Nationals Baseball: The Strasburg situation

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Strasburg situation

I say "situation" and not "question" because there likely is no question. Rizzo wants to shut him down.  He will be shut down. Is it the right move?  As Stark and Passan rightfully wrote, "Who knows?".  There simply isn't enough data to have created a sure-fire method of coming back from Tommy John surgery and there are too many confounders that we can't account for on a pitcher by pitcher basis.  There is no guarantee of success no matter what you do.

Given that and my usual proclivity to strike while the iron is hot, you may be surprised that I'm in favor of shutting Strasburg down. Why? Strasburg is a long-term asset and like any long-term asset you are best served by treating it conservatively. We don't know much but we do understand at a base level that more pitches equals more injuries.  Shutting Strasburg down might be too conservative, the baseball equivalent of investing your retirement fund in a simple bank savings account, but since we don't know where that line is, the line where you go from conservative to risky, you have little choice but to err on the side of too conservative. 

There are no compelling other reasons for the franchise to keep Strasburg pitching. National and local interest is just beginning to grow. Rizzo's job is not on the line. This is not the last chance of an aged squad. There isn't a large long-suffering fan base that may rebel at the decision (suffering fan base, yes).  Notice I didn't say anything about winning the World Series.  While that is the ultimate goal it is not necessary for the continued success of the franchise.

Of course I'm not a die-hard Nationals fan. The above is a soulless take on what's best for the future health of the Washington Nationals. I'm not thinking about a championship in this year or any other year.  I'm merely figuring what gives this franchise the most wins from here until the likely end of the Gio /Stras era in 2016. Unfortunately for the die-hards their side is filled with arguments from the talking head side of sports. The ones who shout "The clubhouse will be angry!!!" and "When I was playing, I wouldn't let them do this!!!".  Not a good side to be on. Since I'm nothing if not a wishy-washy android with feeling of goodwill toward the die-hard Nats fan base, here are some very good arguments on why the Nats should keep pitching Strasburg.

The Playoffs are not guaranteed 

You hear the "They got a chance to win it all!" argument a lot but the thought process behind that is they are a good team who will make the playoffs for a few years but who knows if they'll be best in the league again. They don't say that the Nats won't make the playoffs again, but that is a possibility.  We like to point out the Braves as a model of consistency.  The Braves have made the playoffs once since 2006.  The Red Sox built up a good farm system, spent a ton of money and are about to miss the playoffs for the third consecutive year.  Only the Yanks and Phillies have made the playoffs each of the past 3 years and only 4 other teams have made it twice in the last 3, the Cardinals, Rangers, Rays, and Twins. (Yeah, the Twins).  So out of those 6 likely only 3 (maybe 2, real unlikely 4) are going to get in this year.

The 2nd Wild Card will change things but even then things happen. Injuries, bad luck, other teams getting hot. It doesn't take much to miss the playoffs. You ask me now how many times the Nats will make the playoffs from 2013-2016 and I'd guess 3.  That's 3 playoffs teams not three pennant winners and I would bet on 2 before 4. What if the Nats only make it twice after this year?  By shutting down Strasburg, you are hurting yourself in one out of your three chances.

The offense is led by old guys...

Who are the four most important bats in the Nats line-up right now (well as of two days ago)?  Zimmerman, LaRoche, Morse and Werth, right?  Morse will be 31 next year, LaRoche 33, Werth 34.  All have missed major time to injury in the last 2 years. They are all in the decline phase of their career. Is it a slow decline with maybe a surprise good year left? Maybe, but betting on all three hitting like they are right now is a fool's bet. Over the course of the next couple years production from these guys will go down which means it'll have to pick up elsewhere.

... and everyone else has a legitimate question hanging on them

I wouldn't have said this mid May as Ramos was hitting ok and everyone was sure Bryce would adapt quickly to the majors but here we are.  Give me a Nats player and I'll voice a concern.  Ramos? Back from major injury. Suzuki? Not good. Moore? Scouts and stats both say he'll have trouble keeping an average up for a full year. Espinosa? Still hasn't broken out. Desmond? Just one year and possible injury-risk. Zimmerman? Even more of an injury-risk. Bryce? May take a couple years to hit full potential.

The Nats' offense has had a lot of injuries this year but they've also had pretty much everything break right for them on the field including the performance of fill-ins. Here are the names of guys who performed much worse than expected this year. Mark DeRosa. Xavier Nady.  That's it. That's the list. About 170 at bats. Everyone else is at expectations or above when they've played. That's an unusual occurrence that's unlikely to be repeated.

There's no such thing as a sure thing pitcher.

