the postseason. Few outside the team were defending the decision publicly then, and even fewer are doing it now, with the team on the brink of elimination — they could be eliminated from the playoffs this afternoon, with Ross Detwiler pitching against Kyle Lohse. On Wednesday, Ken Rosenthal quoted an unnamed Nats player as saying, “If we had ‘Stras, we’d be up 2-0.”

So there are two questions being asked. The overt question is, would the Nationals be in a better position in the playoffs if they still had Strasburg? But that assumes an affirmative answer to this question: would the Nationals be in their current position in the playoffs if they had treated Strasburg differently — either skipping his starts, pitching him every sixth day, or simply holding him in extended spring training and starting him later in the year?

If the answer to the second question is yes, then the answer to the first one is too, though the effect might be smaller than you’d think. (In the 2009 World Series, Andy Pettitte outpitched Cole Hamels. It’s one game.) But the answer to the second question is unclear. As Dave Cameron wrote a month ago, when the Nationals decided to shut down Strasburg and put Ross Detwiler in his spot in the rotation:

[T]he Nationals chose something like the most conservative usage path possible, but given how little is known about keeping pitchers healthy, their decision is certainly within the bounds of what one could consider reasonable… The starting pitcher is an important factor in the end result of a ballgame, but it isn’t the deciding factor, and it’s certainly possible that the decision to use Detwiler instead of Strasburg ends up not having much of an effect on the Nationals playoff chase at all, simply due to outcomes that have nothing to do with the quality of each pitcher.

As a Braves fan, I’m well aware of the ease with which a very good team can lose in the Division Series to an inferior Central Division team despite the presence of a potential Hall of Fame pitcher. The Braves have lost in the first round of the playoffs in each of the past six times that they’ve advanced to the playoffs. A case study is qualitative analysis rather than quantitative analysis, but I think it’s still an instructive comparison.

The 2012 Braves had Kris Medlen coming back from Tommy John surgery in much the same way that Strasburg was, and the Braves took the opposite approach: they put Medlen in the bullpen to start the year, then only moved him to the rotation in late summer. Medlen finished the season with 138 innings pitched, and his 3.9 fWAR were just a tick below Strasburg’s 4.3 — but the Braves lost the Wild Card game as Medlen gave up four runs (two earned) in 6 1/3 miserable innings.

Different processes can lead to different outcomes, but there’s a lot else that’s simply up to chance. If Strasburg pitched against the Cardinals the way he pitched against the Marlins on September 10, his last start of the year, the Nats might still be down 2-1 in the Division Series.

Before 2012, the Braves lost their last five appearances in the Division Series, from 2002-2005 (as division winners) and 2010 (as Wild Card). Those teams won an average of 96 games a year, and lost the first three series 3-2 and the last two 3-1.

In 2002, the Braves had Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux in their rotation and John Smoltz as their closer, but the team lost to a Wild Card Giants team that advanced to the World Series. In ’03, the Braves had Maddux starting and Smoltz closing, but lost to an 88-win Cubs team with Mark Prior and Kerry Wood.

In ’04, Maddux was gone but Smoltz was still closing, and the Braves lost to a Wild Card Astros team. In ’05, Smoltz was back in the starting rotation, and the Braves lost to the Wild Card Astros again. And in 2010, the Braves’ only Hall of Fame-caliber pitcher was Billy Wagner, and they lost to a division-winning Giants team that eventually won the World Series.

(The Braves also lost in the Division Series in 2000: Smoltz was out for the year with Tommy John surgery, but Maddux and Glavine were in the rotation as the Braves got swept out of the NLDS by the division-winning Cardinals.)

Wild Card teams experienced extraordinary success in the first 17 years of the Division Series, from 1995 to 2011. In 17 years, 68 Division Series were played, of which 34 involved a Wild Card team. By my count, the Wild Card team actually won 18 of those 34 series, 53 percent of the time.

