Stephen Strasburg and the Hardball Times Annual

Everyone talked about Stephen Strasburg this past season. At first, we talked about his comeback from Tommy John surgery after successfully pitching 24 (apparently) pain-free major league injuries in 2011. He didn’t disappoint, going 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA, striking out over 11 batters a game and walking less than three. His successful comeback was one of the primary reasons for the Nationals’ strong division-winning season.

Later in the year, however, we talked about the Nationals’ decision to stop pitching Strasburg after he reached an innings limit. They originally announced that he would be dropped from the rotation on Sept. 12, but he was dropped a little earlier after he had a rough outing on the 8th. It was one of the most controversial events of the season; a surprising decision based on a controversial practice for a contending team. The critics were particularly outspoken when the Nats lost their five-game series against the Cardinals by one very close fifth game.

As you can guess, Strasburg is also mentioned quite a bit in this year’s Hardball Times Annual. First of all, Ben Duronio’s recap of the National League East on page 35 makes a quick reference to the situation, but doesn’t get into it in too much detail. On page 64, Brad Johnson’s postseason coverage notes that “Somewhere, somebody is wondering if Stephen Strasburg could have saved the Nats.” That’s about it in the first section of the book.

This is appropriate, though, because the discussions are supposed to be further into the book, in the commentary and analysis sections. Craig Calcaterra picks it up on page 79, when his “frivolous” take on the season reports…

Following through on their plans, the Washington Nationals shut down Strasburg, banking on a playoff rotation of Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler. In related developments, students stop studying for tests figuring they know the material cold, drivers stop wearing seat belts figuring they won’t get into accidents, and the army stops issuing Kevlar vests assuming that the enemy can’t shoot straight.

Mockery seems like a good way to slide into the subject, doesn’t it? Jack Marshall takes things more seriously in his essay on baseball’s 2012 ethical dilemmas (Melky Cabrera receives a lot of attention here) and devotes nearly three pages to the ethics involved in the Nationals’ decision. Marshall argues that the Nationals’ surprising contention should have changed the ethical considerations surrounding the decision to hold Strasburg out:

For a decision that was supposed to be for Strasburg’s benefit, this one seemed oddly cruel; It robbed Strasburg of the chance to help win a championship that his talents and efforts got his team in the position to seize, the opportunity to play and star in the national spotlight, and to burnish his career with World Series heroics. The argument that Strasburg is a young and budding superstar, and will have other chances, like the assumption of future success for the team, is belied by history. Great pitchers like Ferguson Jenkins, Gaylord Perry and Phil Niekro never played in a World Series. Nolan Ryan never started a game in the one in which he played. Juan Marichal got just one chance, too, with a team, the 1962 Giants, that everyone thought would be back. It didn’t turn out that way, and it might not for Strasburg.

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You may or may not agree with Jack’s perspective, but he gives you plenty to think about. Jack also compares the Nationals’ handling of Strasburg with the White Sox’ handling of Chris Sales’ workload (Sale pitched 192 innings, nearly 40 more than Strasburg). In some ways, Sale was a bigger risk for shoulder or arm injury. He is more than a year younger than Strasburg and had never pitched more than 71 innings in a season (he was a reliever before 2012). On the other hand, Sale hasn’t had his arm operated on and, as far as I know, also hasn’t experienced the shoulder difficulties that Strasburg has.

The next place Strasburg’s season pops up is in Vince Gennaro’s case study of the Nationals’ year. This is an interesting one. Vince presents a hypothetical case set before the season started, and asks you what you might have done with some midseason trade options. In Vince’s hypothetical 2012, the Nationals held Strasburg back in the beginning of the season.

Strasburg has been brought along slowly in his recovery from Tommy John surgery. Although his velocity is in the mid-90s and there are no red flags, the Nats decided to an unusual form of an innings limit on his treasured right arm. Instead of planning to truncate the pitcher’s season in August, they used him sparingly in the first half of the season. Strasburg made only 10 starts through July 8 so that he could pitch on normal rest and shoulder a full load for the second half of the 2012 season.

