August 29, 2012
What Stephen Strasburg's Season Could Have Looked Like
WARNING: Here there be hindsight.
We can’t say Mike Rizzo didn’t warn us. “There’s not going to be a whole lot of tinkering done,” he said. “We’re going to run him out there until his innings are done.” That was on February 20th, the earliest reference by Rizzo I can find to any specific plan for limiting Stephen Strasburg’s workload. We knew then that the Nats weren’t going to get creative: they were going to pitch Strasburg like any other starter until he was fresh out of innings. What we didn’t know then (and what we still don’t really know now), is when that would be. For months, everyone assumed Strasburg would go into storage after 160 innings. Why 160? As far as I can tell, the 160 meme began innocently enough, with this sentence from an mlb.com article by Bill Ladson on February 19th: “He is expected to throw 160 innings, the same number his teammate Jordan Zimmermann threw last year after coming off elbow reconstruction.” Expected by whom? The article didn’t say. Certainly not by the Nationals. But before long, 160 was ubiquitous, and usually attributed to the team. By the time Rizzo denied the number had come from him in an article at BP in April, it was already accepted as fact.
After a five-inning outing last night, Strasburg is now fewer than 10 away from 160. If Rizzo was searching for a sign that shutting him down is the right thing to do, he couldn’t have asked for a better one than what he got: Strasburg’s second-worst start of the season, and a 9-0 loss to Miami. But one lousy outing won't change many other minds. What we think we know now is that he won’t go beyond 180 (which seems to be something Rizzo really said). On regular rest, without any tinkering, that would give him another five starts at the outside and prevent him from pitching in the playoffs. As good as the Nats’ other starters are, and as young and primed for the future as the rest of the roster is, losing their ace for October isn’t ideal. Ross Detwiler might be better than most post-season fourth starters, but he’s no Stephen Strasburg.
What if Rizzo had tinkered? What if the innings limit had stayed the same, but the innings hadn’t come quite so quickly? It’s a hypothetical question, in Strasburg’s case, but it’s a scenario we’ve seen play out elsewhere in the NL East.
Strasburg had Tommy John surgery on September 3, 2010. Braves starter Kris Medlen underwent the same procedure a couple weeks earlier, on August 18th. Strasburg returned to a professional mound on August 7 of the following season and totaled 44 1/3 innings. Medlen followed in his footsteps several weeks later, getting into a game on September 25th and pitching 2 1/3 innings before the end of the year.
That takes us to 2012. Strasburg started the season in the rotation and has stayed there ever since, without any major adjustments made to his schedule. Medlen started the season in the bullpen and didn’t make his first start until July 31st. Since then, he’s made six, and he hasn’t allowed more than one run in any of them. In his last 28 1/3 innings, including eight last night in San Diego, he hasn’t allowed any. (Almost halfway to Hershiser!) Medlen wasn’t in Atlanta’s playoff rotation a month ago, but he might be now. It’s an option, at least: because he started the season in the bullpen, Medlen is up to only 95 innings, nowhere near the end of his leash.