Through no fault of the Wild Card planners, it appeared that division winners were if anything disadvantaged by the time they got to the postseason. That extraordinary success is a big reason for the creation of the Wild Card Game, which was meant to make it a little harder for Wild Card teams to march through the playoffs. The Braves certainly experienced that firsthand this year.

But if we run the counterfactual, in order for Stephen Strasburg to have been able to pitch at least six starts in the postseason — at least two between the Wild Card game (if necessary) and Division Series, at least two in the NLCS, and at least two in the World Series — then the Nationals would have needed to account for that extra 35-40 innings in their plan for his season. They would have needed to skip around six of his regular-season starts.

Since his season was worth 4.3 WAR, that means that they would have essentially lost a win. And considering that they didn’t clinch the division until two days before the end of the season, that would have put the division in jeopardy — so they might have had to play in the Wild Card game, too. And anyone can lose the Wild Card game. Even the two-time defending American League champions. Or the Braves. (Although, in fairness, the Braves have never met a playoff format they couldn’t lose.)

It’s easy to understand why the players are grousing. Believe me, I know how much it sucks to lose to the Cardinals. The Nationals may have not picked the optimal strategy with Strasburg, though I happen to think it was a defensible one. But even if they picked a completely different strategy — as the Braves did with Kris Medlen — the Nationals would still have a good chance of losing in the playoffs to an inferior team. As they say, “That’s baseball.”

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Alex is a writer for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.

42 Responses to “Should the Nationals Regret the Strasburg Shutdown?”

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  1. Carson Cistulli just wrote a very nice piece on the Strasburg-vs.-Detwiler counterfactual for today’s game.

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  2. mw says:

    I don’t understand why people praise the Braves’ handling of Medlen while bashing the Nationals’ handling of Strasburg. He wound up throwing 20 fewer innings than Strasburg. That could’ve made the difference between winning the division and the WC. And because the Braves did not win the division, they wound up in a play-in game that ended their season. I get that people disagree with the Nats’ decision. But it’s particularly galling to hear people praise the Braves’ strategy of deliberately limiting Medlen’s regular season value in exchange for speculative playoff value, especially when it failed so spectacularly.

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    • Jon L. says:

      This is a really good point.

      Maybe the same people who are praising the Braves’ handling of Medlen will eventually turn around and give the Nationals credit when Strasburg’s career isn’t cut short by a devastating injury caused by overuse at any point in the next few years. Maybe, but I doubt it.

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      • rockymountainhigh says:

        Or maybe his career will be cut short by a devastating injury, despite the fact that the Nationals shelved their best starter for the postseason.

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      • JCA says:

        JonL – it’s not that the Nats preserved Stras’s career and the Braves did not. 138 IP is a conservative load for Medlen, so it’s not like they were out of bounds in terms of a reasonable rehab program / 1st year back usage. I don’t think either of these guys getting hurt in the future changes the debate if both were on reasoable rehab programs.

        The key here is MW’s point. In a year with a play-in game, does it make sense to design the rehab program in a way that makes it less likely you would win the division? It is overwhelmingly clear that the Nats starting pitching carried the team up to late June and the magic of cortisone. This was especially the case in April. If that were John Lannan instead of Strasburg getting starts the first few months, or had Medlen pitched in some of the head to head games before 7/31, it is quite likely the Braves win the division. That’s the galling part of the critique of guys like Rosenthal, Kaat, and Costas.

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  3. olethros says:

    Losing to the Cardinals is one of baseball’s highest honors. And to call them an “inferior team” is stretching more than a little bit.

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  4. jim says:

    even if the run prevention wouldn’t have ended up all that different, the move was bad baseball karma

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  5. vivalajeter says:

    What’s missing is that the Nationals didn’t expect to be a better (or equal) team in the playoffs without him. They shut him down because they thought it was in their best interest long-term. Obviously they’d be better with him now, but that doesn’t mean they should regret the decision.

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    • Train says:

      Maybe they would be better off now, but it’s certainly not obvious.

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      • vivalajeter says:

        You don’t think teams are better off with their best players? Sure, the best pitchers can get lit up and the worst pitchers can pitch gems, but my point is that they were thinking long-term. It’s obvious to me that if they only cared about this year’s playoffs, he would not have been shut down.