In real life, Strasburg made 17 starts before July 8. Vince presented this scenario to make his case more interesting, but imagine what might have been had the Nats followed Vince’s narrative.

Finally, Jeff Zimmerman and Brian Cartwright use Strasburg as a prime example in their cutting-edge analysis of the effects of Tommy John surgery. In particular, they say that although young pitchers have been aided by Tommy John surgery…

…youth doesn’t necessarily carry an advantage. Examples are scarce since so few pitchers have both reached the majors before their 25th birthday and required Tommy John surgery, but history has not been kind to those who have. Kerry Wood (22), Josh Johnson (23) and Francisco Liriano (23) were all good young starters when they had the surgery, each was somewhat limited in innings pitched his first year back, and each had injury issues later in his career.

In a couple of words, Jeff and Brian don’t blame the Nationals for being concerned about Strasburg’s long-term health.

All of which reminded me of a past THT Annual, the 2011 version, in which Craig Wright (the co-author of The Diamond Appraised, among many other sabermetric works) presented a magnum opus on the limited value of strict pitch counts. Craig has advocated for a more creative approach to pitcher workloads, such as giving pitchers “furloughs” in the middle of the season and changing their spot in the rotation based on the number of pitches they pitched in the previous game.

For example, here is a table of the days of rest given to Strasburg and Sale during the season between starts:

Tebow or Not Tebow, a Visualization
When it comes to the Mets' famous minor leaguer, it's not just will he get major league time, but should he.
Days of Rest   Strasburg  Sale
        4           0       1
        5          14      11
        6           8      12
        7           4       2
        8           0       0
        9           1       0
       10           0       1
       11           0       0
       12           0       1

Sale did pitch one day with only four days of rest, but that followed a start in which he threw only 26 pitches. Most of his starts followed five or (notably) six days of rest and he also had two furloughs of more than 10 days—one during the All-Star break and the other in early August. Strasburg, on the other hand, primarily started with just five days of rest and never had a furlough of 10 days or more; his nine days of rest came during the All-Star break.

The bottom line is that the White Sox showed more care with Sale’s arm throughout the season than the Nationals did with Strasburg’s. Pitching Strasburg constantly every fifth day and then pulling him from the rotation didn’t help the team and might have damaged his arm just as much as Chicago’s use of Sale did.

I asked Craig about the Strasburg decision. I’ll let him have the final word.

Given the importance of the issue to the chances of the Nationals to win the pennant and possibly the World Championship, I was astounded at the lack of research done by the Nationals in working out this decision, and the crappy decision they ended up making.

(1) They were expressing concern over protecting his elbow but were focusing on workload theories that relate to the shoulder, not the elbow. (Torn UCLs are not manageable repetitive stress injuries but arise more out of risk factors of mechanics and pitch type.)

(2) The workload theories they were following related to the shoulder were unsound and unproven, and not cutting edge by any means.

(3) I am quite certain that his workload could have easily been managed in a way that would have produced more innings with less strain and less risk than what they actually did, and would have kept him pitching effectively into the postseason—which would have been a boon for a team that essentially was eliminated because it was a good pitcher short and largely done in by its staff ERA being over 6.00.

You know, the guy they really needed to be careful with down the stretch and limiting relying on in the postseason was Edwin Jackson, not Strasburg. Jackson has a history of his effectiveness going south on him late in the season. In September/October covering 1,208 plate appearances during the regular season in his career, he has sucked. He turns the average opposing hitter into a .300 hitter with an .829 OPS. And he has been worse in postseason play, allowing a .920 OPS to opposing players.

To keep pitching Jackson but cutting Strasburg out of the picture because of faulty knowledge and misguided handling was just heartbreaking to see. But you know what, even if the Nationals knew what they were doing, they still did the wrong thing. They broke faith with the game. They broke faith with their fans, Strasburg, and his teammates.

