The Shutdown: Right or Wrong to End Stephen Strasburg’s Season?

First things first. For all those who call this a debate, you need to know that it never really was one. When Mike Rizzo said there would be an innings-limit put on Stephen Strasburg this year—his first full season after recovering from successful Tommy John surgery—he meant it. No one was going to change his mind. Not even Washington Nationals Manager Davey Johnson.

Either way, Friday night marks Stras’s last home start of the season; he’ll reportedly make one more start on the road in New York and then be told to pack it in for the winter. Meanwhile the Nationals have their first division title to chase, and maybe a lengthy playoff run ahead of them.
The decision to shut their ace down has been scrutinized all year long through many different channels. The fact that they’re primed to make a splash in the post season (they do have baseball’s best record after all) only exacerbates the situation. Are they making the right call with how they’re handling him? I’ve been struggling to answer this question all season long, and even as I write this, I don’t know that I have an answer—I find myself Mitt Romneyingflip-flopping my opinion every other day. But let’s try and make some sense of it all, and maybe I’ll have my mind made up by the end of this.

Interesting Tommy John Surgery Reads:

Initially, my thoughts were this: If everyone and their mother within the Nats organization knew that there would be an innings-limit imposed on Strasburg (which follows the same regimen they set out for Jordan Zimmerman last year—his first after having the same Tommy John procedure) why not work to stretch his season out? Could they really have mismanaged this situation that badly?

I was, until a few days ago, a major proponent of the argument that they should have gone with a six-man rotation the entire year. It only made sense: John Lannan, their Opening Day starter the last few years was available, they have the depth in the rotation, and you save Strasburg five starts for the post season.

In all reality, though, this probably would have done more harm than good for the organization as a whole. Pitchers are creatures of habit. They’re all different in how they go about preparing for their starts, but they all work on a five- sometimes six-day cycle. To all of a sudden ask them to change how they do things could throw them off mentally. An extra day of rest might not sound like a bad thing when it comes to preparing for that next start, but it’s also an extra day of waiting. On top of that, think about this: In your basic five-man rotation, if everyone stays healthy all season long, each pitcher would get roughly 32 starts. When you add a sixth man the total drops down to 27. You’re talking about taking away five starts that would have belonged to guys like Strasburg, Zimmerman, Gio Gonzalez, and Edwin Jackson. That’s 20-plus starts from a group quality pitchers being given to a sixth man. Still like that idea?

At the outset of the 2012 season, unless you were a die-hard Nats fan or someone in the organization, you didn’t have them pegged really high on your board. The fact that they so quickly turned things around and now find themselves perched atop a tough division is impressive; a lot of thanks can be given to Strasburg and his reconstructed elbow. The instant success has been great, but as Johnson told the media recently, “this team wasn’t just piecemealed together for one year.” They plan on sticking around for a while.

Rizzo and the Lerner’s are only thinking about protecting the future of the team, and Strasburg is a major part of that.

Will it suck to not have him in the postseason? You bet. But this is just the first of what will likely be a string of years in which the Nationals contend. They’ve got the depth to hang in there in a post season series this year, the team just has to stick together.

Now, all of that defending the shutdown aside, here’s what I don’t get.

The innings-limit itself seems entirely too arbitrary. I’m not sure, and I don’t know who really would be sure, about where the number 160 comes from—the number of innings that Strasburg, and Zimmerman last year, is limited to. On top of that, I’m not sure, along with many medical professionals, that limiting his pitches is going to do anything to prevent (or at least limit the possibility) of future injury.

Internally, the results of Zimmerman’s recovery program probably only reinforce the decision to set a cap, but medically nothing has been proven.

Looking at the history of the procedure, who’s had it and what they did the first full year after their recovery, it’s all over the place. The man, who the procedure is now named for, Tommy John, went out and pitched 207 innings his first season back—he would continue the trend, throwing over 200 innings, for seven of the next ten seasons. He reach 276 and 265 innings just four and five years removed from the surgery. More recently, Cardinals-ace Chris Carpenter missed most of the ’07 and ’08 seasons because of Tommy John surgery. In 2009, his first full season after recovering, he threw 192 innings and finished second in NL Cy Young voting. He’s gone over 200 innings in each healthy season since.

A few more:

  • Kerry Wood: T.J. surgery in 1999; threw 137 innings in 2000
  • Tim Hudson: surgery in 2009; 189 innings in 2010
  • Adam Wainwright: surgery in 2011; 173.2 innings so far this year, and still pitching

None of it makes any sense. Each individual who goes through the procedure is going to have a different recovery. Setting a specific limit just doesn’t make much sense to me. For all anyone knows, 160 may have been too much for Strasburg—but in all reality 160 is probably well short of what he could have done this season.

No matter where you stand on the issue, one thing remains. This time next week, Strasburg will be out of the Washington Nationals rotation until 2013. If the Nats go the distance, there will be nothing but joy and celebration. Any other result, though, and everyone will be left wondering, what if?


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I'm an editor for Associations Now, a magazine pubished by ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership. I live in Springfield, VA with my amazing wife, and am enjoying the ride that life is taking me on.


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