If He’s “Under the Weather,” Stephen Strasburg Shouldn’t Pitch

Pitchers have typically produced poor numbers when ill. (Photo: Lorie Shaull)

The Nationals have created quite a mess — or, at the very least, exhibited a failure to communicate.

As you’re probably aware, Stephen Strasburg was originally not scheduled to pitch Game 4 of the NLDS. Following the postponement of Tuesday’s game to Wednesday, however, circumstances appeared to change for the Nationals. Facing elimination, they could throw Strasburg — who’s been pitching as well as anyone on the planet — on his normal rest.

Strasburg appeared at the ballpark and played catch on Tuesday. He wasn’t 100%, though. He was feeling “under the weather,” according to manager Dusty Baker. Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell reported on the situation:

The Nats, knowing that Game 4 might be rained out, asked Strasburg whether he could pitch Wednesday.

“I’ll give you what I’ve got,” Strasburg said, according to General Manager Mike Rizzo, who was in the meeting.

Those are the words you want to hear, in one sense, because it means your $175 million star will suck it up and perform. On the other hand, they’re exactly the words you don’t want to hear because Strasburg has, in recent years, shown such a high tolerance for pain that he has touched [sic] it out until he ended up on the disabled list. So, “I’ll give you what I’ve got” means the guy is sick as a dog.

Perhaps unconvinced that they’d get the best version of Strasburg on Wednesday, the Nationals’ decided to save him for a potential Game 5 on Thursday and let Tanner Roark take Game 4.

Still, other Washington Post columnist Barry Svrluga articulated thoughts that many seemed to share inside and outside the Beltway on Wednesday morning.

If Strasburg is truly sick and if he actually wanted to pitch, let’s make sure the public gets some details about this illness. What was his temperature? What are his symptoms? How are the Nationals treating him? He threw a bullpen session Monday, was in the dugout for Game 3 that night, returned to the ballpark Tuesday. It’s nothing for a pitcher — never mind a pitcher who wouldn’t pitch Monday or Tuesday — to remain back at the hotel to recuperate. Why wasn’t Strasburg, so ill he can’t pitch, recuperating?

That leads to another possibility: Strasburg had been preparing all along to take the ball in a Game 5 on Thursday. When the weather altered the schedule for all of baseball, Strasburg declined to alter his own schedule. USA Today’s Bob Nightengale reported that Strasburg refused to pitch Wednesday. The Nationals deny that report.

Baker even mentioned something about mold affecting players in Chicago:

And then this breaking news from Jon Morosi appeared late Wednesday morning:

Quite a turn of events! This author even had to re-write the current post.

And a number of questions remain unanswered. Like, is Strasburg feeling better? And: are the Nationals and Strasburg wilting before public opinion?

Whatever’s going on, the Nationals could have communicated this much more clearly and offered much more transparency — unless, in fact, there’s actually something to hide. Baker couldn’t even get the day right when Strasburg threw his bullpen, which was cut short. (It was Monday, not Tuesday.)

Svrluga shared some insights offered by two former major-league players on Tuesday evening. Said Mark Teixeira via ESPN: “Unless this guy is in the hospital and getting fluids and can’t even go to the ballpark, he’s gotta be on the mound.” Said David Ross during the ESPN tonight telecast: “If I’m his teammate… I can’t look him in the eye.”

Strasburg has developed a reputation, fairly or unfairly, as something like a high-maintenance, high-performance automobile.

There was, of course, the infamous innings limit of 2012, when the Nationals publicly revealed they had set a hard cap on Strasburg’s playing time for the season following Tommy John surgery late in 2010. They didn’t permit him to pitch in the postseason. While the intent was to protect Strasburg, we really have no idea if pitch and innings limits are doing much good with regard to injury prevention. Moreover, by refusing to play Strasburg, the Nationals failed to give themselves their best chance of succeeding in the playoffs. (And perhaps there was a way not to cross that innings mark and have Strasburg available later in the season.)

Strasburg has made a number of trips to the disabled list. His competitive zeal has been questioned. He’s also perhaps misunderstood as one of the game’s less outspoken of players.

Wrote Svrluga on Wednesday morning:

“So whatever Strasburg says now, his rep is in flames… Mike Rizzo, the Nationals’ general manager, has said out loud that it’s the time of year for heroes.

‘Be John Wayne,’ Rizzo said Sunday at Wrigley, in between Games 2 and 3.”

