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September 10, 2012

Bizball

The Strasburg Shutdown and How It All Could Have Been Avoided

by Maury Brown

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The countdown had been coming for months. It was just a matter of what would happen when it ended. We’re of course talking about the Washington Nationals’ declaration that they would shut down starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg at 160 innings pitched, something that the club had said they would be doing after the no. 1 draft pick and Scott Boras client had Tommy John surgery in 2010 to replace the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.

We counted. We watched. We never made it that far.

Saturday, the Nats pulled the plug. His projected last game Wednesday at Citi Field against the Mets? Not happening. His last game of 2012 against the Marlins on Friday at National Park is not exactly the way you want to be remembered. Tying his season low for innings pitched in a game, he went just three frames, allowing two runs in the first inning, one run in the second, and two more in the third. That was enough, and Davey Johnson pulled the plug.

So, one of the most closely watched marches to an arbitrary number in recent history will be speculated ad nauseum for the remainder of the season, possibly through the offseason and into next year. After all, the Nationals have painted themselves into a corner by making nothing less than a World Series championship the only way that the topic goes away.

Davey Johnson tried to frame the decision as a way to remove distraction and tried to shoehorn in that physical signs were beginning to show.

"I just told Stephen that his year is over. He's had a great year. I know what he's growing through," Johnson said. "The media hype on this thing has been unbelievable. I feel it's as hard for him as it would be anybody to get mentally, totally committed in the ballgame. And he's reached his innings limit. So we can get past this and talk about other things for a change.”

"My job is to do what's best for the player. And this is what's best," Johnson added. "If you're not there 100 percent mentally—he's a gifted athlete, his velocity can still be there—but I don't see the crispness. I don't see the ball jumping out of his hand. I'm a firm believer that this game's 90 to 95 percent mental and he's only human. I don't know how anybody can be totally mentally concentrating on the job at hand with the media hype to this thing, and I think we'd be risking more by sending him out."

To Mike Rizzo, Davey Johnson, and the Lerner family, the general sentiment is, “You’ve created your own monster.”

At 159 1/3 innings, a 15-6 record, a 3.16 ERA, and 197 Ks, one can’t help but wonder, “What if?” The players on the staff (especially the rotation) will be asked about it repeatedly the remainder of the way. Then there’s John Lannan, who pitched his last two games at Triple-A and is being called up to replace Strasburg in the rotation. Lannan is no slouch (he was the Opening Day starter for the Nationals in 2009 and 2010), but for every pitch thrown, there will be that undeniable urge to compare him to Strasburg. Nothing like heaping unneeded pressure on the guy.

This is what we’ve come to. Players are no longer players; they’re assets to be protected. The Nationals should have never said anything about the innings limit in the first place. In baseball—an industry where every comment is carefully measured for public consumption—silence is often the preferred response. Instead, the Nationals opened their mouth and, with it, put a bull’s-eye on Strasburg for the season.

It’s one thing to say that pulling Strasburg was about his elbow, but neither he nor the club has made even a whisper about any discomfort. The self-inflicted media attention is to blame, not his arm.

Strasburg may have been the most wildly anticipated rookie pitcher to debut in the last decade, and this is where the marketing element collides with the real matter at hand: winning a World Series. It’s been two years, but if you work in the front office of Nationals Park, you can’t help but remember his debut. Here’s just how much interest there was:

  • Leading up to the game, I penned an article titled “Ticket Prices for Stephen Strasburg Debut Skyrocket on Resale Market.”
  • At the time of the game, it was ranked as the second-highest attended game by Nationals fans for 2010 (Opening Day was 41,290). The attendance figure would be surpassed on his second start at Nationals Park against the White Sox.
  • Over 200 media credentials were granted for his debut.
  • MASN set a viewership record, earning a 7.1 HH rating with more than 165,000 households in the Washington region tuning in.
  • Among the key demographic of adults aged 25-54, the game earned a 4.4 HH rating, also an MASN record.
  • Ticket prices on the resale market went for 146 percent more than a month earlier for Nationals games (see details).
  • The game draws an 0.4 household rating with an average of 588,000 viewers on MLB Network (see details).
  • After the game, it is announced that Strasburg will do David Letterman's "Top 10" on Thursday, June 10.
  • The game after Strasburg's debut drew 18,876 at Nationals Park, a 53 percent decline from Strasburg's debut.
  • Strasburg’s Debut on MLB Network Averages Over 960,000 Viewers