It was shameful.


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Dave Studeman was called a "national treasure" by Rob Neyer. Seriously. Follow his sporadic tweets @dastudes.
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studes
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studes

Seriously.  I should read my own books!  Oh, wait…

Hizouse
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Hizouse

Interesting, especially the Sale-Strasburg comparison. One nit: I found the days of rest chart confusing, since it apparently counts the day of the start as a “day of rest.” I.e., Strasburg started on 7/31, 8/5, 8/10, and 8/15, and we’d say the latter 3 starts were all on 4 days of rest, since there were 4 days on which he rested between starts (even if there were actually closer to 5 24-hour periods between when he left one game and entered the next). This is pretty standard convention; I assume Craig explains his terminology in his article.

studes
Guest
studes

Good catch on the math.  That’s my bad. Everyone: please take one day off the rest chart figures.

BTW, there’s been an interesting Twitter discussion about the White Sox’ history of pitcher injuries (or lack thereof). In Jeff Zimmerman’s database, the White Sox reportedly have the fewest number of pitchers who required Tommy John surgery.

Hizouse
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Hizouse

I like what the White Sox do quite a bit. They would be scary if Kenny Williams had the resources of their cross-town rivals.

Peavy missed a year while with the team, but I really liked the extension they gave him, a bargain if they keep him on the field.

I know it’s just one data point, but the difference between Sale and the other high profile relievers-turned-starter last year (Bard, Feliz, maybe Luebke) is startling. I hope Reds were paying close attention.

NatslLady
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NatslLady
So wrong!!!!!  What is the most salient fact in the comparison of Sales vs. Strasburg?  This.  Chicago didn’t win their Division.  Neither did Atlanta, and the Braves didn’t win the play-in game even with Medlen pitching. Without Stras and even with sub-par performances by Gio, Zimmermann and Jackson, the Nats were 99% to win game 5.  Jackson was fine in September—at least as fine as he “usually” was, I was there and watched him pitch lousy games and totally dominating games (one of which didn’t win due to a reliever). Jackson is a frustrating pitcher but he did not “suck”… Read more »
ITalkBaseball.com
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ITalkBaseball.com
Rizzo got a standing ovation because he had the balls to make the decision and stick with it, not because he was right.  If he really believed in his team, he would have sat Stras in April and had him available in October. 160 innings don’t have to start on opening day. He didn’t think his team would be there and he was left having to stick to a decision he didn’t think was going to cost his team anything of significance back in February. Applaud him if you will but admit he hurt his team by his lack of… Read more »
Will H.
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Will H.
The Chris Lund article on this topic a couple of months back was the worst I had ever seen here, mostly for making huge leaps, it lacked context, and worst of all carried a tenor that the team was something like unethical (and not just poor at making their decision) for taking the stand they did. Now there’s an equivalent piece in the Annual by Jack Marshall, plus a bunch of others with the same issues. Like that Lund piece, Marshall’s appears to take it to the ethical level in terms of how the team is more than just wrong… Read more »
ITalkBaseball.com
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ITalkBaseball.com

Do the math!

Stras started 5 games in April and pitched 32 innings in which the Nats went 4-1. If they go 2-3 without him (not unlikely since the Cubs and Astros were two of the five teams), they still win the east.  If he starts his season by taking his turn on May 4, he throws into October and who knows? If they do well and advance, he’s still under the threshold; if they don’t advance, he rests early. Your GM messed up.  Why is that so hard for Nats fans to grasp?

