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.
According to an item in Ken Rosenthal’s Tuesday column, though, Medlen’s leash at the start of the season was no longer than Strasburg’s:
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said GM Frank Wren told him in spring training that Medlen would be available for 160 to 180 innings — the same restriction that the Nationals likely will apply to Strasburg. Wren also warned Gonzalez: If you open with Medlen in the rotation, you might never want to take him out.
Gonzalez resisted that temptation. He put Medlen in the bullpen, where he could ease some of the strain on Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters. Then he waited for an opportunity to transition him to starting, which came courtesy of Jair Jurrjens’s 6.89 ERA. Now the Braves have Medlen’s services for as long as they need him: if he remains in the rotation and everything plays out perfectly in the playoffs for Atlanta, he’ll approach the lower bound of his innings limit right at the end of their run.
Forget, for a moment, whether innings limits even make sense and whether the Nats should have been more or less cryptic about their plans from a PR perspective. Let’s assume the 160-180 range was set in stone, that to go beyond it would have meant certain surgery. Did the Braves do a better job of working around their post-surgery pitcher’s innings limit? Should the Nats have done something similar?
In hindsight, perhaps. The Nats started the season with Drew Storen on the DL and a rotation so deep they were forced to send John Lannan to Syracuse. Even a few weeks in the bullpen would have ensured that Strasburg could contribute all year.
But despite the similarities—the surgery, the recovery timeline, the innings limit—Strasburg and Medlen aren’t much alike. Strasburg is the former best pitching prospect ever, a prodigy who pitched like an ace from his first start on. Medlen is a former 10th-round pick with a mid-rotation ceiling. Medlen had major-league experience in relief, while Strasburg has never pitched out of the pen as a pro. Converting from the rotation to the bullpen and back isn’t without its risks, both physical and psychological, and while plenty of promising pitchers have debuted in the bullpen before snagging a rotation spot, few have gone back again after establishing themselves as starters. Those risks were much lower in Medlen’s case, both because he’s a less valuable arm and because he’s 2 ½ years older, which puts him out of the injury nexus.
There’s another factor to consider here: the Braves were expected to contend, while the Nationals weren’t. The BP staff picked the Nats to finish fourth in the East, without a single first-place vote. An early end to the season for Strasburg wouldn’t be a big issue if the Nats were well out of the race. When Jordan Zimmermann was shut down in late August of last year, Washington was over 20 games out in the East, and no one said a word. The Nats’ success probably shouldn’t have been as surprising to them as it was to outside observers, but expecting the NL’s best record would have been unrealistic. Something else to keep in mind: the Nats are ahead in the East by only four games. If the Braves finish strong, those extra regular-season innings from Strasburg might make the difference between a Wild Card spot and a guaranteed trip to the NLDS. And the gain in championship expectancy from avoiding a play-in game could be greater than the gain from starting Strasburg over Detwiler a few times in October.
Strasburg will be encased in carbonite one of these weeks, barring a credibility-killing change of heart by Rizzo. When it happens, we’ll all be sorry to see him go. Washington will be even sorrier. As galling as it might be to see their division rival driven by creative management of Medlen, though, and as well as it might have worked out, the Nats can’t be faulted for not starting Strasburg in the pen. But we can still take exception to what seems like a lack of flexibility. As Tom Tango wrote recently,
If you box yourself into a “pitch every 5 days” or “pitch every 5 games”, and there’s a decent chance that random variation itself is going to propel you into the playoffs, then you’re going to be stuck. That’s the Nationals. They probably had a 15-20% chance of making the playoffs at the start of the season based on what we knew. But once they got to be ten games over, then their odds jumped to probably 40-50%.
At that point, they could have modified his pattern slightly.
In an interview on MLB Network Radio last September, Rizzo said:
If we're lucky enough and improved enough to be playing meaningful games in September  and his pitch limits are up, just like Jordan Zimmermann this year, he will be done. We'll sit with our plan and we'll stick to it.
It’s good to make plans. It often makes sense to stick to them, no matter how strenuously relatively uninformed internet writers object. But other times, it makes the most sense to alter them. We’ve known for months that the Nats were better than we thought they were, and that their playoff odds were significantly higher than anyone had projected them to be before the season. That’s valuable information that Mike Rizzo didn’t have when his plan was put in place, and disregarding it out of a misguided commitment to staying the course—if that’s what Washington did—could cost them. A skipped start here, an earlier hook there, and we might not be debating this now. In Strasburg’s case, a little tinkering might have gone a long way.