A Rebuttal to the Thorne/Palmer Strasburg Comments


I had hoped the dust over Washington Nationals’ General Manager Mike Rizzo’s decision to end Stephen Strasburg‘s 2012 season had finally settled. Then, wonder of wonders, two broadcasters on the Baltimore Orioles’ half of the MASN network, Gary Thorne and Jim Palmer, had to dredge it all up again.

Palmer, who seems to have forgotten that Baltimore limited his workload when he returned after a severe arm injury way back in the unenlightened 1960s when four-man rotations and 145 pitch games ruled, decried the decision. Thorne went so far as to call it a sin. Wow. That’s a frightening lack of perspective even if he was right.

Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo (right) with skipper Davey Johnson. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-US PRESSWIRE

He isn’t.

Rizzo shut down Strasburg because the young man’s arm underwent major surgery last year, he pitched far more innings in 2012 than he ever had before, and he endured tremendous mental and physical duress as everyone but Jon Stewart offered an opinion on the issue.

Oh, and Rizzo did it for one other reason — self-interest. Yes, believe it or not, Rizzo ended his young ace’s season because it gives the Nationals their best chance of winning. You can choose to believe it or deny it, but it is true. Rizzo wants to win. Desperately. More than anyone else connected with the Nationals. Not tomorrow. Not 2013. Right now.

The problem with Thorne and Palmer and all the other anti-shutdown voices is that, when they see Strasburg, they are looking at his past or his future, not what he is right now. Looking back, they see a giant power pitcher capable of throwing 6-7 shutout innings every time he takes the mound. Earlier this season, before fatigue and post-surgery problems set in, Strasburg was that Cy Young worthy pitcher.

He is not that pitcher now.

Looking ahead, they see a dominant, experienced all-star throwing 8 innings and 110-120 pitches every time out with a sub-2.50 ERA and, with average run support, winning 18-20 games. They see Strasburg becoming, perhaps, the best pitcher in baseball.

He is not that pitcher yet. His chances of ever becoming that pitcher decrease exponentially if he is pushed beyond his current innings limit.

What Rizzo sees — and he is perhaps the most brutally candid, clear-eyed GM in the game — is what Strasburg is in the present. Right now, Stephen Strasburg is a stressed out young man with a severely fatigued right arm. His consistency from start to start is shot. He is brilliant one game, awful the next. He can hit a dime with a fastball one inning, hit the mascot with it the next. His curve and change up lock hitters up one time, get rocketed to the gap the next.

Check the facts. Since the all-star break, Strasburg has been the Nationals’ least effective starter and owner of the group’s highest ERA. John Lannan‘s five starts add up to better stats if you remove his recent debacle against Los Angeles. Those advocating that Strasburg should continue to pitch are, when the facts are applied, asking the Nationals to risk a pitcher’s future career for the performance of, roughly, a league average starting pitcher.

That’s too high a risk for too little a return. No thinking person, and Mike Rizzo thinks through every decision thoroughly, would make such a speculative investment. In fact, given the other healthy pitching talent on the roster, pushing Strasburg to continue would give the team, at best, a slightly less likely chance of winning those games. Keep in mind, I am basing this on the pitcher Strasburg is now, not what he was earlier this season or what he will be in 2013 and beyond.

Even if only crass self-interest were involved and not an admirable restraint from the absurd win at all costs culture that now pervades professional sports, the Nationals decision to shut down Strasburg is a good one — for both the young man and the team’s chances in 2012.

Those, like Thorne and Palmer, who blast the Nationals as a foolish organization are not opining on the basis of fact. Instead, they may be trying to foment discontent and disillusionment within a growing, but still fairly new and fragile fan base. In my admittedly limited experience (I have time to follow one baseball team and I have gladly chosen the Nationals from the moment baseball announced their arrival), any Nationals-related talk from the Baltimore television and radio broadcasters is almost uniformly negative — and uninformed. That certainly was the case in this instance.

Thorne and Palmer should examine the facts before they denigrate a team and its GM who decided to act in a manner that benefits the fans’ hunger for a winning team, right now in 2012 and beyond.