Stephen Strasburg vs. Tim Lincecum today would ordinarily be heralded as a matchup between two of the best pitchers in the NL – though Lincecum, the 2-time Cy Young winner, is having a poor season – and potentially a National League playoff preview, as both teams lead their respective divisions.
But who can talk about anything other than the impending Strasburg shutdown? The Nationals – depending on your point of view, they’re either being terribly foolish or making the right call long term – seem adamant about shutting down their best pitcher after 180 innings. Strasburg had Tommy John surgery in 2010, and that 180 inning limit appears firm, regardless of how far the Nationals get in the postseason. That is, assuming they reach the postseason.
Strasburg has pitched 133 1/3 innings so far this season. Simple math: Strasburg’s got 46 2/3 innings left this season. There are 45 games left in Washington’s season. As I see it, the Nationals have a few options:
1) Have Strasburg space out his starts the rest of the regular season so that he’ll have a couple starts in the postseason. Jordan Zimmerman and Gio Gonzalez have been outstanding so far. What if you made Strasburg the No. 3 starter in the first and second round of the postseason? Best case scenario is he only throws 12-14 innings in two rounds and still has innings to spare in the World Series. [UPDATE: Washington Post today has a blurb: there was "never a chance" Strasburg would pitch in the postseason.]
2) Save Strasburg completely for the postseason. Make this San Francisco start his last one. Hope that the rest of your staff and your bats can get you there. If you wind up in a play-in game, then sure, you can use a fresh Strasburg.
3) Here’s the problem with No. 2 – even if you save 39 postseason innings for Strasburg, let’s say he makes two 7-inning starts in the first round and in the second round. That leaves you with only about 13 innings in the World Series for Strasburg.
Yes, the firm 180 inning count is ridiculous. Don’t bring up shutting down Zimmerman last year. The Nationals were never in postseason contention. I would advocate shutting down Strasburg if the Nationals were a fringe contender, like say the Diamondbacks or Mets. But this is a team with a legitimate shot at the World Series. GM Mike Rizzo is calling the shots, though, and doesn’t seem to be wavering at all. The Washington Post included this nugget in defense of Rizzo:
It includes the view of the surgeon, Lewis Yocum, who’s performed all the operations on Nats pitchers in recent years. It is Yocum’s belief that pitchers who break down from premature returns from elbow surgery — sometimes ruining their shoulders, and their whole careers, rather then their new elbows — don’t usually do so during the first big stress year but rather the following season. That would be 2013 in Strasburg’s case.
Nobody’s saying Strasburg should throw 220 or even 200 innings in hopes of the Nationals winning the World Series. But I’m with Joel Sherman of the Post – go with a six-man rotation the rest of the regular season and hope for the best with Strasburg in the postseason. This anonymous quote should be delivered to Rizzo:
Plus, he has [Scott] Boras as an agent, so you may be saving him so that he can break the bank with someone else some day.”
Long term, it might be in the best interest of the franchise to shut down Strasburg early. Try telling that to an ultra-competitive 24-year-old who will finish in the Top 5 for Cy Young voting in the NL.