Last week, Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports revealed to the world that the much-talked-about innings limit imposed by Washington Nationals management on starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg would be around 180 for the year. While that was later dismissed by the Nationals front office, with the aid of a few extra rest days and a six-man rotation in September (thank you John Lannan), such an allowance seemed like a plausible limit.
When the idea of this cautious approach to Strasburg’s work load was first hinted at during the beginning of the year, it was never anticipated that the Nationals would be in a position to make the playoffs, let alone have the best record in baseball in mid-August. And yet, here we are.
So, while an innings limit to protect your best young pitching arm is one thing, an innings limit that might keep your team’s best pitcher, and arguably most valuable player, off the playoff roster is quite another. And yet, according to a source that MLB.com’s Bill Ladson spoke with, the Nationals would not consider bringing Strasburg in to pitch in the postseason after he’s shut down.
The Washington Nationals, despite what Jayson Werth’s contract might suggest, are not idiots. They wouldn’t have randomly come up with a 180 innings pitched limit and be willing to enforce it come hell or high water. All along, the limit has been said to be a fluid number, affected by factors beyond total pitches thrown. It’s not an enormous leap in logic to assume that a Major League Baseball team would know enough about injuries, recovery and their own player’s body to have an idea of where his recovery threshold can be found.
A more apt criticism of the Nationals is found in comparing their handling of Strasburg to how the White Sox have handled Chris Sale. This might seem strange to anyone recalling Sale’s to-the-bullpen/not-to-the bullpen yo-yoing earlier in the year, but that was merely a feeling out process that has resulted in the White Sox left-handed starter taking periodic rests three times this season. Chicago, a team known for keeping pitching arms healthy, has done well to stagger Sale’s breaks as a means of keeping him active during the important stretch run, while theoretically avoiding strain from overuse that might cause arm trouble or diminished performance.
With the Nationals more secure in the prospect of postseason baseball than the White Sox, it could be asked why a team so concerned with the long-term health of their pitcher would continue to use up a limited resource at less than vital parts of the schedule. However, for as quickly as some might want to denigrate the Washington front office before they’ve actually shut Strasburg down, it’s worth suggesting that there’s likely a reason the organization hasn’t been up front with its plan for their star pitcher.
Primarily, the reason for this has to be the fluidity I previously mentioned. There are factors beyond a hard innings cap at play here, and as much as our own simple minds want things to be well-defined, a serious approach to balancing the immediate opportunities to win this year and the long-term health and availability of their best player is in all likelihood going to be a bit more nuanced than coming up with a random number between 160 and 200.
Secondly, in terms of competition, there’s absolutely no benefit for the Nationals to reveal their plans for all the world to see. The entire “think of the fans” argument is rooted in the idea that Washington owes something other than trying to win baseball games to its fan base. While there’s no sure way to tell if revealing their plan for Strasburg would hurt their chance of winning, we can definitely say it doesn’t help.
And even if you want to go further down this road and suggest that the team would be negligent to not field the best roster available in the playoffs, there’s an argument to be made that the current best team in baseball, with the entirety of its core outside of Edwin Jackson under team control, would do best to think about the long term instead of the immediate. Yes, flags fly forever, but worrying about negligence is more accurate if those flags are bought and paid for on the future career of an individual who is in good stead to lead the acquisition of future flags.
The Nationals are in a good place now, but they’ll be in an even better place next year, and probably the year after, and maybe even the year after that. Looking through the list of players that the team will lose to free agency this off season, “good riddance” is a more likely reaction than “we’re going to miss that production.” And given their run this season and the opening of salary space, it likely won’t take Jayson Werth money to attract another free agent prize to the nation’s capital.
Not only are worries over what the Nationals are doing with Strasburg likely premature, even if the full realization of these worries takes place, it’s not a defeat for anything other than the YOLO movement.
The Nationals’ decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg is a tough blow to the YOLO movement.
— D.J. Short (@djshort) August 13, 2012