OK the Nats offense could be a bit of a question mark going forward. But the pitching, that is young and good and surely the Nats can count on that, right?  I went back three years and looked at the top pitchers by WAR and pulled out the top 7 that were 27 or younger that year. Here's what happened

Greinke - regressed a bit in 2010
Lincecum - not as good in 2010, went off the rails the first half of this year
Johnson  - missed major time in 2011, good in 2012 but not the same pitcher as before.
Jurrjens - battled injuries behind a bad 2010 and terrible 2012, hasn't had more than 23 starts after 2009
Wainwright - missed all of 2011
Lester - regressed, with good luck in 2011 didn't look so bad, with bad luck in 2012 looks terrible
Cain - nothing bad for Matt!

There you go. Seven young stud pitchers their teams were surely thinking "we can plan around these guys" and 6 of them don't perform up to the same level for the next 3 years. Only two, Cain and Greinke, are even just good pitchers for each of the next three seasons.  Now if that seems a bit dire, you're right. By chance this list just left off Verlander and King Felix, who have both been good three straight years since then. But adding them you still get to roughly 50% of the pitchers failing to do what their teams expected of them, in even a short period of time, either because injury or because the fact that playing high level baseball is hard. Gio, ZNN, and Strasburg will not each have 3 great years the next 3 seasons. If they falter will Detwiler/whoever be able to compensate for that loss?

This isn't my line of thinking, but these are valid arguments why the Nats should go all-in in 2012. Personally, I think the pitching is that good that it would survive the random off-year or injury year and I think the offense can be good enough even with the aging and questions to keep making the playoffs. That's why I favor shutting down Strasburg, but don't dismiss the guys that favor keeping Strasburg going as macho cranks or short-sighted.  Nothing is guaranteed in baseball.


WiredHK said...

It's only fitting that in this election year, I've found myself personally waffling on this as much as any politician does when confronting a tough issue. In the end, I think my stance is to not take a stance on it (how very political of me, right?). But seriously, it's one of the craziest things in sports I can remember -- all of sports. There will be never be a way to say if it was the absolute right or wrong thing to do. It will remain long-debated, yet never resolved, regardless of the season outcome.

So, the only solution is to simply accept it and move on. Given the information at hand, and the stakes at risk, the Nats are attempting to do the best thing they can for SS and for themselves in the long run. It's hard to get super angry about that, even if we never end up winning a WS title with this group of players...

Anonymous said...

This team is great, Nats fans are enjoying the ride. The Strasburg shut-down is of no concern to me, I love watching him pitch and I would prefer to be able to see him pitch for the next decade or more. The decision is going to be made by the GM, the Doctors, Strasburg and his Family and nobody else, and I am not entirely sure how much input Strasburg will have. End of Story. Everyone who counts is going to try to do what is best for Stasburg and hope that is also the best for the Nationals long term, and that is the way it should be.

The media is trying to keep this story going so they can blow it out of proportion all winter and bring it up all the time in the next 25 years if the Nats fail to win a World Series this year (without Stras) or again fail to win in the next 3-5 years (with Stras), or again if Stras gets injured again within 4 years anyway. Lots of trap scenarios to keep this story going for a long time... sigh.

This story will eventually go away if and only if the Nats shut down Stras and then win the World Series at least twice in the next decade: this year and in the future with a healthy Strasburg; who's career is awesome with no or only minor medical setbacks. I really hope we experience this scenario. -vdub

calindc said...

Do you think Rizzo's job would still be secure if Stras' arm falls off at inning 161?

Anything past 160 is playing with fire. I personally think 160 is a stupid arbitrary number, but it's the established number the media is running with and the one they used with JZimm last year.

cass said...

160 is not an arbitrary number. I keep hearing people say this but it simply isn't true. It's got nothing to do with Jordan Zimmermann. That's just a coincidence.

The basic Nats policy that I've heard quoted is that pitchers should not increase their innings workload by more than 30%.

Strasburg's total innings pitched in 2010: 123.1

123.33 x 1.30 = 160.03

The 30% figure, for what it's worth, is inline with previous research on the topic by Verducci and others. This isn't some newfangled thing the Nats are doing. It's the medical best practice.

ff said...

Look at 2007 for example:

-Padres win division
-Rockies make world series
-Mets have huge 1st place lead in August
-Indians win 96 games with fairly young team of under 30's like Lee, Sabathia, martinez, Sizemore, and Peralta

Those 4 teams combined for just 1 playoff appearance since 2007. You have other 2007 playoff teams like the DBacks and Cubs who combined for 1 playoff appearance. Even the Red Sox fell off. The only teams that were consistently in the playoff race afterward were the Yankees, Phillies, and Angels

Kenny B. said...

The "what-ifs" will be intolerable f the Nats lose out of the playoffs without Strasburg, but I think they would pale in comparison to the outrage that would occur if Strasburg blew out his arm this year for a playoff run that even with him is still unlikely to end with a World Series win.

And of course, if we shut him down and win the world series this year, it's hard to see the commentariat having much to say.

It's a tough situation, but management has done a great job with ZNN's recovery (as well as Strasburg's up to now), so I'm inclined to give Rizzo the benefit of the doubt here.

