Stephen Strasburg‘s remarkable 2012 season is over. Hours after the star twenty-four year-old righthander gave up five runs in three innings to the punchless Marlins, the Nationals management decided to shut down Strasburg for the remainder of the regular season and all of the playoffs.
Totalling 159 1/3 innings pitched this season, Strasburg falls a little bit short of the 160-180 inning limit that the Nationals initially announced to the media they would follow. However, as Davey Johnson explained in a press conference this afternoon, Strasburg’s underwhelming performance in his last few starts influenced the club’s decision to shut him down a little bit early. After a shaky three inning stint yesterday, Strasburg had managed just 10 innings over his last three games, while allowing 12 runs and seventeen hits in that span.
During their Saturday afternoon press conference at Nationals park, Davey Johnson and Nats general manager Mike Rizzo both told reporters that they didn’t like what they saw from Strasburg during Friday’s game. Johnson felt that all of the media attention surrounding Strasburg and the looming innings limit got in young ace’s head, adversely affecting his overall performance.
For a mental position like pitcher, in a mental game like baseball, anxiety about off-field issues and things a player can’t control will certainly lead to performance problems. Still, Strasburg isn’t happy about the Nationals’ decision to shut him down. Not in the least. On Saturday, Strasburg told reporters that the innings cap was “tough to swallow” and that he was disappointed that he wouldn’t make his next scheduled start on September 12th:
I don’t know if I’m ever going to accept it. To be honest, it’s something that I’m not happy about at all. That’s not why I play the game. I play the game to be a good teammate and win. I didn’t grow up dreaming about playing in the big leagues to get shut down when the games start to matter. It’s going to be a tough one to swallow…All I can do is be the best teammate possible for these guys…I know they’re going to keep [playing well], and I’m going to do everything in my power to support them.”
Davey later elaborated on his comments about the media coverage hindering Strasburg’s performance. According to the Nats’ manager, Strasburg has been losing sleep, anxious and worrying he would let his teammates down with a postseason absence.
With a 15-6 record, a 3.16 ERA and an NL-leading 11.1 K/9 rate this season, Strasburg’s dominant pitching has helped lead the Nats to the best record in baseball (85-53), and the most wins (already) in the franchise’s decade-long history. Remarkably consistent for a rookie and a guy just a couple years removed from reconstructive elbow surgery, Strasburg has made a quality start in 20 of 28 games this season and the Nationals won 19 of those starts. He’s struck out more than 30% of the batters he’s faced, the highest rate among NL starting pitchers in baseball, and he’s second in the MLB with 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. In just his first full (majority) season on the big leagues, he earned a spot in the All-Star game and will end his 2012 campaign ranking among league leaders in virtually every pitching category.
If the Nationals didn’t hold a healthy 6 1/2 game lead over the Braves in the East, their decision to shut down Strasburg this early would have been more difficult to accept. However, the team has been rolling since the All-Star break, boasting a 40-19 record and they’ve won 20 of their last thirty contests. On the other hand, Strasburg hasn’t been as sharp recently, making the front office’s decision little bit easier. He’s gotten knocked around in his last three starts, and Davey Johnson is concerned that all of the extra attention flustered the natural a little bit.
It might sound crazy, but the Nationals benching Strasburg for the homestretch and the playoffs is the right decision. First of all, the franchise’s focus isn’t the short-term, it’s the long-haul. The goal isn’t to go all in, blow out an arm or two, sacrifice budget flexibility and win now–the goal is to win annually. After years of losing, as the Expos before moving to D.C., everything has come together for the Nationals this season. Mike Rizzo and co.’s stocking-up on draft picks, big spending on amateur talent and emphasis on player development has built a winning foundation of cheap, blue-chip talent and has also left plenty of payroll room for the future. Davey Johnson’s roster is jam-packed with the league’s best young athletes– Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman, Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Wilson Ramos, Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard are all under team control for at least the next three seasons. And, the franchise’s farm system is absolutely stocked, boasting elite-level prospects in Anthony Rendon, Lucas Giolito, Alex Meyer and Brian Goodwin and plenty of other future big league contributors. So, why risk your hefty investment when your future is looking brighter than any other team’s in baseball?
Secondly, Strasburg isn’t even a full-season removed from reconstructive elbow surgery. He’s seemingly the most athletically gifted pitcher the game has ever seen, and if he can stay healthy, Strasburg will surely put together a hall of fame caliber career. He’s just twenty-four years old and his fastball sits in the 95-98 MPH with buzzsaw run, his slider is Verlanderian and his changeup is often his best pitch. He commands all of his un-hittable offerings with precision and he posted a 4.1 K/BB ratio this season, ridiculous for a pitcher with that kind of stuff. So, again, why risk ruining this kind of talent for a few more innings?
I’ve written on this subject multiple times before– major league pitchers have the most dangerous job in professional sports. Since 2000, injuries are on the rise in the MLB. Injury prevalence on the whole has increased 40% since 2005 and 55% over the past two years. Pitchers are responsible for 62% of all disabled list days, and half of all starting pitchers go on the disabled list annually. Pitching injuries are often severe as well, and few jobs have such a high risk of career-jeopardizing injury in the world. Young pitchers like Strasburg– those 24 or younger– face the greatest odds of going down with a serious or career-ending ailment. In any given year, young pitchers face a 1/5 chances of catastrophic injury– hurting their arms badly enough to greatly alter their career performance. Rotator cuff and labrum tears, UCL sprains– these fall under the catastrophic category.
