Nationals are Being Too Cautious with Strasburg
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It’s another trip to the DL for Nats’ right-handed pitcher Stephen Strasburg, this time with a strained flexor tendon in his throwing forearm. Strasburg made three starts since coming off the DL after struggling to warm up for a start in late July. Now he’s shut down again, and this time, he could be done for the season.
The Nats have taken great care of Strasburg since he was brought up from the minor leagues on June 8th. He has never exceeded 99 pitches in a game. He never pitched into the eight inning, and only four times pitched into the seventh. Having signed Strasburg at the mere price tag of $15 million, you can understand why the Nationals would go to great pains to protect his arm. Strasburg is a lot of potential wasted money if he never can pitch on a contending Nationals team.
But sometimes, it seems like the Nationals forget that they are developing a pitcher who just turned 22 years old, and trying to teach him to be the ace of a major league pitching staff. And while a carefully orchestrated debut season ensures that Strasburg will be healthy for next season, the Nationals seem to be willing to go to such extremes that as to suggest that they’re not actually concerned with Strasburg’s performance as a 22, 23, or 24 year old.
And the fact of the matter is that Strasburg has now hit the disabled list twice in his rookie season — a season in which the only goal of the Nationals from mid-June on has been to keep their star pitcher healthy. To be fair, these aren’t serious, arm-threatening injuries, and the Nats haven’t lost Strasburg to chronic arm troubles the way that manager Jim Riggleman lost Kerry Wood when he was the manager of the Cubs.
So, if the Nationals play this as expected and shut down Strasburg to get him ready for next year, here’s what the Nats got out of their investment in year one: 12 starts, 68 innings pitched, 92 strikeouts, 5 HRs allowed, and 2.6 wins above replacement. That’s something that they can build on next year.
But if I were a fan, I would be concerned that instead of letting the young pitcher go deeper into games, developing a fourth pitch, and letting him push himself towards individual honors and team successes, that the Nationals continue to play mortified of an injury to Strasburg’s arm. And it seems unlikely that anything they do as a team can significantly change the probability that Strasburg gets hurt.
Which is a major point here. The Nationals should be careful with their young pitcher. They should protect his arm. But they also need to treat him like a major league baseball pitcher when he’s in the majors, and not like a future prospect. It’s not like the Nats — no team, actually — babies their other young pitchers to this level. Using pitch counts and mechanical analyses to protect investments is a sound strategy, but when Strasburg can’t pitch as aggressively or with the ultimate goal of winning a game in mind, compared to other pitchers on the staff, it seems like even pitching him at all is a sub-optimal strategy.
If you never pitch a young pitcher, there’s hardly any chance he’ll get injured. And then you can have him on your active roster for a whole season, and he can provide all that emotional support for the pitching staff. This is hyperbole of course, but doesn’t seem to be far from the course of action the Nationals would like to take.
The team would be much better off if they would stop fearing the worst, and use Strasburg more aggressively. He’s too good at this point in his career to not throw as much as possible, and a mild strain of the flexor tendon should not shut a guy down for the year, at least not a guy who you want on your big league ballclub. Strasburg should return to the club in September, and finish out the season strong and get himself ready for opening day 2011, when he will certainly be taking the mound for Washington. That off-season is a real, tangible amount of time for Strasburg to get rest, and I see no benefit to giving him a month-and-a-half head start on that sedentary event.