Anonymous said...

Your're so predictable Harper, I knew after a great game and nothing negative to talk bad about you would talk about Strasburg today. lol

Anonymous said...

I agree with the man above me, where's your article bashing the Nationals offense?

John McLaughlin said...

Issue One: The Stephen Strasburg Shutdown!

Ever since Spring Training Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo has steadfastly insisted that he will shut down Stephen Strasburg when the time is right. This to avoid risking a serious setback after ligament replacement surgery in his pitching arm.

But baseball fans and pundits alike puzzle at this stance with the Nationals leading baseball in high hopes for a first-ever playoff appearance for the franchise.

Is Mike Rizzo off his rocker or is this an indisputable position by a thoughtful baseball man? I ask you Freddy "The Beatle" Barnes!

Jeff Hayes said...

Anon #2 and Anon #3 - I too was disappointed not to see some acknowledgment of the game last night, but give Harper his due. One game, no matter how spectacular, isn't a defining event. I was HUGELY relieved by the victory, especially the Braves also lost. But I don't agree with your claims that Harper is always negative. After all, he was the one that said more than a week ago that the Division Crown was almost in reach.

The best part of this blog is that Harper isn't a Nationals fan. That, in my mind, gives his analysis credibility. He doesn't want to see the Nats lose but he also isn't a huge Nats supporter. Its objectivity I find valuable in a medium (the Internet) that is too often void of such objectivity.

Section 222 said...

And here I thought you were a Nationals fan. Why else would you write this blog instead of writing about another team? Oh well. Guess I haven't been paying attention. But I still enjoy your work, and link to you on NatsInsider whenever I get the chance. You're welcome.

I've drunk Rizzo's Kool-Aid on this, but I'm glad to see some thoughtful analysis of the issue that doesn't just reject out of hand the arguments for Strasburg continuing to pitch.

Anonymous said...

I'm very definitely in the Kool Aid camp on this. Strictly from a business perspective, this is protecting a long term investment. If the Nats can continue to sell tickets, the window doesn't close in '16. A winning team will sell tickets, even if they miss the playoffs every once in a while.

Chaos.....and as a fan, I'll take our 2,3,and 4 guys over the rest o the NL

Froggy said...

I still say he pitches.... the playoffs.

I'm sure the managment and Rizzo will do the right thing. It will come down to 'it depends' and one factor likely will be determined by if we lock down the division and who the team / teams we are matched up with going forward. Do we 'risk' it and pitch him for a wildcard situation? I say no.

On the other hand, putting Strausburg as the #3 or #4 could have him only making 2 or 3 starts total.

But if the Nats make it to the WS, you would be stupid crazy for not pitching him.

Wally said...

Harper - I think that you could get paid to do this for a living (or at least on a semi-regular basis!). Well done.

I think shutting him down is the right call.

Harper said...

WiredHK - Sounds like we're in the same boat. I'm not going to flip out whatever the Nats do because I see both sides haven decent points.

VDub - Eh, I don't think it's the media - the best team in the league is going to stop pitching its presumbly best pitcher based on a educated guess. That's a story. You're right though - this could play out for years.

calindc - no I don't Not with things going this well.

cass - Did you factor in desire into the equation? Heart?

ff - without looking at each of those teams it;s hard to say they compare to the Nats. Remember the best comparison to this rotation was the early Braves ones a team that ended up dominating the NL East for years. But the point reamains - it's tough to make the playoffs year after year. No guarantees even for the best teams

Kenny - I kind of wanted to start out this column blaming ZNN. If he had only the good sense to blow out his arm at the end of last year, no one would be questioning the shutdown.

Anon #1 - The Strasburg story blew up over the weekend - I'd have to have tried NOT to write about it.

Anon #2 - bashing? not coming. Saying it's not great as everyone thinks? That one is still on the back of the stove.

McLaughlin - Is the answer Strasburg has to eat Special K with bananas?

Jeff Hayes - I don't blame Anon, negativity is a personal sliding scale. Plus I do think we tend to lean negative a bit in general because we shift our expectations to the next level then figure out why we can and cannot get there. If we were still thinking of the Nats as just a playoff team it would be just sunshine and lollipops right now.

222 - You're Mark Zuckerman?! Thanks. At some point I have to put up an "about this blog" to explain how this all came about. There are always going to be new readers.

Chaos - That is true. 2016 is an arbitrary end point that doesn't really exist for this sqaud. more wins = more $ = better teams. WS = more $ too, but just as there are no guarantees of playoffs, there is no guarantee of a WS showing this year.

Froggy - I don't know. I still thinks shut down means shut down. Rizzo is probably MORe adamant now with all the eyes on him.

Wally - perhaps. Can I make a couple 100 grand a year? Isn't that what Kilgore and Zuckerman make? Private jetting to away series and all.

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