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April 12, 2012

Inside The Park

The Origins of an Innings Limit

by Bradford Doolittle

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It’s Opening Day at the Friendly Confines, and another six-month party is on in Wrigleyville. Bill Murray is on hand to throw out the first pitch, but he's an improv guy, so he instead lights out around the bases and slides theatrically into home plate while flipping the ball to Kerry Wood. Beer, brats, and celebrities hamming it up—another Cubs season is here.

One guy is all business. Washington wunderkind Stephen Strasburg is getting ready for his first season opener at the big-league level. It’s been a long time coming. If you want to see a concrete sign that the Nationals have turned the corner as a franchise, there it is toeing the rubber on the mound at Wrigley Field, six-foot-four, a right arm like Zeus, only with a wider repertoire and better command.

Here's a hypothetical: If Zeus had, say, taken a tumble down Mount Olympus, would Cronos have put him on a thunderbolt count? Such is the talk before the game. How much Strasburg would we see today? This season?

Washington manager Davey Johnson is in the dugout for an opener for the first time since 2000 and has his own cobwebs to clear away. Now 69, the thinned-down and amiable Johnson admitted that he was a bit anxious the night before. Everyone wanted to know how long a leash Strasburg would get.

"I go by what I see, but he's fully capable of throwing between 80 and 100 pitches for his first time out," Johnson said. "A good outing to me would be him giving me five innings."

When asked if he had any pre-game advice for his star righty, Johnson said, "No, I am steering clear of Stephen."

As for the season limit, that's old news. It's been widely reported that Strasburg will get the same 160-innings limit given to teammate Jordan Zimmermann last year. That number, 160, has been floated enough to stir despair in the hearts of Nationals fans. What if the team is in finally in contention? Are you really going to shut down your ace in the midst of a pennant race? Who decided 160 was the number, anyway? Fans want to count down magic numbers, not innings pitched.

Haven't Nationals fans been through enough?

***

Mike Rizzo, beginning his third full season as Washington’s general manager, essentially began his reign by drafting Strasburg. Together, architect and player are conspiring to lift the Nationals out of the stink they’ve wallowed in since well before the team moved out of Montreal.

As bad as the circumstances that brought the Expos to D.C. were—and they were really bad—things didn’t get much better on the field once the move was made. Worse, the organization remained riddled with scandal. Scout Jose Rijo was fired after expensive shortstop Esmailyn Gonzalez turned out to be neither 19 years old (he was 23) nor actually Esmailyn Gonzalez. Now 26, the player actually called Carlos Alvarez toiled in Low-A last season.

Not long after that incident came to light, general manager Jim Bowden stepped down largely because of bonus-skimming gossip. Bowden and Rijo have become subjects of a federal investigation into whether someone had been taking a little off the top of funds paid to Latin American talent. Bowden denied the charges and said he was stepping down to avoid becoming a distraction.

On the field, the Nationals sucked. There is no pretty way to put it. The roster was bad, overpriced, and aged, all at the same time. The Nats finished last in five of their first six years in Washington and fourth the other season. The club took Missouri starter Aaron Crow with its top pick in 2008 but failed to sign him. Last season, Crow made the All-Star game as a reliever for the Royals. In 2009, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn took the field with uniforms that said “Natinals” across their chests.

Enter Rizzo, who replaced Bowden and made the obvious choice of drafting Strasburg. He also pulled off the more difficult task of getting him signed. Strasburg's agent, Scott Boras, pointed toward scouting reports that proclaimed his client to be perhaps the best prospect in the history of the draft. Boras was looking for record-setting numbers, and he got them. Seventy-seven seconds before the deadline, Strasburg signed a $15.1 million major-league deal.

Despite being laden with that kind of hype and that kind of price tag, Strasburg has always been one to rise to the occasion. With every set of eyes in the baseball universe pointed his way, he took the mound for his big-league debut against Pittsburgh on June 8, 2010. As we all remember, he needed less than 100 pitches to strike out 14 Pirates. A star already born proceeded to explode.

A mere 11 weeks later, Strasburg’s arm betrayed him on what Rizzo claims was one pitch, a terrible isolated incident, during a matchup with the Phillies’ Dominic Brown. Torn ligament. Tommy John Surgery. For Nationals fans accustomed to bad news, this had to feel like a sharp kick to the groin.

With Strasburg undergoing one of the most carefully-followed rehab programs in history, the fog began to lift for the Nationals last season, even during a campaign that felt like a prolonged period of limbo.

Washington improved to 80-81 and finished in third place in the NL East—with a bullet. Zimmermann returned to the rotation and pitched well before being shut out down because of his own 160-inning limit. Bryce Harper enhanced his status as a generational type of hitting prospect. Rizzo drafted Anthony Rendon with the sixth pick in the last draft, a player some viewed as the best hitting prospect on the board.

