September 13, 2012
On the Beat
The Shark vs. Strasburg Shutdown
The ace of the Nationals' pitching staff got shut down for the season, and it was the most-debated topic in baseball since the American League adopted the designated hitter rule for the 1973 season. The Cubs shut down their No.1 starter and seemingly nobody noticed or cared.
Of course, the Nationals have the best record in the major leagues, while the Cubs have the second-worst mark. And Stephen Strasburg was the most-hyped college pitching prospect in history at San Diego State, while Jeff Samardzija was better known for catching touchdown passes as a wide receiver at Notre Dame.
Every angle of the Nationals' decision to end Strasburg's season at 28 starts and 159 1/3 innings in his first full season after undergoing Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery in September 2010 has been examined. Most baseball executives and scouts I've spoken with say they either would have let Strasburg keep pitching or set up his schedule at the beginning of the season so he could have pitched through October. However, general manager Mike Rizzo—with a lot of nudging from agent Scott Boras—made his decision and it is old news now, at least until the Nationals are eliminated from the postseason.
However, it is instructive to see what went into the Cubs' decision to shut down Samardzija, who transitioned from reliever to starter this season. Samardzija carried a heavily workload as a reliever in 2011, appearing in 75 games and pitching 88 innings. The Cubs also had the 27-year-old begin an aggressive throwing program a month before spring training opened in order to build up enough stamina to get through a full season—or close to it—as a member of the rotation.
There has been a sea change in how the Cubs make decisions this year with club president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer in their first season on the job. Epstein, of course, was famous for relying on statistical analysis to make decisions with the Red Sox and being the brains behind their Carmine computer system. Meanwhile, under former GM Jim Hendry, the Cubs relied more on gut instinct and scouting acumen than processing numbers.
In Samardzija's case, the Cubs used a little bit of statistical analysis and a little bit of scouting to figure out how long to let him pitch. Last Saturday, they decided to wrap his season up at 28 starts and 174 1/3 innings.