studes
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studes
Will H., I had no pet ax to grind.  I put together the salient quotes from the Annual regarding Strasburg. Craig Wright’s comments were added last because I consider him to be one of the game’s foremost experts on the subject. You’re right that there is no specific analysis regarding how the Nats might have done in the postseason without Strasburg. But picking apart a series game-by-game is a relatively useless exercise. If Strasburg had been available, who knows what the other effects might have been on the team? That’s speculative fiction, not analysis. It’s fun and sometimes interesting, but… Read more »
Will H.
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Will H.
ITalk – Vegas had the Nationals over/under for season wins below 8 other NL teams (at 84), including 3 in their division. That’s just shorthand for no one thought it was going to happen, not even close. Feel free to find me other projections that thought the team had a real chance to make the division series. Saying so confidently now that Rizzo must lack vision and confidence for not predicting such an immense leap to the point that he’d mess with his ace getting back into form with a 2013-15 stretch ahead in which they really should expect to… Read more »
Charles
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Charles

Shame. The shoulda-messed-with-his-schedule stuff is the kind of small-minded analysis and silly fluff that Hardball Times Annual was to challenge in the marketplace.

jbg
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jbg
If I could give Will H. a gold star, I would.  The article follows much of the blogoverse in ignoring/pooh-poohing several points: – games in April count the same as games in September – Rizzo could not have known before the season that the Nats would make a quantum leap in 2012 instead of 2013 – Harper was supposed to spend (most of) 2012 in Syracuse – The Nats followed the *same* protocols as they did with Jordan Zimmermann in 2011 – Strasburg had pitched 123.1 professional innings in 2010 and 44.1 professional innings in 2011; the 159.1 he pitched… Read more »
ITalkBaseball.com
Guest
ITalkBaseball.com
Will H: He did lack vision. If they were Vegas underdogs, why not wait to start him until May? If they’re not expected to compete, what difference do his April starts make? If they get to the post season, great; if they don’t, so what? He still throws 160.  I’m not suggesting a 2 month wait, just one month or 5 starts which worked out to 32 innings. This will happen again by the way.  Another organization will find themselves in a similar situation and all I’m saying is, if 160 is the magic number, make the 160 end at… Read more »
ITalkBaseball.com
Guest
ITalkBaseball.com
Will H: He did lack vision. If they were Vegas underdogs, why not wait to start him until May? If they’re not expected to compete, what difference do his April starts make? If they get to the post season, great; if they don’t, so what? He still throws 160.  I’m not suggesting a 2 month wait, just one month or 5 starts which worked out to 32 inninjgs. This will happen again by the way.  Another organization will find themselves in a similar situation and all I’m saying is, if 160 is the magic number, make the 160 end at… Read more »
David
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David
Way to take a hard stand against Washington lacking vision; does that mean we get to come back and throw your words in your face if Chris Sale blows his arm out? Or are the standards for the critics JUST that different. Poorly constructed ethical arguments, statistical arguments that hardly even touch on the underlying issues they need too, followed up by patronizing descriptions of the Nationals management? I get you guys don’t hold yourself to the standard you hold baseball executives, but it would be nice if you held your self to a standard most college freshman can meet.… Read more »
studes
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studes
Wow. We really stirred up the masses, didn’t we? There’s no doubt in my mind that Jeff and Brian have done research into Tommy John Surgery that no one else has published before.  Shoot, Jeff’s data itself is cutting-edge. I’m not the only person who feels that way.  If you feel it isn’t, you should point to places where folks have published analysis as deep and insightful as theirs. The only similar research I’m aware of is the recent great work at BtB, but that still hasn’t been as comprehensive as the work in the Annual. And it’s true that… Read more »
studes
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studes
Look, I appreciate people disagreeing with the viewpoints in this article.  In fact, I think it’s great.  But accusing us of writing to our preconceptions and insulting the integrity of these writers is out of line. No one wrote to their preconceptions. In fact, if you look at what I actually put in this article, you’ll see a variety of viewpoints, many of them thoroughly thought through. That was the main point of the article. I’ll say it again: Craig Wright has been studying pitcher use for over 20 years.  He has worked for major league teams.  His viewpoint isn’t… Read more »
jbg
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jbg
studes:  you’re right on the unneeded personal slant, and you have every right to highlight/drum up support for your book.  (It is, after all, based on your viewpoint.)  It’s just that some of us Nats fans are tired of the hydra.  Craig’s response in your article, while interesting, isn’t completely accurate.  As I said in my earlier post, the Nats’ front office did consult with elbow experts.  The workload theories (in terms of IP) were the same they used for Zimmermann the prior year.  While you could argue that Jackson should have been the pitcher dropped (especially in retrospect), both… Read more »
studes
Guest
studes

thanks, jbg.  I appreciate the feelings that Nats fans have about this subject, and I appreciate your reasonable response.