Elsewhere, Rizzo signed Jayson Werth to a massive seven-year, $126 million contract which has virtually no chance of ending up as a good value or anything close to it. At the time, Rizzo said that the move marked the next stage of his team’s rebuilding process: the contention phase. Though Werth bombed last season, Baseball Prospectus 2010 made the case that the signing sent a valuable message to the rest of the industry: the Nationals were now players, not bystanders, in the race to acquire top-shelf talent.

Players suddenly seemed to be emerging all over. Homegrown products Ian Desmond and Danny Espinoza established themselves as the starters in the middle infield, to mixed results and reviews. Wilson Ramos took over at catcher, and with Jesus Flores still around, the team had enough depth at the position to include highly-rated Derek Norris in the offseason deal that brought Gio Gonzalez to Washington.

A fine starting rotation began to take shape, with Strasburg, Zimmermann, and Gonzalez joined by free agent Edwin Jackson and late-blooming 2007 pick Ross Detwiler. A couple of years ago, Rizzo had to turn to the likes of Jason Marquis and Livan Hernandez to eat innings; now, solid back-of-the-rotation options John Lannan and Chien Ming-Wang can’t make the club. (The dismayed Lannan has asked for a trade; Wang is working his way back from injury.) At the back of the bullpen, the Nationals have Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, and Henry Rodriguez.

But all of these things are really a sideshow because of what happened last September, when Strasburg returned to the rotation. Amid worries about whether he’d have the same stuff or if there would be lag period in his recovery, Strasburg eased all minds. He was sensational, striking out 24 and walking two in 24 innings without allowing a home run. That’s a 1.24 FIP, for those counting at home. Strasburg rose to the occasion again, only this time with a new appreciation for his craft.

"I think he learned how fast this stuff can be taken away from you," Rizzo said. "I know he already had a huge appreciation for major-league baseball, and I really think he embraces his time in the major leagues now.

"I heard the same thing from Jordan Zimmermann, too. These guys come into this thing, a lot of athletes think they're kind of bullet-proof. That first injury is kind of a wake-up call. They say. 'Wow, I better appreciate what I got and work hard to stay here.'"

***

For awhile in the opener, it seemed like all the talk of pitch counts would be a moot point. With the Cubs taking a characteristically aggressive approach, it looked like 75 pitches would be enough to get Strasburg a complete game. He threw seven pitches to get through the first inning; through three, he had thrown just 23.

Before the game, the Cubs' David DeJesus was asked whether, given the knowledge that Strasburg would likely be on a very limited pitch count, it might not be a good idea to take a few pitches early in the game.

"We just want to be aggressive on the fastballs he throws over the plate," DeJesus said. "He's a guy that works both sides of the plate. Throws a lot of his strikes with his changeup and curveball. You can't really worry about his pitch count. You've just got too worry about getting strikes and taking advantage when he makes a mistake.

"He's one of those guys. He's one of those once every-few-years type of pitchers. We've just got to go out there and focus."

It was going to take a poke to get one out at Wrigley that day, with the wind howling out of the north. The day was cold and bright, and while Lake Michigan shimmered blue, the wind stirred up an army of whitecaps on the water. All in all, it was a typical climate for a Wrigley Field opener.

"It's probably about my 25th Opening Day here at Wrigley Field," said Rizzo, who is from Chicago. "I skipped many days of school to be here, and I love it. This place is like a cathedral to me."

The conditions obviously favored the pitchers. Alfonso Soriano crushed one early that would have gone out on many days at Wrigley, but was run down by Roger Bernadina in front of the warning track. Ryan Zimmerman likely lost a pair of home runs in the game. Afterwards, he passed reporters in the tunnel on his way to the weight room and said, “Have to go lift so I can hit some home runs.”

Strasburg gave up a run in the fourth when Marlon Byrd drove in Ian Stewart on a blooper. He needed 21 pitches to get through that inning, but had thrown just 45 pitches, with just one strikeout. The fourth was the only thing resembling a high-stress inning that Strasburg would endure. He cruised through seven, striking out five and allowing five hits, the one run, and one walk. He was lifted after 82 pitches for pinch-hitter Chad Tracy in the eighth. The Nationals rallied against the Cubs' bullpen to leave Strasburg with a no-decision.

"It was awesome getting a chance to pitch at Wrigley Field on Opening Day," Strasburg said afterwards, showing the kind of appreciation for history that you'd expect from a guy that played his college ball under Tony Gwynn. "It’s a lot of fun being in somewhat of a hostile crowd, but at the same time, fans know the game. Just to think about all the Hall of Famers who have played here…it’s an honor."

