A final accounting of the Nationals' Strasburg controversy

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Photo - David Tulis/AP
Stephen Strasburg was shut down in September to make sure he remains healthy in his recovery from Tommy John surgery.
David Tulis/AP Stephen Strasburg was shut down in September to make sure he remains healthy in his recovery from Tommy John surgery.
Beanballs,Sports,Brian McNally

It was the storyline that wouldn’t go away. The Nationals shut down ace Stephen Strasburg in early September after months of mounting criticism over their plans. Everyone knew if the team held on and made the postseason, one of the defining images this October would be Strasburg watching from the dugout with his jacket on and his glove stored in his locker.

The argument against such a move was rendered moot in spring training. Not because there wasn’t time to alter the plan but because once the decision was made in February, general manager Mike Rizzo was willing to take on any and all criticism and not deviate from it. No amount of public pressure was going to change his mind. Many pundits contend things would have been different for the Nats with Strasburg after they lost in five games to the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Division Series on Friday.

Of course, you can’t discount that Washington’s starting pitching in Game 3 with Edwin Jackson was subpar. For that matter, Jordan Zimmermann struggled in Game 2, and Gio Gonzalez walked seven batters in Game 1. But the guy Strasburg likely would have supplanted in this particular series — lefty Ross Detwiler — was the one who actually had the best start against St. Louis. So who knows?

But it came down to this: Rizzo really believed the risk of future injury wasn’t worth it — though he certainly could have done a better job explaining the actual medical studies the team was using to come to that conclusion. It’s unclear why that information would be proprietary and kept in-house. Also, the club was using a more sophisticated method to determine Strasburg’s status than a mere innings limit. Again, that could have been explained in much greater detail. But apparently there are no regrets.

 

“I’m not going to think about it, no,” Rizzo said after Friday’s loss. “We had a plan in mind, and it was something that we had from the beginning. I stand by my decision, and we’ll take the criticism as it comes. But we have to do what is best for the Washington Nationals, and we think we did.”

Given how surprisingly personal this debate became among some in the sport, it’s no shock there are legions of critics ready to tear Rizzo apart for that stance. No question some of them reside in his own locker room. No question Strasburg himself wasn’t happy with the decision. But some of Strasburg’s teammates also bristle at the narrative. They see critics using arguments based on equally unprovable assumptions.

“It’s irrelevant now. It really is. It shouldn’t even be written about,” veteran Mark DeRosa said. “Yeah, who knows? Who’s to say he doesn’t go out and throw no-hitters, and who’s to say he doesn’t go out and get hit around. You’ll never know. I don’t even like to worry about it. We had the right guy on the mound at the right time. We had the lead. We had a chance to close it down and didn’t get it done against a great team.”

Not writing about the subject wasn’t a realistic scenario. There was too much interest, and it was too heated a topic. There were reasonable arguments to be made that the Nats should have started Strasburg later in the season or managed his limited workload by skipping starts or giving him a break during the summer. Washington manager Davey Johnson, however, became infuriated with such advice as the season went on. His quotes to Sports Illustrated are a perfect example of what he told local reporters all season.

Johnson just didn’t agree with altering a starting pitcher’s routine as Atlanta did with pitcher Kris Medlen, also in his own first full season back from Tommy John surgery. Medlen began 2012 in the bullpen. He became a starter in July, finished the season 10-1 with a 1.57 ERA and was available to pitch in the NL wild-card game against St. Louis on Oct. 5. In the end, Medlen didn’t make much difference in the playoffs. He gave up five runs, two earned, in 6 1/3 innings and Atlanta lost 6-3 to St. Louis. Maybe a Justin Verlander or a CC Sabathia can carry a team to a World Series win. There is no evidence that Strasburg or Medlen are at that level yet.

Why? Let’s put Strasburg’s season in context. His ERA was 2.66 on July 15 after six shutout innings against Miami. By Sept. 7 – his final disastrous start against those same Marlins – Strasburg’s ERA had risen to 3.16. In those last 10 starts he was mediocre-to-bad in four of them:

July 20: 5 1/3 IP, 4 ER, 8 H, 5 Ks, 3 BBs (11-10 loss to Atlanta)

July 31: 4 IP, 6 ER, 8 H, 3 Ks, 1 BB (8-0 loss to Philadelphia)

Aug. 28: 5 IP, 5 ER, 9 H, 3Ks, 1 BB (9-0 loss to Miami)

Sept. 7: 3 IP, 5 ER, 6 H, 2 Ks, 3 BBs. (9-7 loss to Miami)

To be fair, he was good-to-excellent in the six other starts. Strasburg had 11 strikeouts in seven innings against the Mets on July 25. He tossed six shutout innings against the Marlins on Aug. 5. He gave up one run in six innings against the Diamondbacks on Aug. 10 and on that same road trip two runs in six innings at San Francisco. The only real negatives in those two starts (Arizona, San Francisco) were four walks each — a command issue the Nats said they were waiting on as a red flag. On Aug. 21, Strasburg gave up one run in six innings in a crucial game against the Braves, and on Sept. 2 against the Cardinals he pitched six shutout innings. But which one of those pitchers was Washington getting in October after another 30 innings of work?

In 28 starts, Strasburg pitched into the seventh inning five times. He never started the eighth. In three crucial late-season starts for the Yankees, who were desperately clinging to the American League East lead, Sabathia tossed eight innings each time out and gave up four runs total. Then he threw another 17 2/3 against Baltimore in two ALDS games and allowed just three runs. Was the 2012 version of Strasburg capable of that kind of effort? And if not, then do we reassess the outrage over not pitching him 180 or 190 innings?

Stephen Strasburg may reach that level. It might happen next season. But the argument that he couldn’t be replaced short term this October for five or six starts seems silly. Over the course of a full season, the downgrade from Detwiler to Strasburg is huge. Over six starts at most? That seems a stretch for a starting pitcher unlikely to go past six innings on a given night. Even on a short leash this season, Strasburg averaged 93 pitches per start. Against the Cardinals, with maybe the deepest lineup in the National League, it’s hard to see him becoming more efficient.

In the end, DeRosa is right. None of this matters now no matter what side of the argument you fall on. The best the Nats can do is look with relief toward a full 2013. That is, of course, if Strasburg stays healthy.

“Stephen’s a good pitcher, and he’s going to be a good pitcher for a long time,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “I think that whole deal is something that’s been addressed plenty of times, but I know Stephen was a big part of this team, and he’s a huge part of why we’re at where we’re at right now. He’ll be just as excited to be able to pitch a full year as all of us are to have him on the team.”

Follow me on Twitter @bmcnally14

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Brian McNally

Staff writer - sports
The Washington Examiner