Strasburg Shutdown: A Defense

Stephen Strasburg is up to 145 1/3 innings, and the Washington Nationals are sticking to their guns: once Strasburg hits 180 innings or so, he’s done for the year, and that’s that.

There are two common arguments against this plan: 1) 180 is a number they picked out of thin air, and there’s no evidence that demonstrates that this type of shutdown will actually keep Strasburg healthier in the future; and 2) The Nats are a playoff team, and the Nats will be sorely hurt by depriving themselves of their fireballing ace. Most outside commenters (from Leo Mazzone to the Braves’ Chipper Jones to current Washington Nationals like Mark DeRosa) are displeased with the plan; everyone agrees that it’s risky. I will now attempt to defend the plan.

The second prong of the argument, the playoff argument, is basically conditional on the first. The playoff argument basically stipulates that the Nats have a choice between a playoff rotation anchored with a healthy Strasburg and a playoff rotation with no Strasburg, and a healthy Strasburg depends on the first assumption being valid, that it is possible to preserve Strasburg’s health without resorting to a 180-inning cap. After all, an injured Strasburg is worse than a healthy-but-benched Strasburg, because an injury to Strasburg hurts the Nationals in 2013 and beyond.

The debate began before the season even started, as Paul Swydan and others looked at how the Nationals might want to treat their best pitcher as he continued his return from Tommy John surgery. Swydan favored a modified six-man rotation: “Strasburg would throw every sixth day, and the rest of the rotation would fit in around him.” That may have been too radical for the Nationals to try, particularly in April, when it wasn’t yet clear that they were a juggernaut. Just two weeks ago, Dave Cameron suggested a way that the Nationals could extend Strasburg’s season by creatively skipping his starts.

But the Nationals have given no indication of changing course. After all, they gave Jordan Zimmermann a hard innings cap last year, and it was a success by all accounts. And on Monday, they got a thumbs-up from Dr. James Andrews, the pitching Voice of God — or, perhaps more accurately, the voice of “Oh God, No,” telling ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt that he supported the decision:

I don’t think you can criticize that one bit, to be honest with you. If you look at the injury rates on re-dos for Tommy Johns, the highest injury rates they have is during the second year, when they’re coming back and really back up at top form and throwing and getting fatigued.

The problem with shutting him down and getting him out of his cycle and all of a sudden putting it back in, means you’ve gotta re-cycle him. In other words, you can’t take him at a high level, shut him down for a month, and then put him back immediately to a high level…

They might still shut him down early, save his innings, and then put him back into the playoffs, but the problem with that is starting him back up. You all know that the major injuries occur any time when you start somebody back up early in the season, when they’ve been off. So that itself, it’s a little bit unknown, to be able to do that and do it safely. I don’t know how that would actually benefit him. It could benefit him, it could benefit the team, but also it may be dangerous to start him back up with appropriate rest. So I’m sorry to say, but it’s a damned if you do and damned if you don’t deal.
(transcript h/t to Dan Steinberg, Washington Post)

Like me, Andrews has no special knowledge of Strasburg’s specific medical condition at the moment, so he’s speaking on general terms. Unlike me, he’s the world’s greatest expert on Tommy John surgery, so his support of the Nats plan is significant. Of course, he still predicates his support on the absence of hard data to support or cast doubt on a specific inning cap, so he advocates a “conservative” course, considering that this year is when Strasburg is likely at greatest risk for reinjury.

Ultimately, the notion of a hard cap is based in the belief that marginal innings tend to increase the likelihood of injury, and that fatigue can lead to minor injuries that can wind up snowballing. The Nationals likely aren’t afraid Strasburg’s arm will simply break mid-pitch, like Tony Saunders. If I were them, I would be more worried that a young pitcher with a history of arm trouble would get a little hurt, not say anything, try to pitch through it, and do greater damage to himself. Remember, every injury degrades a pitcher’s effectiveness, not just a season-ending one: no matter what broadcasters tell you, a guy who bravely tries to gut his way through an injury is likely to be a whole lot less effective than a man who’s fully healthy.

Stephen Strasburg may be fully healthy now. He’s certainly been sensational despite a short leash, pitching exactly six innings of each of his last four starts, while allowing just four earned runs and striking out 29 in 24 innings. He’s at 145 1/3 innings, and he’s averaged 5.8 innings per start all year, which means that he’ll reach his limit in about six starts. His next start is likely to be Tuesday the 28th. Then, assuming the Nationals continue to pitch the other four men in the rotation exactly once between each Strasburg start, Strasburg would be next due to pitch on September 2, 7, 12, 19, and 24 — which will be the Nationals’ 156th game of the season.

With a 6.5 game lead and just over a month to go, the Nationals are very likely to win their division outright. Since so much of the argument against shutting him down is predicated on the playoffs, it’s only worth considering how long he’d have to pitch assuming that they go deep in the playoffs. The best-of-five Division Series starts on October 6; the NLCS starts on October 14, and the World Series starts on October 24, and Game Seven would be on November 1. If the Nationals make it to the World Series, it’s fair to assume that Strasburg would get at least two starts in each of the three playoff series, which means that he would pitch 35-40 playoff innings.

If the Nationals rejiggered the September rotation a bit, employing Swydan’s modified six-man plan, they might be able to get him to the first of October, but there’s no way they could get him to the end of the month. There is literally no way to get him to November without either shutting him down for most of September or piling substantially more than 180 innings on his arm. Whether or not 180 innings is a sensible cap, I think we can all agree that it would be risky to put an extra 40 playoff innings on the arm of a 24-year old who’s coming back from Tommy John.

They’re going to have to shut him down sooner or later. I don’t blame them for deciding to make it sooner.

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

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