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September 6, 2012

In A Pickle

How the Grinch Stole Strasmas

by Jason Wojciechowski

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"Are you seriously writing about the Stephen Strasburg 'to shut down or not to shut down' decision? Really?"

Yeah, really. But let's get some things straight. Here's what I don't care about for the purposes of this here article: whether the Nationals win the World Series this year, whether the Nationals win the World Series next year, whether the Nationals win any World Series ever. I am not, in other words, acting as your typical blogger/analyst/whatever, even though that is quite often the way I act. Sometimes even on these very pages.

See, every bit of discussion I've read of Mike Rizzo et al.'s decision to keep Strasburg on a strict innings limit has focused on how this affects the baseball team on the field this year and for the life of Strasburg's tenure with the club, whether they could have won more games via a different scheme, and so forth. Some of these analyses have been quite interesting. Enlightening, even. The debate has been lively, though I will note that it is largely uninformed by the studies that the Nationals apparently did in-house that led them to implement the plan in the first place. But put that aside.

The much larger omission from the discussion is the human element. The current generation of Internet sabermetric fans has a distinctly team-oriented bent, in the sense that we (no accusation here can be leveled at any of you any more than it can be leveled at me as well) analyze general manager moves and team moves: Should X make this trade? Should Y sign this free agent? Which stadium proposal should Z take? The basic question is nearly always: Did/will the transaction put the franchise in a better position than it was in before said transaction took place?

Now, we like to phrase these things in terms of wins, because wins were the first thing we cared about as fans. They're the measurement unit for a sports team. But, as we do sometimes acknowledge, it actually boils down to something far more basic. Baseball teams, for the most part, do not try to win baseball games for the sake of it—they try to win because winning is a pretty good way to make money. They are multi-billion dollar enterprises enmeshed in a multi-trillion dollar economy. They aren't service clubs or charitable organizations. They have no mission beyond making money. (There are exceptions, or at least apparent exceptions. The Mike Ilitch situation is a bit too morbid for me to want to discuss expressly, but one might see his approach to running the Tigers as slightly off the usual beaten "let's all make piles of dough" path.) Our typical analysis, then, tries to answer the question of how companies should best make money.

Analyzing which franchises are good at this is well and good (and it's the lifeblood of this very website), but it can cause us to forget that, to steal a hoary anti-stathead cliché, the players—the guys without whom none of this winning and money-making happens—aren't robots. I don't mean that in the sense that players have emotions and don't perform the same way every day. (It's true; it's just irrelevant.) I simply refer to the fact that these players aren't machines toward whom the teams (the owners) have no moral obligations. Robot baseball, whatever downsides you may perceive, does have one virtue: Teams can use the players until they're no good and discard them (ideally recycling the recyclable bits). Of course, owners can do that in real baseball, too (minus the recycling, probably). The question is whether they should.

The players in baseball, by the terms of the Basic Agreement and the Uniform Player Contract, put their bodies in the hands of their employers. They agree that the teams will choose their athletic trainers, doctors, and training requirements. The teams owe no contractual obligation to the players in return, as far as I'm aware, to make responsible choices in these matters as far as the players' lives and livelihoods are concerned. The reason we can treat the Nationals' choice of whether to start Strasburg as purely their choice is because it is purely their choice. Even if the team knows that keeping him active causes the chance of Strasburg's future injury to go up by 15 percent, they're allowed to make the decision that this year is worth it to their bottom line.

You might, all things considered, be completely fine with this. You might think that the boundaries of a company's responsibility to its employees (or to the public) are defined by explicit contract and explicit law and that's the end of that. That's fine! I'm probably not, in this article at least, going to convince you otherwise. It's just that I don't believe in such a cold reality, and I suspect that I'm not alone. I suspect that at least some of you don't feel comfortable supporting businesses that engage in practices that might be legal but do not comport with our notions of fair play or morality. Whether you organize boycotts, post articles about bad companies on Facebook, or just feel guilty every time you turn on your iPod, if you're like me, you're not prepared to let employers do what they want only so long as they pay the fines when they break the law.

If you and I share these core beliefs about the nature of our responsibilities to each other and the applicability of those duties to corporate employers, then you should not be seduced by the notion that analyzing the Nationals' championship odds over the next five years is enough to decide the Strasburg question because just as Strasburg has a contractual obligation to his employer, the Nationals owe Strasburg a moral duty of care. We should be concerned with whether Strasburg could be catastrophically (or even minorly) injured not for the sake of the team, but for the sake of Strasburg. What are the chances, given either a decision to shut him down at 160 innings pitched or to keep starting him right through the playoffs (or some in-between course of action like the one that Ben Lindbergh suggested the other day), that Strasburg's career earnings are reduced by a large fraction? Or even a small fraction? What of the reverberating effects through the rest of his life? Does he get to accomplish the other goals he has for himself if his career ends up like Mark Prior's? What about the emotional toll of his career ending before he turns 30?

I don't mean to imply that we can actually answer these questions. My stance on such matters is known. The analysis requires a lot of knowledge and information that we don't have access to, and it requires a whole range of estimates on the likelihood of various outcomes. Note, though, that this uncertainty is no different from the question we've all been asking, of what the team should do denuded of moral considerations—we don't know what the odds are that the Nationals win the World Series in 2014 if they pitch Strasburg this year any more than we know what the odds are that his life is ruined if he pitches. And yet! Some of us have been willing to proclaim Mike Rizzo's approach stupid. "The worst decision ever," I've even seen. So if we're willing to apply that level of arrogance to questions of how a team ought to solve the basically financial question it has before it, then we should be willing to at least ask how this decision affects Strasburg as a future wage-earner, as a provider for his family. As, in short, a person.

Jason Wojciechowski is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

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