Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, and the Puzzle of Opening Day


Matt Williams’ announcement on Monday put to rest several weeks of debate, amongst everyone from casual fans to national sports media pundits, over which pitcher in the Nationals’ star-studded rotation should get the ball for the Opening Day game against the Mets on April 6.

The majority of this debate, even here at District on Deck, centered around two pitchers in particular: $210 million free agent and Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, who will be getting the start on April 6; and Jordan Zimmermann, former second-round pick and owner of a no-hitter. In a way, there really was no wrong decision. No matter who Williams tapped to trot out to the mound to face the Mets, the decision would have been neither a bad one nor a surprise.

What is a surprise, though, is the name that’s been conspicuously absent during all of this discussion. After all, when it comes to homegrown talent, it’s Stephen Strasburg, not Jordan Zimmermann, who was a number one overall pick. It’s Strasburg who was chosen to start Game 1 of the NLDS. And it’s Strasburg who’s started the last three Opening Days in a row.

This of course begs the question: why have Nats fans suddenly developed a case of amnesia when it comes to a player who was once thought of as the face of the franchise? Why have they been so willing to relegate him to the same level of consideration that (no offense intended) Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez merit?

The answer there is a complicated one, and, surprisingly, there’s a lot more to it than just what’s happened on the field.

The Story of the Orchid

No one is going to accuse Stephen Strasburg of being Clayton Kershaw, but lately the general consensus seems to be that he’s also miles behind Jordan Zimmermann, two years his elder. Is that the case, though? A look at the numbers says it really isn’t.

At first glance, Strasburg’s numbers from 2014 don’t appear to be anything special. He played his way to a 14-11 record with an ERA of 3.14, slightly lower than his best season in 2012 (3.16) when he won 15 games. His FIP was down from last season, while his WHIP and strikeouts per nine innings were up slightly. It marked the first time in a season that Strasburg had pitched over 200 innings. It also marked the first time that Strasburg’s numbers were worse, even if marginally, than teammate Jordan Zimmermann’s.

This means, of course, that the fanbase’s souring on Strasburg has less to do with pure numbers, and almost everything to do with perception.

Anyone who’s familiar with PTI star Tony Kornheiser’s local radio show – particularly his commentary on the Nationals – should know that Kornheiser has dubbed Strasburg “The Orchid.” The floral moniker certainly carries an image of beauty with it, and when Strasburg is in prime form, weaving pitches intricately and undressing unsuspecting batters at the plate, it is a beautiful thing. Yet it also implies a frailty, a fragileness, and when things went the wrong way on the mound, that aspect of Strasburg’s psyche often became all too apparent.

While Strasburg seems to be slowly gaining in tenacity of late, the public image of him as an emotional ragdoll seems to persist. Fans seem to be watching his every movement, just waiting for him to collapse, and, in all honesty, Strasburg has no one to blame for that but himself because he’s been unwilling to connect with the fans and the media.

On Tuesday’s episode of the Tony Kornheiser Show, while speaking on the Nationals pitching staff with Washington Post columnist Barry Svrluga, Kornheiser compared Strasburg to other local sports stars (John Wall, Robert Griffin, Bryce Harper), saying, “the people who live here [in DC] know more about them by miles than they know about Stephen Strasburg… He gives you nothing to like, nothing to know,” before implying that Strasburg could leave via free agency and the city would hardly bat an eye.

Svrluga agreed, adding that Strasburg’s want to keep the fans at arm’s length leaves them with no sort of personality traits to latch on to. “The fan base is left only with your performance and they are either going to love your performance and your demeanor on the field of play or they’re going to pick it apart,” Svrluga said. “There’s no other kind of goodwill built up to offset anything that is a flaw in his performance.”

This means that unless Strasburg is willing to step out of his comfort zone, which seems unlikely, fans and local media will continue probing Strasburg’s body language for telltale signs of weakness, and as long as he keeps giving off the same signals, fans will continue to keep that place in their heart for Jordan Zimmermann.

J.Z. in D.C.

Unfortunately for fans, that spot may be up for rent sooner than most would like. Jordan Zimmermann himself said just this Friday that his signing an extension prior to the start of the season is unlikely, which means after 2015, he’ll be free to sign with whatever team he chooses.

Odds are that won’t be Washington. Just over a year ago, Zimmermann turned down an offer, worth over $100 million according to Svrluga, that would have kept him in D.C. for an extended period of time. Instead, he bet on himself, and as a result, he’ll likely receive a contract that comes close in dollar value to what the Nationals just handed out to Scherzer.

Zimmermann’s departure is almost a foregone conclusion, and, in fact it was part of the argument for giving him the start over Scherzer. With his no hitter and the almost complete game in the NLDS, fans argued, he’d earned the honor of taking the mound for the first game of what will effectively be a “victory lap” season with the Nationals. It would be one last hurrah for the homegrown pitcher whose grit and determination made him a fan favorite.

So why didn’t they give him that honor? That answer has less to do with just Jordan Zimmermann and more to do with the future of the Nationals’ rotation.

2016 and Beyond

There are a few teams in baseball that have the resources to throw whatever sort of money they want at players. The Yankees, the Mets, the Dodgers – finances will hardly ever get in the way of them adding players to their roster.

The Nationals, a team located in a smaller market with a television contract controlled by the Orioles, aren’t so lucky. Money is a finite, limited resource. Even if you can grow a team through drafts and the minor league system, you’ll only be able to keep a certain number of your own prospects. The rest will leave for greener pastures and a big payday, which certainly appears to be the route Jordan Zimmermann is on.

That’s part of the logic for the acquisition of Scherzer. In a way, Rizzo is going all in on 2015. He knew Zimmermann had his foot out the door, so he pulled the trigger on a big name free agent now who will ostensibly be Zimmermann’s replacement for the future.

It could also be the biggest piece of the Opening Day puzzle. You’ll never hear Rizzo or Williams admit it, but their refusal to grant Zimmermann the overture to his swan song is, as Svrluga termed it on the radio, “a tacit admission that [they]’re going with the guy who’s going to be here.”

In other words, the Nationals’ commitment to Scherzer goes beyond the $210 million that they agreed to pay him; they’ve also dubbed him the centerpiece of their rotation for the foreseeable future. For the worse or the better, the Nationals are counting on Scherzer to be the front of their starting five well beyond April 6, 2015.

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