The American public likes to see their stars perform even if ill, and perform well even if dealing with illness. It can lend a legendary quality to already talented performers. Michael Jordan’s excellence in the NBA Finals with the flu, Willis Reed’s dramatic return to the court after suffering a torn muscle, Kirk Gibson’s walk-off home run with zero healthy legs: these are career-defining moments.

If he’s healthy, if Strasburg is feeling much better, that’s one thing. But if he’s not, if he’s ill, if this is about trying to prove bravery and and play hero ball… is that a good idea?

Should the Nats really want him pitching Wednesday afternoon? (And if Strasburg isn’t sick — why would he have wanted to take a PR hit like this?)

Because this piece has required a quick turnaround, I haven’t had time to perform an exhaustive study of pitchers working through illness in 2017.

Thankfully, Ben Lindbergh did such a study back in 2012 for Baseball Prospectus. Lindbergh found 10 starts made by nine pitchers — Matt Harrison, Vance Worley, Chris Tillman, Jeremy Hellickson, Derek Holland, (twice and left to toil for 14.1 innings), Josh Beckett, Anthony Swarzak, Jon Niese and Clayton Kershaw — who were known, publicly, to have performed despite illness.

Of those 10 starts, seven produced box-score lines worse than their individual seasonal performance — and only two met the criteria for a “quality start”

They combined for a 5.84 ERA over 42.1 innings, allowing 68 hits and 18 walks against 50 strikeouts. While we should perhaps revisit this with a more exhaustive study, it would make sense that pitchers don’t perform as well when feeling sick (or on short rest). Think about trying to complete a work day, or to parent effectively, or just get up to go the refrigerator when feeling ill.

Assuming Strasburg really is sick — and is ill in such a way that it impacts his ability to perform — he should be saved for Game 5. It’s a smart, tactical retreat. After all, the Nationals still have to win two consecutive games. Their best bet to win one of those two is to have an ace-level pitcher at, or nearer to, 100%.

If he’s feeling better, if he’s prepared, he ought to pitch. He should be adaptable enough to change routines if relatively healthy to help a team facing elimination. But if he’s sick? The precedent isn’t great.

Consider the start by Matt Harrison (flu-like symptoms) included in Lindbergh’s research. He allowed five runs, four earned in 4.2 innings. Said then-Rangers manager Ron Washington:

“He’s under the weather a little bit, but he still went out there and left it all on the mound. He gave us everything he had. He took the ball and battled.”

Said Worley (four runs, 3.2 innings) of the appearance he made while dealing with a stomach ailment:

“I felt like I was going to see Earl* a few times today. You know, I just couldn’t get it out. And then I went out there, and it seemed like every time I tried to let loose today, it didn’t go where I wanted. And neither did my stomach. Everything arm-wise felt fine. I came out with good action. It just wasn’t going where I wanted because I couldn’t control my stomach.”

Said Tillman (five runs allowed in five innings):

“I was kind of out there fighting stuff on the mound, just trying to get through.”

Strasburg is a more talented pitcher than those cited above, but Kershaw couldn’t get through the fourth inning on April 5, 2012, and his fastball velocity sat at 89.3 mph, well below his seasonal average. On Wednesday evening, is Strasburg going to talk to reporters about hoping to have performed better but not having been at 100%?

Discretion is the better part of valor. Bravery can be misguided.

We hoped you liked reading If He’s “Under the Weather,” Stephen Strasburg Shouldn’t Pitch by Travis Sawchik!

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Shirtless Bartolo Colon
Member

Pitching in the playoffs is enough of a gut check. Now you got guys like Barry Svrgrgurglarugula asking to check what’s going on inside our guts. That’s going too far.

LHPSU
Member
LHPSU

Maybe Strasburg’s ill because he saw what’s in your guts, Barty.

Shirtless Bartolo Colon
Member

Which ones?

chuckb
Member
Member
chuckb

He was right to question whether or not Strasburg should’ve even been at Wrigley if he was sick. It’s the smallest clubhouse in MLB and he could’ve made other teammates sick as well. If he’s sick, he shouldn’t have been there. If he’s well enough to show up to the game and throw a bullpen, it’s reasonable to wonder how sick he really is.

I don’t disagree that he shouldn’t pitch if he’s really sick. They have to win 2 games, not just 1 and he has a duty (no pun intended) to his team to do what’s best for the team — and that might mean not taking the ball in game 4. But if so, he shouldn’t have been anywhere near Wrigley for game 3.

HappyFunBall
Member
HappyFunBall

I read that in the paper this morning (yes, the actual paper!) and I was floored. Seemed such an odd thing to write, and not particularly in character for Svrluga at all. My first though was that he was relaying something he heard from an uncredited source within the Nats organization.