Ever since the season began, there have been rumors that the Washington Nationals were going to limit Stephen Strasburg to between 160 and 180 innings pitched in his first full season after undergoing Tommy John Surgery on his elbow.
Washington General Manager Mike Rizzo has confirmed this plan, stating that he himself made the decision based on decades of research on the procedure and on the recommendation of Strasburg's surgeon, Lewis Yokum. Yokum believes that, while Strasburg could certainly help the team down the stretch, the overtaxing of his arm could lead to serious troubles starting in 2013.
The Nats utilized this philosophy when they shut down Jordan Zimmerman after 161 innings last season, and thus far it appears to have paid off handsomely.
But there is one major difference between the two situations: the Nats are contenders this year. Washington's 72-44 record is currently the best in the Majors and is good for a 5.5-game lead over Atlanta in the NL East standings.
Suddenly, the plan to shut down a top starter like Strasburg in the heat of a pennant race seems rather foolish to many experts.
Strasburg has pitched 133.3 innings in 23 starts thus far, which works out to be an average of 5.8 innings per start. With 46 games remaining on the schedule, Strasburg is on track to make about nine more starts, which would be about 52 innings if his averages hold.
This puts Strasburg on pace to throw around 185 innings, which is well above the Nats' comfort level.
This puts the Nationals in a bit of a quandary, as shutting down Strasburg could benefit the team in the long-term but at the same time has the potential to cost the city its first taste of playoff baseball since 1933. So should the Nationals go for it this year?
Of course they should, without thinking twice.
Pitch Counts, Not Innings Pitched
The problem with Washington's plan goes beyond a lack of concrete evidence supporting innings limits or the idea that every pitcher is different with regard to workload and arm capabilities.
No, the big problem with Washington's plan is that they are using a faulty measure for a pitcher's workload.
Innings pitched measures the number of outs that a pitcher recorded, and nothing else. It says very little about the difficulty of each inning; for example, a 3 pitch inning is counted exactly the same as a 30-pitch inning, as long as each pitch count recorded a total of three outs.
Furthermore, it is not an increase in the number of innings that increases risk of injury. The biggest risk factor is in fact the number of pitches thrown when a pitcher is fatigued. Most pitch count measures (Pitcher Abuse Points, for example) consider this point to be at around 100 pitches, regardless of how many innings it takes to get there.
To the Nats' credit, it does appear that the team is paying close attention to Strasburg's pitch counts. Strasburg has averaged 94.1 pitches in his 23 starts, and on only two occasions has he been allowed to go over 110 pitches in a single game.
(this separates Strasburg from horror stories like Kerry Wood, whom the Cubs allowed to go over 110 pitches in ten different starts in his first year back from surgery. Is it any wonder that guy had arm issues his entire career?)
But what we are not hearing from the Nationals (or anybody, for that matter) is a precise limit to Strasburg's workload in terms of number of pitches in a given season. All we are hearing is number of innings, which in and of itself is not an accurate measure.
Go For the Gold
As mentioned earlier, it has been a long, long time since the nation's capital experienced the thrill of postseason baseball. While a big part of that was due to the absence of a team for 30+ years, the Nationals have not exactly set the league ablaze since moving from Montreal prior to the 2005 season. Heck, this is the first time that the franchise itself has been in playoff contention this late in the year since they went into the 1994 strike with the best record in baseball.
In short, this is a franchise that has not had that many opportunities for success.
It is the stated goal of every MLB team to win the World Series, and that cannot be done unless a team clinches a spot in the playoffs. Therefore, this success-starved organization owes it to everybody - the team, the fans, even baseball itself - to do whatever it takes to get into the postseason.
More Prudent Solutions
The good news for the Nationals is that they have a couple of appealing options that do not involve completely shutting down Strasburg for the remainder of the year.
The first solution would be to send him to the bullpen, which would allow Strasburg to get regular work while not building up his innings or pitch total by a significant amount. However, this could get him out of the rhythm of starting, and a loss of pacing could cause him to tax his arm further on individual pitches.
A better idea is to go to a six-man rotation over the final seven weeks of the season, which would shave a couple of starts off of Strasburg's total and reduce his overall innings total to an estimated 173 innings on the year. If the Nats are still worried about Strasburg's health, they could also give him additional rest during this time.
But the problem with this idea is that it affects the rest of Washington's rotation, which so far has been the best in baseball and shows no signs of slowing down. It does not make much sense to take starts away from the likes of Zimmerman, Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson, and Ross Detwiler when the team is only concerned about the workload of Strasburg.
It might be better to simply give Strasburg a couple of additional days off from the rotation. Limiting him to 6 starts would put him at around 170 innings on the season while at the same time not hold back the other starters in the rotation. Considering Washington's lead in the standings, it should be safe for the team to call up a starter from AAA Syracuse for a few September starts in Strasburg's place.
Whatever the Washington Nationals choose to do, they need to make sure that Stephen Strasburg's season is not complete. The Nats have been one of the great stories in baseball, and it would be a shame if anything changed that.52472