Strasburg has already suffered through one of these catastrophic injuries. That means that he’s more likely to hurt himself badly again, and if he does get hurt, he faces greater chances of seriously reducing his performance long-term. More often than not, pitchers blow out their arms in the beginning of the season, presumably because they’re out of shape in most cases. However, the more innings a starting pitcher throws and the more pitches he throws per start, the greater the injury risk. Strasburg has thrown 159 1/3 innings this season, and considering his past elbow surgery, that’s definitely approaching the two-bullet Russian roulette threshold.
Though they did draw a wave of media attention by announcing the innings cap, the Nationals deserve a lot of credit for properly managing Strasburg this year. Sitting him now, with about four weeks left in the season, is essentially perfect timing. Strasburg has contributed 2.1 more wins to the Nationals’ record than the league-average starter could’ve this season– All-Star level production– and he’s built up arm strength for next year. His workload was light enough to re-assure confidence in his future, and he’ll be healthy as he enters his prime years next season. Davey Johnson has done a remarkable job of balancing his workload and optimizing Strasburg’s performance. Stephen threw less than 100 pitches in 65% of his starts this year, his pitch count eclipsed 108 twice and never topped 119.
Luckily for the Nationals, they’re blessed with the pitching depth to overcome losing a top-shelf starting pitcher. Davey Johnson’s staff is arguably the best in the Major Leagues. Nationals arms have combined for the NL’s best ERA (3.30), are allowing the fewest hits (7.8 H/9) and homeruns (0.8 HR/9). Their starting rotation is extraordinary and one of the most dominant the game has ever seen. Nats starters post a quality start a ridiculous 63% of the time, and they’re holding teams to 3.6 runs per game, both the best marks in baseball. The starting rotation has combined for 8.8 wins above average, and the other four starters have combined for 6.2 of those wins. In fact, the rotation is so strong and so well-rounded that the Strasburg is actually the third-best starting pitcher on his team (according to WAR), behind Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann.
The Nationals are so good that they’re still the strongest team in baseball sans one of the best pitchers in baseball. Without Strasburg, the Nationals will use John Lannan as the fifth starter for home stretch. Lannan is 1.8 wins better than average in his five-and-a-half-season big league career, and before he was crowded out of the starting-five this Spring, he was considered club’s most reliable starter the past few years. A rock-solid southpaw, Lannan has put together a 3.99 career ERA and has tossed at least 180 innings of sub-4.00 ERA-ball in three of the four seasons he was a member of Washington’s starting five (2008-2011). He he has the tools to be a very capable postseason pitcher, and isn’t a guy that Davey Johnson will worry about picking up the slack in the final month. But in the end, Washington won’t even need him come October.
The Nationals will field a four-man playoff rotation, and on that front, they’re looking golden even without Strasburg. Their top two starters, lefty Gio Gonzalez and righty Jordan Zimmerman, both rank among the NL’s top ten pitchers in numerous categories, including ERA and ERA+, WHIP and rWAR. Each pitcher is in the running for the NL Cy Young award and they both have the stuff to shut-down opposing lineups. The back-end is nearly as gifted, boasting Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler. The duo has combined for an impressive 3.40 ERA, a 2.61 K/BB and a 4.5 rWAR this year. While other playoff clubs like the Yankees, White Sox and Orioles struggles to get even average production out of their fourth and fifth starters, the Nationals have enjoyed performance that equates to 2.2 wins above average from the back of their rotation.
The rest of the Nationals team will be able to brush off the loss as well. The club steps up to the plate when it counts, and they hold the league’s best record against teams with above-.500 records. Their heavy-hitting lineup is healthy and catching fire at the perfect time. The club has hit more homeruns this season than the franchise has ever seen, and they’ve combined for the second-most in the National League. From top to bottom, the lineup is built with power and on-base skills. Jason Werth, their lead-off man is hitting .341/.414/.496 since returning from the disabled list at the beginning of August, and he’s posted a .987 OPS in his postseason career. Adam LaRoche and Ian Desmond have combined for a .511 slugging percentage this year, and teammed-up with Bryce Harper, a healthy Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse in the two through six spots creates a nightmare for even the most dominant opposing pitchers.
The Nationals’ bullpen is just as awesome, and is more than capable of picking up the slack if the rotation needs it (they won’t) come playoff time. The bullpen has totalled 3.8 wins above average this season, and their forty-five saves is the third-best mark in the league. Come playoff time, Davey has multiple relievers capable of longer outings, and great tools for match-ups. He has two of the best left-handed relievers in the MLB right now, with Sean Burnett and Mike Gonzalez. Craig Stammen, a converted starter, has a 6-1 record and a sparkling 2.52 ERA through 78 2/3 innings and he’s allowed just 22% of inherited runners to score (40% is MLB average). Stammen is used to a heavy workload, and he can easily give Davey multiple innings if necessary. Tyler Clippard, the team’s closer, has a 2.38 ERA since the beginning of ’11 and a 3.19 mark this year. A bat silencer, Clippard has allowed just 39 hits in 62 innings, and he’s limiting opposing lineups to 5.2 H/9 the last two years.
So, even without Strasburg in their rotation, the Nationals are still the best team in baseball. They did the right thing by shutting the kid down after 159 very impressive innings this year, and the club looks at a brighter future because of their decision. In the long-term, the Nationals talent-stocked organization and unbelievable budget flexibility (considering the star-power in the organization) puts them in a position to win year in and year out. They managed to optimize Strasburg’s performance in 2012, getting All-Star level production out of him while also keeping him healthy and strong. In the near term, while they’ll have to survive in the playoffs without him, the deep starting rotation and home run crushing lineup has the weapons to overcome Strasburg’s absence.