ITalkBaseball.com
Guest
ITalkBaseball.com
Will, jbg: I’ll try the logic thing one last time. If it doesn’t work, you’re on your own. 1. April games count as much as September games. Agreed, so pitch in September rather than April. If you are not a contender as everyone believed, it won’t matter what you do in April anyway. 2. Agree that Rizzo didn’t know the Nats would compete. See above. 3. Harper, same logic as above. 4. The Nats protocol is not at question. What they did with Zim was right as was shutting down Stras at 160. Using what happened or didn’t happen in… Read more »
SrMeowMeow
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SrMeowMeow
This is the quick and dirty playoff analysis: Game 1 was Gio Gonzalez. He was going to be in the rotation anyway. The Nationals won. Game 2 was Jordan Zimmermann. He was going to be in the rotation anyway. The Nationals lost. Game 3 was Edwin Jackson. He was almost definitely going to be in the rotation anyway. He sucked, but the Nationals got shut out. Game 4 was Ross Detwiler. This is the start Strasburg most likely would have replaced. Detwiler threw a shutout victory. Game 5 was Gio again. He was the best choice to pitch that game… Read more »
Hank G.
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Hank G.

How do you pitch 24 major league injuries?

Charles
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Charles
“ITalkBaseball.com said… 160 innings don’t have to start on opening day.” They should if you’re developing a pitcher coming back from injury and preparing him to perform at peak performance many years in the future. You might then care about keeping to a schedule. You might not want to dangle him around or shift the calendar. You’re developing the arm. You’re training the pitcher on how to use his arm to a consistent schedule, conscious of his health. You might then him the appropriate time to build it up in spring training. And then to recover from the use over… Read more »
Charles
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Charles

Stated more clearly: Would you rather have Strasburg have an extra month of spring training and one less month in his offseason to recover from pitching? Or would you rather push the effects of 2012’s use into his preparation for 2013, when the Nats really expected to compete?

ITalkBaseball.com
Guest
ITalkBaseball.com

You Nats fans kill me. “One less month in his offseason to recover from pitching”.  Really? You mean 4 months isn’t enough, he needs 5? How’s the kool-aid in DC?

I want my best pitcher throwing my most important games. My franchise guy throwing franchise games.  In October. So yes, I think I’d trade a month of rest in October for the chance at a ring.  But that’s just me.

D Leaberry
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D Leaberry

Rizzo is planning the Nats to be a baseball empire like the Braves have been for 20 + years.  He did not want to risk Strasburg wrecking his arm one season after major surgery.  Moreover, Strasburg had not pitched well after the All-Star game.  Most Nats fans accepted Rizzo’s decision.  In the end, the Nats lost the playoff series with the Cardinals because their relief pitching choked in Game 5.

Charles
Guest
Charles
If you’re recovering from a workload you’ve never encountered before, yes, you may need an extra month. You certainly need some kind of schedule consistency. Flipping back and forth between a 2-month or 3-month spring training doesn’t help. Pitching in AAA or on the side, and pretending it doesn’t really count toward the 160, doesn’t help either. Back in winter of 2011/12 the Nats expected their best chance to compete was 2013. They did not push their potential 2013 ace hard in 2012. They did not allow his 2012 season draw away from 2013’s potential. They followed a plan they… Read more »
Charles
Guest
Charles

ITB, When the Nats developed this plan their most important games were expected to be the 2013 postseason, not 2012.

Will H.
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Will H.

Dave,

I’ve sent an email via your site’s “contact us” box.

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