Nationals Baseball: The Four Seasons of Strasburg - The wilting Summer

Monday, August 28, 2023

The Four Seasons of Strasburg - The wilting Summer

The end of 2012 changed what Strasburg meant for the Nationals fan. He came in as a gift, something for a weary fanbase to get excited about when little else qualified as that. But the end of 2012 brought Bryce Harper and the expectations of playoffs. Strasburg's mere existence was no longer was enough to get fans in the seats. To continue to be loved as he had been, Strasburg would have to produce. This fact was made even starker when he was shutdown to end 2012. 2013 would open with a singular question "Was it worth it?"*

Strasburg began 2013 with a shutout but the Nats would proceed to lose his next 5 starts. He didn't pitch poorly. In fact he pitched well. But Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez pitched better and more importantly the "World Series or Bust" team floundered, getting off to a 13-14 start. Strasburg and his 1-4 record became emblematic of this disappointing team. He would pitch better as the season progressed, despite missing a few weeks to a lat strain, but the team wouldn't turn the corner and they'd miss the playoffs. He would finish with an 8-9 record in comparison to ZNN's 19-9. It didn't matter that Strasburg's stats were better than ZNN's. In fact that might have hurt him. A certain strain of fan emerged that saw Strasburg as soft, a pitcher with all the stuff but who was unable to compete and win games. He didn't help himself by visually getting annoyed when the defense muffed plays and candidly explaining to reporters things that bothered him like sweating in the heat. Other pitchers feel the same way but by speaking up about it when others didn't, some fans read it as him making excuses. He seemed to wilt when the heat was on. No playoffs, no ace; the immediate answer to "Was it worth it?" appeared to be "No".

It continued this way in 2014. Strasburg started slow, mixing in a couple stinkers early to sit with a 6.00 ERA after 4 games. The other starters weren't much better but Strasburg's start allowed the narrative to set in that Strasburg wasn't a guy you trade a playoff series for. He was somehow both a Top 20 pitcher in the league and a disappointment. In 2014, he'd have a rare fully healthy year and outside a small early summer stretch he'd be great but ZNN matched him this year. Even as Strasburg was finishing the season with 20 scoreless innings, ZNN finished it with a no-hitter. Then came the playoffs. If you were talking about saving Strasburg for something it was this moment. Strasburg pitched Game 1 and allowed only 2 runs (1 earned) but it was a battle giving up 8 hits and only going 5. On the other side Jake Peavy, starting for the Giants, shut down the Nats completely into the 6th. Without the hindsight of knowing the Nats offense would completely die, it seemed simple, Strasburg got outdueled. ZNN again would outdo Strasburg going 8 2/3rds of shut out ball in Game 2 before Matt Williams took the ball from him.Strasburg, despite the good performance, would end up giving up more runs than any Nats starter. If you wanted to believe ZNN was the Nats true #1 this year backed you up. If you wanted to lay blame on Strasburg for the team's failures, and people did, the opportunity was there. 

In 2015 the Nats brought in Max but instead of finding Bryce's lost ring the Nats had a repeat of 2013 in that they failed to make the playoffs. There was a repeat from Strasburg as well. Another slow start with a bad first two games and a real stinker in G7.  Meanwhile Max pitched amazingly. His ERA sat at 1.26 at the end of April, 1.51 at the end of May. Stras would also be injured, this time more seriously as a litany of ailments limited him to 23 starts. Again he fought through it to have a decent year but the fans were no longer excited about Strasburg. They were weary of him. It didn't help his erstwhile rival Matt Harvey came back from Tommy John and pitched the Mets into the World Series. Never did it seem more obvious to some that the shutdown was wrong. Heading into his final year of his rookie deal, it wasn't exactly clear if Strasburg would be back and it wasn't exactly clear if a large segment of the fanbase would miss him if he wasn't.

But in 2016 Strasburg finally got off to a good start and Max did not. A failure to sign ZNN long term at the end of 2015 and Strasburg's willingness to stick around found him signing an extension with the Nats in May. This combination of looking like an ace yet deciding to say with the Nationals led to a kind of a thawing of feeling. The pro-shutdown people had their thing to hang their hats on. The Nats saved his arm for the Nats, not another team. The anti-shutdown people weren't entirely satisfied but Strasburg was now the guy that wanted to be here, instead of the guy looking to return to the West Coast, which had been something people thought even if he never said anything about it. There was a more honest evaluation by fans of Strasburg's pitching (it had been very good!) and maybe even a sugar coating of his injury history (it wasn't good!) to play the deal as a big discount rather than what it was, a low market value gamble on a arm that may not make it to the end of the deal. Of course soon after Strasburg would get injured. He'd come back and be 12-0 and 15-1 at points in the year but would go off the rails late with a more serious injury in his elbow. Signs were inconclusive and a second TJ was worried about. Luckily it didn't come to that but he would miss the playoffs. 

