Benching A Healthy Strasburg Beyond Ridiculous

By  //  October 3, 2012

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MY TAKE

(VIDEO: )

They are planning for the future.

This is what the Washington Nationals tell us.

It’s all about the future.

THE LAST TIME the Nationals were in the postseason Franklin Delano Roosevelt was batting leadoff for the country.

Never mind the past. Never mind that Washington D.C. has not had a major league baseball team in the postseason since, oh … since 1933. Yeah, 1933. If you’re scoring at home, that’s 79 years ago. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in the starting lineup back then, batting leadoff for the country.

Doesn’t matter.

Shutting down their ready, willing and able ace for the remainder of this season isn’t about today. It’s not about tomorrow. It’s not even about the day after tomorrow. It’s about next year, and the year after that.

It’s all about Stephen Strasburg’s future.

Not the Washington Nationals’ present.

You get it?

I don’t.

Stephen Strasburg

Neither does Strasburg, the fantastic phenom with the 15-6 record, 3.16 ERA and 197 strikeouts this season, numbers that not only make him his team’s ace, but also one of MLB’s elite talents.

But now Strasburg moves from the mound to the bench, where he gets to cheerlead his teammates the rest of this season and postseason. Why? Because two years ago – two years ago – Strasburg had Tommy John surgery. And so he still has an innings count on his right arm, lest he injures it again. Just the other day, at only 159 1/3 innings, Strasburg reached his expiration date on this season.

He is 24, and he is upset.

Lots of fans are, too.

“I don’t know if I’m ever going to accept it, to be honest,” Strasburg told the Washington Post. “It’s something that I’m not happy about at all. That’s not why I play the game. I play the game to be a good teammate and win. You don’t grow up dreaming of playing in the big leagues to get shut down when the games start to matter. It’s going to be a tough one to swallow.”

Yes, it is.

Jim Kaat, the great former pitcher from the generation that I grew up watching and admiring (and who frankly should be in the Hall of Fame) actually wrote an open letter to Strasburg. In it, Kaat told Strasburg how he first got to pitch in a World Series in 1965, when he was 26, battling Sandy Koufax three times in that Fall Classic. It was a thrill … and then it was 17 years before Kaat ever got to pitch in a World Series again.

In an open letter to Stephen Strasburg, Jim Kaat talked about how he first got to pitch in a World Series in 1965, when he was 26, battling Sandy Koufax three times in that Fall Classic. It was a thrill ... and then it was 17 years before Kaat ever got to pitch in a World Series again.

“The money is nice but the ring is the thing for an athlete,” Kaat wrote in his open letter to Strasburg. “It ranks high above pitching for 25 seasons in the Majors, 283 wins, 16 Gold Gloves, an All-Star Game where I faced Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente and Hank Aaron. Being on a World Series winner is the ultimate prize. We just had our 30-year reunion in St. Louis, celebrating our World Series win in 1982. Those are memories you’ll always have no matter how long you pitch.”

Those last six words in Kaat’s letter are key.

No matter how long you pitch.

Nothing is guaranteed. Not today, and certainly not tomorrow.

The only thing any of us have right now is right now.

And right now the Washington Nationals are the best team in baseball, traveling toward the postseason, hoping to get their ticket punched to the Fall Classic.

Mike Rizzo

Meanwhile, they’ve left Stephen Strasburg back at the station.

It seems so cruel.

What did Seals & Crofts sing back in the day?

“We may never pass this way again.”

This is what Jim Kaat appealed to. He appealed to this moment in time that you’ll never have again. He understands that Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo wants to protect the investment that the franchise has in Stephen Strasburg. He understands that agent Scott Boras very much wants to protect the vested interest he has in Stephen Strasburg. And he understands that Nationals manager Davey Johnson, a former teammate of Kaat’s, is just doing what he’s told.

Kaat also understands that neither of those three men were ever pitchers.

And none of them are Stephen Strasburg.

Davey Johnson

So Kaat writes (implores, really): “Give this some thought. It’s not Mike Rizzo’s career or Scott Boras’s or Davey Johnson’s or even that of your parents. It’s yours. Do what you want to do, not what others think you should do. Selfishly, I would love to see you pitch in a World Series for the city where I made my debut. The Washington Senators were known for ‘First in war, first in peace, last in the American League.’ You have a chance to do what the great Walter Johnson did for Washington. No one since.”

Once again, if you’re scoring at home, the last time a Washington D.C. team actually won the World Series was 1924, 88 years ago, when Calvin Coolidge batted leadoff for the country. The ace of the Washington Senators’ staff was Walter Johnson, who pitched to a 23-7 record and 2.72 ERA that season. Johnson’s career was marked by sturdy, if not sensational, durability, earning him a spot alongside Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson and Honus Wagner as the inaugural five members of the Hall of Fame. Johnson, nicknamed “The Big Train,” pitched 21 seasons, compiling a 417-279 record and a staggering 3,508 strikeouts and 110 shutouts.

