Saturday, August 18, 2012

Strasburg Roulette

If you follow Major League Baseball, you are aware of the "dilemma" that the Washington Nationals currently find themselves in.  Their ace, Stephen Strasburg, is coming off a season in which he threw less than 50 innings because of Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery.  Because of this, Nationals management has decided to shut him down for the season at around 180 innings. Seems simple enough.
But the problem, you see, is that the Nationals are really damn good.  As of this writing, they have the best record in baseball, a four-game lead in the NL East, and a 99% chance (according to ESPN) of making the playoffs for the first time in a long, long time.  They are, indubitably, a team that could win the World Series this year.
(I called that this would happen in March; I was laughed at.  But I digress).

By all accounts, Washington's success has been built on the backs of Strasburg and the Nationals' other starters. All five - Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler, and Edwin Jackson - have ERAs under 3.75 and WHIPs (walks/hits per inning) under 1.22.  These numbers are the best in the majors and in the playoffs, a rotation this deep is absolute murder.  Championship teams in baseball are built on starting pitching, and the Nats have that in spades.  The pieces are in place for a long postseason run.
If Mike Rizzo and Washington management carries through with their plan (there is no reason to believe that they will not), it will undoubtedly lessen the Nats' chances of winning a championship.  You can try and say that "one player every five days isn't that big a deal," but you're wrong.  Strasburg is Washington's best pitcher and anyone saying they want any pitcher other than him starting a game 7 is lying.  He is a huge piece of this team.
Of course, shutting Strasburg down is also probably necessary to help prolong his career.  Strasburg's mechanics are awful by traditional measures and he possesses the dreaded inverted "W" in his delivery - just like Mark Prior and Kerry Wood did. (For those not following these types of things at home, this refers to the ball being near Strasburg's ear when his front foot touches the ground.  More on that here). This mechanical flaw undoubtedly led to Strasburg's Tommy John procedure, like it has with so many others who had major surgery on their elbows or shoulders - Prior, Wood, Jeremy Bonderman.  Prior and Bonderman are out of baseball after short and electric careers; Wood just retired after a career that was lengthened only by him switching to relief - and still getting hurt.  And if Strasburg succumbs to another major surgery on his arm, his big league career is probably over as we know it - about eight or nine years earlier than it would "normally," based on the history of other pitchers with a delivery similar to his.  Because of his mechanics, Strasburg is likely a ticking time bomb - that's just the way it is.
Knowing this, shutting him down seems like a slam dunk, and I definitely lean towards this course of action.  Top-flight organizations stick to decisions and promises that are made preseason.  It's the right decision for his health.  They could win without him.
However: you play to win the game.  I understand that the Nationals are a young team that likely has their best years ahead of them.  But baseball is about as unpredictable as it gets.  Last year, the Phillies were supposed to cruise to the World Series but ended up losing in the first round.  The Red Sox, also favorites to cakewalk to the big show, missed the dance.  Both teams are downright terrible this year.  There is no telling whether or not the Nats will be this good again or have this good a chance to win it all than they do right now.  The odds are certainly in favor of them being dominant for around a decade, but you never know.
Would you rather win the World Series now and not have Strasburg healthy for the majority of the next ten years ?  Or would you rather have him healthy-ish (again, basing of history of pitchers with his delivery) and not win at all with him on the roster?  It's a tough question, and I would tend to lean towards the latter this year.
For a city longing for a champion, however, shutting the ace down may be the difference between a parade and heartbreak.  And that is tough to swallow.

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