Even with the missed playoff things had settled down for the most part by now. Max, who'd rebounded with a great middle of the season run in 2016 and won the Cy Young, was the guy. Stras was the other guy. Max was appointment watching. Stras was the steady followup. Strasburg would have a great year in 2017. Max would run away with his second Cy Young. Fans stopped worrying about Strasburg being the greatest and just let him be great, only worrying instead about injuries (which yes he'd again miss a few weeks) but before we could declare a new season for Strasburg fate would come up with one more moment that would make or break Strasburg's reputation in DC.  

The Nats won the division and faced the Cubs in the NLDS.  Strasburg, in his first chance at playoff pitching since the Peavy game was dominant, holding the Cubs hitless for 5 before a couple of errors and singles let the Cubs score twice. There were some minor anti-Strasburg rumblings, but the majority seemed able to focus on the Nats lack of offense. The Nats and Cubs would split the next two leading to a decisive G4 and the question of whether Stras would start on short rest. But then that question seemed to be answered by the weather gods as a rain out put Strasburg back on schedule... until it didn't.

Look at this point my thoughts diverge from the official narrative. I've explained several times that it doesn't make sense. You can read my take at the time here. Regardless of where you lie this was an inflection point. If Strasburg doesn't go in G4 and the Nats lose I'm not sure he stays in good graces with the fanbase. Guys that were all for Strasburg for years were turning on him. It could have been bad. Real bad. But Strasburg did go in G4 and he was once again fantastic. He won the game, saved the series** and saved his career as a National. I honestly believe this. 

After this game Strasburg the playoff bulldog was born and added to his new role as the 1b to Max's 1a. You'd see a new Strasburg narrative emerge, one of a solid loyal pitcher trying to win in DC who would battle to make it happen.  Two years later this narrative would find both it's peak and it's surprising ending in the Fall Classic.

*Look, it's a question that can't be answered because we simply can't know what happens if he isn't shut down. You can have your opinions but there are no facts here.  

**for one of the more bonkers G5s I've ever seen as both teams made inexplicable decisions on the field and in the dugout.


G Cracka X said...

Excellent summary and capturing of the various impressions of Stras.

I went to 2016 G1 vs the Cubs. Stras was electric. Best I’ve ever seen him in person. Sadly, he didn’t get run support that game

kubla said...


These Strasburg pieces are coming fast and are very well written. I'll miss this retrospective when it's done, because reflecting on the whole of his career is helping with the sadness over the "winter" period. Did you have this series sketched out or partially written beforehand, like newspapers do with obits for celebrities in their 80s/90s?

Mike Condray said...

Yes, there is no "beyond a reasonable doubt" on the Stras shutdown. As there is no definitive answer to ANY counter-factual alternate history. the "preponderance of evidence" standard the Nats case on the Stras shutdown has a ton more weight than any "Nats should have gone for it with Stras in 2012, to hell with any innings limits" [Mets, Matt Harvey] or a "should have managed his innings to save him for the playoffs [Braves, Kris Medlen]. One of those three pitchers careers would last long enough and good enough to win a WS MVP and championship seven years later.

As for 2012, the counter-factual blithely ignores Ross Detweiler pitching (and WINNING) the game of his life as the replacement for Stras in the Nats rotation. Not to mention Strasburg himself eventually deciding to stick with the club that took HIS long term interests into account. And that actual, yes-it-happened not-a-what-if 2019 WS MVP.

I'd debate the evidence the Nats handled Strasburg correctly in 2012 meets the "Beyond a reasonable doubt" criteria. Certainly the "preponderance of evidence" criteria (since I haven't heard ANYONE offer any counter-factual "coulda, woulda, shoulda" logic behind a Nats WS run for 2012 with Stras).

At this point the counter-argument is reduced to more or less mindlessly repeating over and over "well, they MIGHT have won it in 2012 with Stras! We'll never know any different!"

Okay, fine, whatever. I ain't going to return the 2019 rings to test anyone's 2012 "what if?" Strasburg theories, thanks.

Anonymous said...

I do often wonder if the way Dusty Baker mishandled the Roark is pitching Game 4 is part of why he was not brought back as manager. It really made the Cats in general look bad (only for 1 night). It also made Strasburg look bad for that one night.

ocw5000 said...

The Harvey/Strasburg sagas kind of lay waste to "what's the best approach" since in both cases, going way above their career high in IP led immediately to thoracic outlet syndrome and the end of their careers

Anonymous said...

