Nationals manager Davey Johnson knew almost from the first pitch of Friday night’s game against the Miami Marlins. Ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg, the subject of so much debate this summer about his impending early shutdown, was finally fried.
Strasburg allowed five earned runs in just three innings on Friday night, the shortest outing of his career, and on Saturday the team announced he would not make his scheduled final start on Wednesday against the New York Mets. His season, already set to be cut short, was over effective immediately.
Johnson talked it over with pitching coach Steve McCatty, who also had noticed a lack of focus during Strasburg’s bullpen warm-ups before the game. Johnson and general manager Mike Rizzo spoke afterwards and the manager said he’d sleep on the decision. When he awoke Saturday morning Johnson didn’t feel any differently. So he approached Strasburg in the training room shortly after he arrived and bluntly broke the news: His season was done.
“I think the accumulation of the focus problems and the physical fatigue took its toll on him,” Rizzo said. “I think what the doctors had prescribed for him, the innings parameters were right on. It was a prudent time to pull the plug. It was a plan we had since Feb. 1. I don’t think too many people should be surprised by it.”
Strasburg finishes with 159 1/3 innings. That’s just two shy of what Jordan Zimmermann threw last season in his first full year back from reconstructive elbow surgery (161 1/3). And while Rizzo insisted all along there was no hard and fast innings limit, the plan for Strasburg was always going to be similar. The organization points to Zimmermann’s success this season (10-8, 2.99 ERA, 171 2/3 innings). Strasburg began to show signs of fatigue at about the same time Zimmermann did in 2011.
“He’s a gifted athlete, his velocity could still be there, but I don’t see the crispness,” Johnson said. “I don’t see the ball jumping out of his hand.”
Rizzo noted that fatigue is typical of Tommy John patients their first season back. It’s not the velocity or arm strength that’s the first sign of a pitcher tiring, but his delivery. Is he online or is he falling off? Does he finish his pitches, especially the change-up in Strasburg’s case? That pitch adds added stress to his arm and can be dangerous if it’s not being thrown properly. Is there extra life on the fastball or is it a flat 95 or 96 miles-per-hour? The Nats took all of that into account. There will remain plenty of critics who think that methodology is flawed or that the team could have been more creative in extending his year. But this is the best explanation yet of what they were looking for before deciding Strasburg had had enough.
“The handling of any pitcher, they like regular work. They don’t need to be a reliever and then come in and start starting,” Johnson said. “He’s way past that. And there’s dangers in changing a pitcher’s program. If you put enough thought in on how you’re going to handle a pitcher or player in getting him prepared for the season, there’s never any second-guessing.”
Follow me on Twitter @bmcnally14