Who could have predicted that such a durable and formidable athlete would’ve died so relatively young, at age 59, felled by a brain tumor? Johnson was interred at Rockville Union Cemetery in Maryland, where he had been resting comfortably since 1946. Only recently, with the news that the Nationals were sitting Strasburg, has he stirred, reportedly spinning now in his grave.

Just kidding.

Or maybe not.

Know this. Old school pitchers find the decision to bench a healthy Stephen Strasburg beyond ridiculous. Same with old school baseball fans. Like me. This is sports. If you’re healthy, you play. Even when you’re not, you play.

“We may never pass this way again.”

I grew up watching guys like Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan. Look at their careers. Innings counts? Innings counts? You may as well have been speaking Chinese to them, their managers and general managers. And neither had an agent at 24. You can bet on that.

Instead, Seaver pitched more than 250 innings in each of his first 13 season, including 251 at the age of 22. In his 14th season, when he dropped below 250 innings for the first time, he still pitched 215 innings.

Keep in mind that the Nationals bubble-wrapped everything about Strasburg from the moment they signed him in 2009, after selecting him first overall in the MLB Draft. They coddled, nurtured and babied him until finally, on June 8, 2010, he was allowed to explode on the major league scene in a Nationals’ home game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was electric, absolutely electric. I know. I was at that game.

And Nolan Ryan? He twice pitched over 300 innings in a season and had 14 seasons where he pitched more than 200 innings. By the way, he enjoyed a 27-year major league career.

Meanwhile, the Nationals are shutting Stephen Strasburg down at 159 1/3 innings.

Keep in mind that the Nationals bubble-wrapped everything about Strasburg from the moment they signed him in 2009, after selecting him first overall in the MLB Draft. They coddled, nurtured and babied him until finally, on June 8, 2010, he was allowed to explode on the major league scene in a Nationals’ home game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was electric, absolutely electric.

I know. I was at that game.

Strasburg struck out 14 batters over seven innings, becoming the first pitcher in history to strike out at least eleven batters without issuing any walks in his pro debut. He struck out every batter in the Pirates’ lineup at least once and struck out the last seven batters he faced. Twice his pitches clocked in at 100 miles per hour.

Three months later, he was having Tommy John surgery, also known as ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction.

Who knew? Who could’ve predicted it?

Nobody.

Now they’re babying him again, with an innings count that some in the profession feel is too arbitrary. One of those people is the former pitching great Orel Hershiser, who went by the nickname “Bulldog” during his playing days.

Like many of us, Hershiser wonders why the Nationals didn’t perhaps limit Strasburg’s innings at the front end of this season, instead of on the backend? He also points out that there are other ways of measuring wear and tear on an arm other than just pitch counts.

Hershiser gets technical, but follow along with what he recently said on ESPN.

“In spring training, you take objective measurement on internal and external rotation, on supination and pronation of the elbow, flexibility of the wrist and hand strength, and you have those objective benchmarks that you can then make objective decisions on whether the arm is fatiguing or is in trouble.”

In other words, there are scientific ways of measuring how Strasburg’s arm is doing.

“I think the Nationals have made a mistake,” Hershiser said. “They really could’ve shut him down at a different time. They could’ve shut him down earlier in the year and saved the innings for the end of the year if they really had an innings benchmark.”

“And those are the first warning signs,” Hershiser continued, “when you can’t recover from your start to start, when you don’t come back, your side works are harder, your flexibility is not coming back, you get a muscle spasm that all of a sudden other muscles are going to have to overwork.

“But this is being done on a benchmark of just innings and not on complete objective data.”

Bottom line?

“I think the Nationals have made a mistake,” Hershiser said. “They really could’ve shut him down at a different time. They could’ve shut him down earlier in the year and saved the innings for the end of the year if they really had an innings benchmark.”

But they didn’t shut him down earlier this season.

Instead, they’ve shut Stephen Strasburg down as the team makes a push for Washington D.C.’s first postseason in 79 years and perhaps its first World Championship in 88 years.

They say it’s all about the future.

Problem is, the future is now.


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5 Comments on "Benching A Healthy Strasburg Beyond Ridiculous"

  1. Charlie Greene September 10, 2012 at 6:43 pm · Reply

    Your column says it all Peter. Nothing further needs to be said.

  2. Susan Plymel September 10, 2012 at 7:00 pm · Reply

    Awesome article!! I’m one of your biggest fans!

  3. Rich Burklew September 10, 2012 at 8:18 pm · Reply

    Great article, and I’m not even a baseball fan! Please keep writing the human interest angles and any sport can be engaging. I look forward to one on curling with the next winter Olympics… no offense intended to curling fanatics.

  4. Charles "Phil" Smith September 10, 2012 at 10:07 pm · Reply

    I do not understand either. Not a wise “decision” from my point of view. When I played and later coached you played hurt but not injured. Franchises in all sports pay BIG money to athletes and want to protect their franchise players. Still makes me feel it was a mistake.

  5. Greg Nagle September 11, 2012 at 10:11 am · Reply

    Excellent article, Peter. Digs right into why the game is played. Keep it up, the good reporting.

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