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      • Anon21 says:

        Maybe he just doesn’t think teams are obviously better off with great players who seem to tiring and getting ineffective as the season winds down. I don’t think it’s at all ridiculous to believe that the Strasburg who’d be pitching now is inferior to Ross Detwiler.

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    • rarumberger says:

      Strasburg was dominant in most of his early starts. Starting around August, however, he was anything but. Yes, he was still able to occasionally blow away opposing batters, but overall he was clearly becoming less effective. Not to mention that he had a distressing tendency to get up to around a hundred pitches in five innings.

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  6. Well-Beered Englishman says:

    The other thing to consider is the deterioration of Strasburg’s season as it went along.

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    • A DC Wonk says:

      Indeed! I wish more folk would mention that. His ERA for his last three starts was something between 6 and 7. It sure looked like he was done for the season.

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  7. Antonio bananas says:

    The difference between a 100 win team and a 90 win team isn’t much. Same with two guys with an era difference of .5. In the playoffs, it’s completely random. Maybe Strasburg shits the bed in game 1 and the Nats lose the series 3-0. Or maybe he throws a 12 k shutout. The difference is only seen after 162 games. Over 5 games the Astros could win 3 from the Yankees. It’s baseball. Hindsight bias will always come into play. If the Nats win the 2013-2016 world series because their rotation is sick, then it looks good. If stras goes down again next year and they never make the playoffs again, we’ll criticize the move forever.

    It’s a gamble. As a braves fan, I’m no longer mad about the teixeira trade. MIT should have worked. They should have made the playoffs. Usually, 4 prospects don’t become good major leaguers, much less top caliber major leaguers (most of them).

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  8. Hurtlockertwo says:

    If Wash doesn’t get to the WS it may be another 75 or so years till they do again. Strasburg may also never get another chance, so winning now certainly has value.

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    • Anon21 says:

      Any particular reason to suspect that Washington’s window is closing before it was even supposed to open? The Braves will probably be worse next year; Philadelphia will almost certainly be better, but with their payroll commitments, they may not be able to climb straight back into contention; the Marlins are probably the most pathetic organization in MLB; and the Mets are still struggling to dig themselves out of Madoffgedden.

      Nothing is certain, but the Nationals are probably a better bet to make a postseason appearance in each of the next five seasons than any team save the Yankees.

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      • Jeff H. says:

        While I agree the Nationals should be competitive for a few more years, why would the Braves be worse next year? They have financial flexibility to add players in positions of need, and their pitching is solid.

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    • Todd Boss says:

      The Nats have the 3rd youngest pitching staff in the majors, the youngest group of hitters in the majors, the 20th ranked payroll this year, have nearly their entire core of players under club control or under contract for at least the next 3-4 years, and reside in a division where the Mets are reeling, the Marlins are already scaling back, the Braves won’t raise payroll and are set to lose cornerstone players, and the Phillies have committed $150M to a group of aging players on massive contracts who have already shown themselves to be too injury prone to stay competitive.

      Why exactly do you think this team isn’t a favorite to make the playoffs for a few seasons running??

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  9. Bob Cutshall says:

    Seriously, do we REALLY need an article about how the best players don’t always win?

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  10. Jon L. says:

    Has anyone quoted Strasburg saying anything along the lines of, “I’m a competitor, of course I want to be pitching in the postseason, but I’m very grateful to have a team that puts my long-term health and the success of my career ahead of winning today?” That seems to me to be the obvious, good-character thing to say, but the little I’ve heard attributed to Strasburg has seemed more along the lines of passive-aggressive, short-sighted whining about not playing. I’m working with a serious dearth of information here, though – that’s why I’m asking.

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    • From what I’ve read, Strasburg and his agent Scott Boras have both been quoted publicly as supporting the team’s plans.