One thing I hate about fandom is our tendency to make athletic performance a morality play: to view any slippage as a sign of laziness or self-indulgence. As Boswell once observed, professional athletes include every personality type, but ALL of them are way in the top 1% for work ethic. (Not all of them are top 1% in athleticism.) Athletes never make it out of the minors on pure talent alone.

Okay, Elijah Dukes made a roster but he didn't do much more.

Bote Man said...

Barry Svrluga raised the issue of when Strasburg apparently turned the corner from being the poster boy as Delicate Flower to Stud Playoff Pitcher. I recall a puff piece in WaPo after his first child was born (2016?) that might provide one explanation. Something about the responsibilities of raising a child that changes a guy's outlook and self-awareness.

Now I hear that his thoracic outlet syndrome prevents him from raising his child off the ground, which is a sad irony.

Harper said...

Ah but Mike what if pitching in 2012 spurred the Nats to winning that WS, then Davey survives the 2013 season as a WS winning manager and he is leading the Nats in 2014 and 15 not Matt Williams and they win both of those titles! Huh? HUH?!

I think the shutdown takeaway is this : The shutdown happened. Strasburg remained an injury risk but was healthy enough to help the Nats to several playoffs culminating in the 2019 WS. Since they won a title most fans will take it

Mike Condray said...

I get that your “what if” was tongue in cheek, but it more or less underlines my point. There’s no logic trail at all behind the glorious “what if” (including no recognition Stras could have done any better—only one win/game, after all—than matching Detwiler).

Just mindless repetition of “Well, it might have been glorious unicorns and pixie dust! We’ll never know! And I’m just as sure it wouldn’t have prematurely ended Strasburg’s career the way it did to those other guys!”

G Cracka X said...

Has Mason Thompson outpitched Kyle Finnegan this year? It sure doesn't feel like it, based on Kyle's saves (and Mason's lack thereof). But Mason's got a lower FIP, believe it or not, in almost as many innings.

Ryan said...

I think the difference for them is BABIP and LOB%, Mason Thompson has been unlucky and Finnegan has been lucky

Steven Grossman said...

While Strasburg retrospective is very important, can we take a moment to celebrate being 1/ two games ahead of the Mets, 2/ tied in the wildcard standings with San Diego, 3/ five games ahead of St. Louis, and 4/ breathing down Miami's neck if we can sweep next week's series with them?

I concede we have no chance for a wild card slot (especially with our last 15 games against play-off teams!) and and sweeping Miami is highly unlikely....but still it seems like there is a lot to feel good about. We should stop briefly and enjoy it.

Tomorrow, we can talk again about how progress this year is/was the goal (and a success) but that otherwise we are not a particularly good team.

Anonymous said...

Seriously, I am so over Strasburg. Re-signing him for $245mm was a monumental mistake, a colossal waste of organizational resources. It would have been much better if Philly had signed him.

Anonymous said...

Eh, it was a mistake and was even rather clearly so at the time, but it's exactly the kind of mistake that I'm most willing to forgive.

If I'm a billionaire team owner and I just won the world series and I want to keep winning more of them and my front office is saying 150/5 or something would be fair, what the hell? Like I'm going to miss $100M that much. In that moment of euphoria, there's no way I'd hold the line. This guy was the MVP!

Of course, in the ideal case, you'd have set up long standing practices where your baseball folks can protect you from that kind of decision. But it's hard to imagine a more understandable moment of ownership overreach.

Mike Condray said...

Re-signing Strasburg at $245M was a monumental mistake *and* perfectly understandable--even necessary--from an organizational perspective. Both statements can be true at the same time.

As clear as it is NOW that the correct answer to "who do you bring back, TTB or Stras?" was NEITHER, it would have been a PR disaster with the fan base. The Lerners were over a barrel and Boras (who may well still have been sore that Strasburg told him to do that 2016 extension--Boras tells ALL his clients to go for free agency) took full advantage.

Think about the context of the 2019-20 offseason. Nats had just won DC's first World Series win since 1924! And done it in amazing fashion with Rendon and Strasburg playing HUGE roles (including of course that WS MVP for Stras, though taking a look at TTB's postseason OPS from the 7th inning on is amazing too).

Rendon made it clear he was going to walk/not coming back. So if you don't sign Strasburg to a new contract, guess what? All of the post-championship headlines are about Nats "letting their players leave", all of the happy buzz from that amazing 2019 postseason run disappear as fans come out with torches and pitchforks.

Add in the "could NOT have seen that coming" pandemic and 2020 could have struck a terrible blow to the franchise-fan base relationship right after winning the WS. Ouch

So while it's easy to say "They should NEVER have re-signed Strasburg at that price!" (ironically a critique said right alongside "Nats LET too many star players leave!"), looking at the context of the time makes the decision to pay up with Strasburg after his WS MVP year is...actually pretty easy to understand.

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