News & Politics

Why Nationals Fans Should Not Worry About Stephen Strasburg’s Limited Innings

GM Mike Rizzo will shut down the pitcher at some point soon. Here’s why it’s a good thing.

Stephen Strasburg doing what he does best. Photograph courtesy of Flickr user 1323.

The noise generated in the debate to shut down Washington Nationals ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg has reached its apex. What we hear is a lot of yelling about the pending decision—but much less reason.

Since March, or even earlier, Nationals fans have known general manager Mike Rizzo intended to shut down the dominant Strasburg at some point in August or September. Shutting down the star hurler is not something Rizzo wants to do, but he told us time and again that the team must limit the number of innings Strasburg pitches as he overcomes the impact of Tommy John surgery.

For almost a year, Nats fans knew this was coming. They understand the decision and by and large agree with the move. Now, a gang of national sports media pundits have decided to enter the debate and slam the Nats and Rizzo for the decision—and the volume has simply become inescapable.

Screw those guys.

As ESPN personalities remain locked in the constant battle to stay relevant, they edge closer and closer to provocative yet inane opinions. Simply put, some of these people have no idea what they’re talking about.

Doctors, surgeons and medical experts agree the Nationals should limit the number of innings Strasburg plays in 2012 for the sake of his elbow. If Strasburg pushes too hard, the long-term impacts could be devastating. Anyone remember Kerry Wood and Mark Prior?

Wood and Prior were two of the most dominant pitchers in the National League in the past 20 years. Now, Wood plays a marginal role as a journeyman reliever, and Prior has bounced around the minors for the better part of a decade. Why? Both pitchers took on too much of a workload at too early of an age.

The lesson: Take care of young arms.

The Nats have a strong record here, and it shows with Jordan Zimmermann. Zimmermann underwent the same elbow surgery as Strasburg, with the same surgeon and the same rehab regimen. Last year, the Nats shut him down in the same time frame intended for Strasburg. This year, Zimmermann is enjoying his best year in the majors and is in the conversation for the Cy Young award, which goes to the best pitcher in the league.

Certainly there are situational differences between Zimmermann and Strasburg. This year the Nats have the best record in baseball and are serious World Series contenders. Losing Strasburg will hurt the team’s chances of reaching the World Series, which was not the case last year with Zimmermann, when the team did not make the playoffs.

The fact that Rizzo remains steadfast in his decision to shut down Strasburg should be all the more commendable because of the Nats’ success. Rizzo knows that by prematurely ending one of his best pitcher’s seasons he will hurt his team in the playoff push, and he is willing to do it anyway.

All too often, GMs of our local teams make decisions that hurt the organizations in the long term just to make a short-term run at the playoffs. When this backfires, fans generally revolt and call for heads to roll. Rizzo is doing the opposite.

By shutting Stras down, Rizzo is gambling on the long-term future of the Nationals at the expense of the 2012 season. He looks at the Nats roster and sees a decade of title runs, not just one this season.

Look at the roster—the young talent, and more behind it in the minors. Rizzo could very well be right. The reality, though, is that Rizzo could be wrong, too.

Baseball is a fluky game, and many previous stars never had the type of season these Nationals are having. What’s happening at the Navy Yard is special, and should not be taken for granted.

I understand why current Nats players would want Strasburg to keep playing, and why some retired players question Rizzo’s decision. The opportunity to play playoff baseball, or reach the pinnacle and play in a World Series, is fleeting. You have to maximize it.

But this Nationals team has proven resilient. At no time this year has the full assembly of Nats talent been on the field at the same time, mostly due to injuries. And yet, the team sits in first place in mid-August. Losing Strasburg will hurt, but it would be foolish to count out this bunch in October with or without number 37 pitching.

There is also one more potential wrinkle in the Strasburg situation. Yesterday, on a day the team had a lead and Strasburg pitched fairly well, manager Davey Johnson pulled the hurler after only six innings. That puts Strasburg’s season total at just under 140 innings.

Adding to the mystery, Strasburg may be dealing with a sore back. A sore back for an accountant is annoying; a sore back for a power pitcher can be a big problem.

Conventional wisdom says the Nats will shut Stras down somewhere between 160 and 180 innings. But Mike Rizzo never gave a firm number, and some have hinted it could go as high as 200.

With a few rainouts or some strategic maneuvering, Strasburg could still be throwing heat in late September. After that, fate will decide.

What we do know is Mike Rizzo will make the call to shut down Strasburg when he thinks it’s time. There is no magic formula. As fans, we have to believe in the call. Mike Rizzo built this Nationals team from scraps, and now has the team in first place.

When he sends Strasburg home for the season, it’s for the right reasons. Rizzo wants a decade of dominance. As fans, we should, too.

JP Finlay is a lifelong fan of Washington sports. Some of his fondest memories are of RFK Stadium and Redskins Super Bowl parades. Likes: hot dogs, Arrested Development, the beach. Dislikes: Duke, onions, The Big Bang Theory. Find him on Twitter @jpfinlay.