Shutting Down Stephen Strasburg


It’s the story that won’t go away, yet we’ve seen this coming all season. Sometime this month** Mike Rizzo and the Washington Nationals will shut Stephen Strasburg down for the year in an effort to focus on the bigger picture (i.e. Strasburg’s long term health and dominance, coupled with the team’s ability to compete for years to come) rather than push all of their chips to the center of the table with this October in mind.

** We now know that Strasburg has two starts remaining before his season will be done. More on that later.

Nearly everyone has shared an opinion on the situation over the past few weeks and months, with some more vocal than others. Opinions have been expressed both in favor of and completely against the idea. And to date, I’ve kept quiet on the subject.

It’s not that I don’t share an opinion on the subject – like any good baseball fan does. I’ve merely elected to refrain from sharing it up to this point.

The simple fact of the matter is since the season began we knew that at some point the Nationals were going to shut down Strasburg. This isn’t new information. In fact, we knew that this would be a likelihood going all the way back to last September when Strasburg returned from Tommy John surgery to make five starts for the Nationals before the conclusion of the 2011 season. He’d pitch 24.0 innings over that span, posting a 1-1 record and 1.50 ERA with 24 strikeouts and just 2 walks.

By all accounts, Washington planned on limiting Strasburg to a pre-determined (though never publicly admitted) innings limit during the 2012 season. That is at least in part the reason why there was such a focus on adding to the starting rotation last offseason. The team knew this day would come and wanted to plan for it as early in advance as possible. There were certainly some internal options already in place (as I discussed last October, in the 4th post I ever wrote here at DoD), but Mike Rizzo got creative and found opportunities available. With a big trade and a key free agent signing, the concern was addressed.

Furthermore, this was never uncharted territory for Washington. Strasburg wasn’t the first of their starting pitchers to undergo such a procedure. He wasn’t going to be the first to be limited to a strict innings limit during his first full season back with the team. There was no true way to know if it made enough of a difference, as the team had no way of forecasting how well that next season would result after being shut down, but there was precedent for making such a move.

Let’s also not forget that nobody predicted that the Nationals would suddenly have a season as good as 2012 has been, at least not this soon. We knew they’d be better, but not this much better.

The Nationals were a trendy pick in most pre-season predictions this past Spring. Not one pegged the team as the likely winner in the NL East, but rather sneaking into the playoffs as the second Wild Card, yet still finishing 3rd in the division. A rare few went “out on a limb” and predicted the team could possible surprise and finish 2nd in the division, but those bets almost always relied on “everyone remaining healthy” and “things falling into place right”.

The team’s front office, management, and owners couldn’t have even know they’d be this good, this soon. They never would have been able to expect being in the thick of things when the Strasburg decision ultimately came around.

We knew all along that Strasburg would be shut down within the first week or two of September. Estimates put his innings limit between 160 and 180 innings. We all accepted the idea last Fall when it was first introduced. It would be in the “best interests of the team” so it had to be the right decision, right?

I, for one, have always stood behind the expected decision. Long term success outweighs a singular winning season in my book. So the pending day where Strasburg’s season would come to an end never concerned me. It just simply isn’t a big deal. But, the biggest reason why this isn’t a big deal is the starting rotation that the team still maintains.

Heading into the Labor Day Weekend, the Nationals possessed the Major League’s best rotation ERA at 3.27 with Strasburg. Without him, they still sat at 3.32. Tampa Bay ranks second, at 3.49. Washington’s rotation heading into the post season should be just fine, which needs to be understood. Sports Illustrated’s Joe Lemire broke down the group rather effectively as August concluded:

"Construct a competitive playoff rotation for a contender, and you might start with a hard throwing right-hander who is second in his league in ERA and boasts a gaudy strikeout-to-walk ratio.Behind him, you could do worse than a two time All Star lefty with giddy-up on his fastball, which he mixes with a knee-buckling curve to rank second in wins and in strikeout rate and 12th in ERA.Maybe the third starter would be a World Series winning right-hander, the one with the devastating slider, the no-hitter and 22 innings of playoff experience, who this year sits among the Top 20 in WHIP and strikeouts.Nowadays almost every team uses a fourth starter in the postseason, and a club would do well to give those innings to an up-and-coming left-hander with the best groundball rate in the bunch, who has emerged from nowhere to join the league’s  Top 15 in ERA and WHIP."

Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson, and Ross Detwiler make a fairly formidable four-man rotation.

Zimmermann is making the most of his first full season without an innings limitation. He was expected to be kept right around 160 innings last year (he threw 161.1), his first after undergoing the same Tommy John surgery that Strasburg went through. He’s where the innings limit precedent stemmed from. While his record doesn’t reflect how well he’s pitched in 2012, Zimmermann was quietly been one of the top starters in the National League for most of the year before a recent slide that has spanned his last four outings. He’s 9-8 with a career low 3.01 ERA over 164.2 innings (27 starts) of work.

After coming to Washington in a trade that sparked mixed emotions at the time, Gonzalez has proven to be just as valuable as the organization could have hoped for. He’s provided the quality left-handed option atop the rotation that was needed to pair with Strasburg and Zimmermann, and justified the extension he was awarded shortly after joining the organization. Gonzalez is 17-7 on the year with a 3.10 ERA over 168.1 innings (27 starts). He leads the league in wins and H/9 (7.0). His biggest concern entering the season was the high walk totals he’s posted over the last two seasons in Oakland. Gonzalez has lowered his walk rate (down to 3.4 BB/9) this season.

Viewed as a puzzling but shrewd free agent signing at the time, Jackson has proven to be a big addition to this rotation after joining his 8th organization since the 2007 season. He’s provided some veteran leadership while being the innings-eater the team needed in the middle of the rotation. Jackson is 8-9 on the year with a 3.53 ERA over 158.0 innings (25 starts). He has more playoff experience than the entire remainder of the Nationals pitching staff.

Finally, there is Detwiler, who’s place in the starting rotation was never a foregone conclusion entering the season. He was never even considered a favorite within a group that included Chien-Ming Wang and John Lannan. But Detwiler has spent the bulk of the year starting for the Nationals, making 21 starts in 27 appearances, pitching a total of 133.0 innings (a career high). He’s 8-6 with a 3.32 ERA in that span.

With the Nationals fighting the Cincinnati Reds for the best overall record in the National League and a 6.5 game lead (at the time this was written) over the Atlanta Braves in the NL East, Washington sits in a very comfortable position and appears almost certain to reach the postseason for the first time. After beating the defending World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals 10-0 last Friday night the Nationals had earned their 80th victory of the season. Their chances of reaching the postseason sat at 99.9%.

With the playoffs in sight, Washington finds themselves in an enviable position considering the strength of their projected playoff rotation. Right now, it’d be hard to argue in favor of another team’s front four (as a group) over Zimmermann, Gonzalez, Jackson, and Detwiler.

But the question remains: would Washington’s postseason chances be better if Strasburg were still included in that group?

An answer may never fully be known. That’s both the beauty and tragedy of the situation.

There’s no way of knowing what the postseason will bring. Washington could go all the way or they could be swept by their first opponent. There’s no way of knowing whether having Strasburg in the rotation would have made a difference.

There’s also no way of knowing if Strasburg will get hurt again in the future. Or whether such an injury will have playoff ramifications in the future. If Strasburg remains healthy, there’s no way of knowing if shutting him down now helped prevent future injuries. If he gets hurt, there’s no way of knowing that he wouldn’t have had they just let him pitch this year.

It all boils down to believing in what’s best for both him and the organization. Limiting Strasburg’s innings this year appears to be the solution that fits those requirements.

The team announced over Labor Day Weekend that Strasburg would have two more starts before his season would be over. He was told of the plan himself Monday morning by Rizzo, Davey Johnson, and pitching coach Steve McCatty, according to Mark Zuckerman. He’s scheduled to face the Miami Marlins at home on Friday and then the New York Mets in New York on Wednesday, September 12th. And that’s it.

Entering those final two starts, Strasburg has thrown 156.1 innings on the year over 27 starts. He’s 15-6 with a 2.94 ERA and a league leading 195 strikeouts (11.2 K/9 – also leads the league). He’s not only been vital to Washington’s success this season, but he’s developed into the team’s true #1 starter. While winning the World Series this October would be phenomenal, Strasburg’s health and continued dominance are going to be essential for the long term success of this franchise.

Long term success. There’s that thought again. That, coupled with the remaining rotation heading into the postseason, is why the Nationals are making the right decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg.