On Missing Strasburg
The discussion of the premature end to Stephen Strasburg’s 2012 season has shown the ugly side of the sports writing profession. From the famous to the obscure, from John Feinstein to Dave Zirin, it matters not what knowledge or prejudice they bring to the debate. Sports writers of every stripe have weighed in to condemn the decision by the Nationals. In one remarkable column after another they have pinpointed specific and game-changing problems that arise from the Mike Rizzo’s decision to shutdown the Nationals pitching ace.
Testing plausible causality to the limits, Zirin blamed Tyler Cippard’s horrid September on Strasburg not pitching. Feinstein opined that the Nationals have not built a winner, merely a contender as he blasted Rizzo for failing to put Strasburg to the test in the crucible of pennant fever. He called it a “hollow cheer” when all the Nationals could do was raise the NL East Pennant at Nationals Park.
Bob Dylan said famously, “Too much of nothing can make a man a liar.” There is a hunger for winning baseball in Washington fueled by a long and empty past. But the wonders of the 2012 season should provide reason and logic to the debate, not the grounds for abandoning them. Maybe what John Feinstein needs is a long walk.
We, Nationals Nation, miss Stephen Strasburg. Don’t get me wrong. Mike Rizzo, Davey Johnson and every player and fan alike would have been proud to have Stephen Strasburg taking the mound every fifth day in September and October. But the critics have thrown not just caution to the wind, but have flung reason under the bus in the debate.
Most of the critics know the other side of the argument. They chose to discount the sound medical advice from orthopedists. You can find a doctor to tell you whatever you want to hear, but the consensus of the sports physicians was that Strasburg would be at risk pitching above a reasonable innings limit in 2012. The concern focused on his youth. Strasburg turned 24 in July. Who cares? ask the sports writers. We want a winner now and we can disguise our petulance behind our cleverness, just watch us.
But pitchers who have come back from Tommy John surgery to pitch without regard to the number of innings have an average age several years north of 24. Re-injury is less a concern for a 30-year old veteran whose best years may already be behind him regardless. The Nationals organization should be lauded for protecting Strasburg, except it is just smart money to guard the team’s investment in Strasburg
There is an obscenely obvious comparison to be made. The Washington Redskins have not made a serious playoff run in the NFL in twenty years. So when they drafted RG III, it was the equivalent of Stephen Strasburg falling to the Nationals. Only time will tell whose golden arm will yield more playoff hardware, but Griffin suffered a concussion and there is no more serious injury in sports–any sport–that the injury to the brain that can maim a player for life.
Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty, whose right arm does not rise normally, will tell you that throwing a baseball when you should not can also maim. However, if the Redskins put RG III in harm’s way, the consequences could be far more serious. Sports writers in DC are panting for RG III to suit up as soon as possible.
The Redskins have rushed their young quarterback out onto the field assuring everyone that he is healed and that they have taken every precaution to make certain such a head injury does not happen again. We can only hope they are right, that a fine young man’s career does not end prematurely–not to mention that he could have a disability for life.
Then there is the more obvious statistical case that Stephen Strasburg was beginning to wear down in the weeks just before the Nationals pulled the plug. Reasoned writers have admitted that Strasburg’s professional career has never seen him throw more than 125 innings. Young pitchers have too often been overworked to the detriment of their long term careers.
Strasburg threw 123 innings in his first year as a pro—2010–between the minors and majors. The Nationals should have been careful about the number of innings Strasburg accumulated during the season regardless whether he had surgery the year before or not.
Additional concern for Strasburg’s arm health could be taken from the increasing frequency of his bad outings over the course of the 2012 season. The young pitcher had several rough stretches during the season. They generally only lasted a couple of starts, but they were becoming more numerous in the second half of the season. At the end of May, Strasburg had three starts in a row where he was less than stellar. He did not throw more than five innings in any of those games, and in fourteen innings gave up nine earned runs while walking seven. At the end of July he had another rough period and again just before being shut down.
So yes the Nationals miss Stephen Strasburg, but they did the right thing for the team, for the city and certainly for the young man himself. Deferred gratification is built into American life in many ways. American youth work and study for a distant pay day all their young lives. What does one more winter of discontent matter for Stephen Strasburg in the larger scheme of things?
We can hope that the 2013 season will offer vindication. Every fan short of John Feinstein is anxious for another run, confident that Stephen Strasburg will be back in 2013 and better than ever. But if not, the decision remains the right one. Four months until pitchers and catchers report. Go Nats!!