Could he have pitched longer?

"It’s out of my control, but when you’re in an atmosphere like this, in a close game, you want to stay out there until we get the lead, and hopefully go nine innings," Strasburg said. "I kind of knew it being such a close game, late in the game, there are a lot of guys on the bench who can hit better than me."

The 160-innings limit was still looming out there and at the time seemed more arbitrary and silly than ever. If Strasburg goes seven innings per start, that would be about 23 starts. That wouldn't even get him through the second week of August. There has to be some wiggle room, right?

"It’s game one," Strasburg said. "A lot can happen. It’s game one of 162-plus games. It’s a good win for us, and we’re going to enjoy the off day and hopefully get another one. I think that’s a goal of any pitcher is to get into the seventh, at least, if not eighth or ninth. The more times our guys can do that, the better off we’ll be."

***

As a franchise, the identity of the Washington Nationals is just taking shape. Even the team’s media guide is a little confusing. The franchise record book is dominated by former Expos, but there is also a section on the Washington Senators, both versions, which are lumped together. There is a D.C. baseball section as well. Sam Rice holds the D.C. record for career extra-base hits; the single-season mark is held by Soriano.

Tying the current Washington club to the city’s long baseball history is a wonderful thing, but at some point the Nationals are going to have to stand on their own. That process has been a painfully slow one over the last seven years.

The stalwart is young veteran third baseman Zimmerman, the club’s first-round pick in the first draft after the move from Montreal. He raced to the big leagues, established himself as a first division player, and has twice signed contract extensions that should keep him in a Nationals uniform through the 2019 season.

Zimmerman is an outstanding player, perhaps even a dark-horse MVP candidate, but Strasburg and Harper have the star power. It’s been a rapid rise for Strasburg, who wasn’t drafted out of high school in 2006, possibly because of concerns about his makeup. Those concerns are long gone.

"It's a good day for Mike Rizzo when he's on the mound," Rizzo said before the opener. "He's going to be fine. He's extremely focused and ready to pitch. He's our guy. We consider him a No. 1 starter in the big leagues. He's improved to the point where he's the best pitcher we got. We put our best pitcher in the first game of the season."

A couple of days later, before the second game of the Nationals-Cubs series, things were more settled as the normal rhythms of the baseball season began to take effect. When Johnson emerged from the dugout to meet the press before the game, the first question was about whether he would have let Strasburg pitch longer if he hadn't needed to use a pinch-hitter.

"Early on, seven innings from my starter and him on an innings limitation, that's a light workload from what he went in the spring," Johnson said. "But I wouldn't have let him go (further) the first time out. I'm going to go normally as I have with every pitcher I have ever managed. Again, it's always innings as well as pitches."

As Johnson spoke, I noticed Rizzo milling around by the stands, talking to his many friends and family in the city. I decided to go over and ask him point blank how he arrived at this 160-innings thing. I'd heard that he's a "Chicago guy," which to natives is somewhat synonymous with "direct" or "a straight-shooter." I'd interviewed him in groups a half-dozen times, including last season when the Nationals were at U.S. Cellular Field in the aftermath of Jim Riggleman's surprising departure from the team, the incident that cleared the way for Johnson's return to the dugout. This was the first time I'd talked to him one-on-one.

So, Mike, why 160 innings? Why not number of pitches used, or some more sophisticated measure counting high-stress innings?

"Who says it's not?" Rizzo said, taking me by the arm. "Look, the media put (the 160-innings limit) out there, not me. It probably comes from what Jordan Zimmermann pitched last year.

"I don't have a specific pitch count in my mind, a specific innings count in my mind. I am going to refer to my experience as a farm director, as a player development guy, and knowing his body. In conjunction with Davey Johnson and Steve McCatty, when we feel he's had enough, we're going to shut him down.

"Just like we did with Jordan Zimmermann last year. We felt he had enough at 160 innings. Could he have pitched more? Sure, he could have. We felt that if he went from 70 innings to 200 innings, I would not have been doing my job developing the talent. With Stras going from 64 innings to X amount of innings, I'm going to dictate that."

So there you have it, Nationals fans. There is no reason to count backwards from 160, because if Strasburg continues to pitch like he has in his first two outings of the season and, more importantly, if Washington continues to win, there is a real possibility that Strasburg will be there to help close the deal. But the team isn't going to put the whip to the wunderkind, not yet.

Finally, Nationals fans have something worth rooting for. If Strasburg is pitching in September, with Harper playing behind him in center field, the franchise won't just be turning a corner, it will be sprinting down the boulevard.

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

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