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      • reillocity says:

        And that’s why no one should be reporting that “the team” shut Strasburg down, to be honest. We’ll likely never know who was really instrumental in the decision so we should just assume that it was a mutual decision in lieu of the facts. Rizzo saying it was his decision doesn’t mean that it was.

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  11. Todd Boss says:

    If the Braves had put Medlen in the rotation from the start, maybe the Braves win the division and would still be in the playoffs instead of playing golf this week after losing a coin-flip play-in wild card game? How come nobody talks about this fact when praising the Braves handling of his innings while criticizing the Nats handling of Strasburg?

    Oh, and by the way, if Strasburg WERE still pitching, then Detwiler would be in the bullpen and not throwing 6 innings of 3 hit ball in the do-or-die game 4 tonight. How’s that for Irony?

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  12. Big foot says:

    Strasburg is a pussy. He wanted to be shut down. He acts like it wasn’t his call, but he and Boras put the squeeze on and got their way. I can’t wait for the 30 for 30 doc about him never winning shit.

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  13. Crumpled Stiltskin says:

    There is an assumption with the article that strasburg was on a strict innings limit. I think it’s more likely they didn’t want to shut him down and start him back up. And at the point thru did shut him down, they had essentially so the east.

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  14. Phantom Stranger says:

    I am of the opinion this was forced on the organization by Scott Boras. He’s the only one who really stands to benefit from being ultra-conservative with Strasburg’s innings this year. Rizzo is just saying in public what needs to be said to take the heat off Strasburg.

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    • Well-Beered Englishman says:

      “He’s the only one who really stands to benefit from being ultra-conservative with Strasburg’s innings this year.”

      False. The 2013, 2014, 2015, etc. Nationals.

      Look at how Strasburg lost effectiveness in the last 2-3 weeks of his season. The organization’s internal researchers understood his control was losing its edge, his pitches were missing spots more frequently, and he was growing tired more easily. Keeping him in would have been simply working him too hard; he was returning from rehab after all. If this prevents Strasburg from a few DL trips for fatigue in future seasons, we will never know the alternative, of course, but the decision will have been worth it.

      Strasburg shut down now, when he was tired and questionably effective and his absence is controlled, is much more desirable than Strasburg shut down involuntarily 365 days from now with a strain of some kind.

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      • drewcorb says:

        I understand you disagree with the guy, but can we please stop with this “False” nonsense? People often say that online, and they are usually talking about things that are either unverifiable or up for debate. Please don’t act like it’s a simple statement that is either true or false.

        I’ll be on my soapbox all weekend, folks.

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      • A DC Wonk says:

        OK, how about

        “He’s the only one who really stands to benefit from being ultra-conservative with”

        Instead of “false”, I”ll say: “that’s preposterous”

        The 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016 Nats also stand to benefit.

        Or, how about “internally inconsistent”

        How in the world can Strasburg benefit from this decision for next year without the Nationals _also_ benefiting from it next year?

        Or, how about “absurd”?

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  15. BillyF says:

    The question shouldn’t be whether Steve Strasburg be a starter in the postseason or not. The question should be if Strasburg be pitched. I defended GM Rizzo’s decision. He should know his pitcher. He got first-hand analytic reports from Boras & Co. The alternative solution Rizzo could have done to keep Steve under 160 IP is to use him as a reliever since August. I see Steve the better closer in the Division Series, among all 8 teams.

    The next problem, though, is if Strasburg can adjust back to start. I don’t know how historically rookie pitchers bounce back from a rapid change of role (relief than start than relief). But there seems to be risk involved, and might jeopardize Steve’s development in 2013. He might need to miss a good portion next year to relearn things, after used as a closer in this postseason.

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  16. Greg says:

    As someone who lives in DC and lives and breathes Nats, let me clear up a couple things for the blissfully ignorant that have previously weighed in:
    1) Strasburg did NOT want to be shut down and he was vocal about that
    2) This was Rizzo’s decision
    3) While I can’t know whether Boras was whispering in Rizzo’s ear, what was made public is that Boras was at first unhappy with the decision but had a one-on-one with Rizzo and got comfortable. Same with Strasburg’s dad.

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