To go with the hype, Strasburg backed it up on the field that day as well:

  • Strasburg established a Nationals’ single-season record (2005-present) with 14 strikeouts.
  • He matched a Nationals’ record set by Chris Schroder with seven consecutive strikeouts (which is more impressive since Schroder did it over three days, September 17-19, 2006).
  • Strasburg’s 14 strikeouts was only one shy of the all-time mark of 15 for most strikeouts in a debut, set by Karl Spooner in 1954 and tied by J.R. Richard in 1971.
  • He did not walk a single batter for the game.
  • In the second inning, Strasburg hit the radar gun at 99 mph (twice) and then made it to 100 mph.
  • In the seventh inning, he threw his fastest pitch of the game (103 mph).
  • In his MLB debut, Strasburg became only the second pitcher since 1987 (the year STATS, Inc. began charting pitches) to fan 14-plus and throw fewer than 100 pitches in a game. On April 9, 2003 at Wrigley Field, the Expos’ Javier Vazquez struck out 14 in seven innings and needed just 96 pitches to do so.

The Nationals remember this. He earned $3 million this season as part of his four-year, $15.1 million deal that he was signed to before he had ever stepped on a major league diamond. The fans know he’s a key piece. So what went wrong, and could it all have been avoided?

The answer is, yes. This mess—and that’s what it is—could have been avoided by having him come in late to Spring Training. Okay, if that would have been a media nightmare, then they could have eased back on the throttle and figured out how to have him miss maybe four or five starts over the course of the season. That would have allowed Strasburg to be within the self-appointed window of 160 innings pitched through the postseason. As one prominent agent said to me, “They did it ass backwards.”

But it comes back to that thing. That thing that can drive some closely watching the game nuts. Why put a player on an innings pitched limit in the first place?

I can’t help but be reminded of the Winter Meetings in 2008. The Texas Rangers had just made Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan president of the club, and he was there to talk about it. There in the back of the cavernous media room at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, I asked Ryan what he thought of putting pitchers on pitch counts. He said (and I’m paraphrasing), “I don’t like them, and I’m not saying that because of my days as a player. We’re going to go about things differently. We’ll watch a guy at 100 pitches in a game, but if he’s looking sharp, we’re going to let him go to maybe 105 or 110 pitches. If he’s not sharp in the following game, we may pull back and only let him go 90 pitches. The point is, why get into a pitcher’s head that there’s some number? Why not measure them by how well they’re doing and adjust from there?”

Mike Rizzo and the Nationals should have simply done that with Strasburg. That was all that was needed. “We’re monitoring him,” they could have said. “We’re not sure if he’ll pitch the entire season, but if he’s fine, we want him to help us win games for as long as he can.” It would have all been that simple, if for no other reason than to set up a better excuse for shutting him down.

Instead, in the first year that D.C. baseball has been truly relevant since the 1930s, there’s this mess. The fans aren’t happy. The media is bewildered. And the player that is at the center of it all is right there with us.

“I don’t know if I’m ever going to accept it, to be honest,” Strasburg angrily said Saturday after the shutdown. “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. You don’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 think everybody overlooks all the great contributions that we’ve had this year. I know they’re going to keep going that way, and I’m going to do everything in my power to support them.”

Except Strasburg was never signed to a $15.1 million contract to be a cheerleader. He was signed to do what he had been doing. Instead, the Nationals will use the “we’re protecting him for the long-haul” and “we need him for next season” party line. But no one knows the future. No one knows if the Nationals will be in this position next year. No one knows if, heaven forbid, after shutting him down, he winds up injuring his elbow early next year. You can’t second guess. You don’t have to be reckless, but at the same time, you can’t treat high-paid players like a Ming vase. There will always be risk. You have to use the tools at your disposal to win, and Strasburg is certainly one of those tools for the Nationals.

There may never be an opportunity like this again for the Nationals to win a World Series with Stephen Strasburg in the rotation. They have all the makings of one that will, but in the immortal words of that great scholar Yoda, “Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.” Grab some popcorn, and pull up a chair. The questions surrounding “The Shutdown” are far from over.

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

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