Via Yahooo’s Jeff Passan:
While Mike Rizzo wouldn’t pin down a number, he said Stephen Strasburg will not exceed 180 innings.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) August 10, 2012
While the Nationals have been saying publicly for a while that they were going to take precautions with Stephen Strasburg, this is the firmest comment yet on just where the line is going to be drawn. The team shut down Jordan Zimmermann after 160 innings last year, so that had been where most guesses were falling, but it sounds like Strasburg will get to make two or three more starts than his teammate did a year ago.
Just doing the basic math, Strasburg is at 127 innings right now, leaving him 53 innings before he gets to 180. Strasburg is averaging 5.8 innings per start, so on his current trajectory, that would leave him with nine more starts this season. The Nationals have 50 games remaining on their schedule, so sticking with a five man rotation and not skipping the 5th starter would leave each member of the rotation with 10 more turns. Without alteration, this limit would essentially take Strasburg to the final week of the regular season, and he’d simply skip his final regular season start and watch the playoffs as a spectator.
However, the Nationals don’t have to follow the same path they’ve been on to date. With the best record in baseball and a 4 1/2 game lead in the NL East, significant diminishing returns from each additional win are going to kick in pretty soon. If the Nationals just play .500 ball the rest of the way, they’ll finish with 94 wins and are essentially guaranteed a spot in at least the wild card play-in game, and even that kind of mediocre finish should give them a pretty good shot at holding off the Braves for the division title. The Nationals don’t have to go for broke down the stretch – they just need to play decent baseball.
So, rather than just running Strasburg out there every five days, they can afford to skip a couple of his starts down the stretch. Rizzo has been firm that they weren’t going to shut him down for several weeks and then try to bring him back, but Major League starters skip one turn in the rotation all the time without ill effect. Simply using the off days in the schedule to reduce his regular season workload shouldn’t be that difficult.
His next three starts are lined up to come against ARI (tonight), SF (Wednesday), and ATL (August 21st), and since all of those teams are playoff contenders who you want to try and beat, you want him making those three starts. After that start, however, off days and the schedule become the Nationals friend.
Washington has a day off on both August 23rd and August 27th, so they can skip Strasburg once through the rotation without even having to make any roster moves. Edwin Jackson is line to pitch on the 22nd and could come back to pitch on the 28th, and because of the off day after the weekend series, Ross Detwiler would be able to go in his normal place on the 29th, as the two off days close to each other allow for the team to simply go with four starters during that sequence. Skipping Strasburg against a weakened Miami roster is unlikely to cost them a significant chance of winning, and a loss to the Marlins will only harm their own playoff chances and not benefit one of their competitors.
Strasburg would then be lined up to start September 1st against STL, and then the Nationals would have to make a decision based on their current place in the standings. If they had pulled away from Atlanta over the next three weeks, they could then afford to skip Strasburg’s start on September 6th against the Cubs — another game they should be able to win without him — and because of the roster expansion, they’d have the ability to cover the rotation without any serious re-working of the starters. They could then bring him back to face the Mets on September 11th, which would line him up to pitch the weekend series finale against the Braves on September 16th on five days rest.
Another off day gives them a chance to let him make his next start on five days rest as well, pitching on the 22nd against the Brewers and finishing up on the 27th against the Phillies. At that point, he’ll have made eight starts, and if they limit him to between 5-6 innings per start, he’ll have thrown between 167 and 175 innings on the year. With just a few games remaining, they should know how important that last scheduled start against Philadelphia is going to be in terms of winning the division. If it’s a dogfight with Atlanta for the division title, you probably use him in that final regular season start and try to avoid the wild card play-in game if you can, thanking him for his good work and giving him a front row seat for the playoffs.
If they have a cushion, though, Washington can give him that start off and still have him be under the 180 inning limit when the playoffs begin, planning to get one postseason start out of him. From there, it’s simply a decision of whether you want to fire that one bullet in the NLDS or give your team a chance to win in three or four games without him, saving him for a potential Game 5 of the first round or Game 1 of the NLCS. Either way, you’re getting a high leverage playoff start out of Strasburg this year.
With seven weeks to go and nine starts to use, the Nationals can get one playoff appearance from Stephen Strasburg. If they want to get even more creative, they could limit his workload in several of those starts and perhaps even manage to get two shorter playoff starts, all while staying below this 180 inning limit.
At 160 innings, they probably had no shot of seeing Strasburg in October. At 180, though, they can probably arrange things in such a way that they squeeze every last drop of value out of his arm this year.