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Why Didn't the Nationals Limit Stephen Strasburg's Innings in a More Sensible Way?

The Washington Nationals have the best record in baseball and are poised to make the playoffs for the first time since the franchise moved to Washington. If the season ended today, they would head into the postseason as one of the favorites. Of course, if the playoffs started tomorrow, the Nationals would be going into the playoffs with their best player – something they will not be doing in October because they plan to shut down Stephen Strasburg well before then.

The Nationals deciding to stick to their inning-limit on Strasburg has many people up in arms. Those people have a point. Sitting your best player when you have a chance to win a World Series is stupid. Making the playoffs is hard – even with the ridiculous, expanded 1-game Wild Card format. There is no guarantee that Strasburg and the Nationals will be back in the playoffs next year, or ever for that matter.

Having said that, Washington fans, players, doctors, residents and management seem mostly fine with the decision. They ain’t wrong either. This is a move that should benefit the franchise in the long run. I don’t have a problem with the Nationals limiting Strasburg to a certain number of innings to protect his arm and their long-term investment. Neither do you or Leo Mazzone. And on a more personal level that is rarely seen in the sports world – this is a move that should benefit Stephen Strasbrug’s arm, career and life in the long run.

OK. So I have established beyond a reasonable doubt that both sides in this argument are each 100% correct. Now for the really important question – could both sides be more righter-er (-iest?)? I think so, but it would have required some more outside-the-box thinking from the Nationals – something they have already shown they are capable of by deciding on and sticking to a limit on innings pitched. First, there are some questions that I need answered about this whole system that could cost the Nationals a World Series title.

Do they treat an inning as a standard measurement like a minute or a metric ton? I’m sure they don’t. There is no way that I realized all innings are not created equal before someone in the Nationals’ organization. I’m no Jonah Hill in Moneyball. Take Strasburg’s back-to-back wins to start the month of May. Both were 6-inning outings that ended with a pointless “W” statistic for Strasburg. In the first game against the Phillies, he threw just 76 pitches in those 6-innings. Against the Pirates six days later he threw 103 pitches.

Next question – are they monitoring warm-up pitches? I’m sure they are. The Nationals likely have a magic number written on a white board in the clubhouse at Nationals Park that is both underlined and circled. That number probably represents the number of times that Stephen Strasburg is allowed to bring his arm forward in a throwing motion between March and November. If Strasburg is standing near a refrigerator at a party and someone across the room says, “Hey, Steve-O, toss me a cold one,” there’s a guy the Nationals are paying to click a pitch counter before the Stras-bro catches his brew.

The common argument that I have seen for the Nationals current plan for Strasburg is that they never expected to win, contend or even still be a baseball team by the middle of August. Unfortunately for the Nationals and their fans, it became apparent early that this might not be the case.

On May 1st, the Nationals were in first place by a full half-game. On June 1st, the Nationals were a game ahead of the Mets and Marlins for first place in the National League East. Obviously, a lot has changed since then. On July 1st, the Nationals were 3.5 games up on the Mets. On August 1st, 2.5 games over the Braves. Today, they are 4.5 games ahead of the Braves. Basically, the Nationals have been on top the NL East the entire season. At some point they should have realized this and altered their plan so that Strasburg would be available for postseason duty on the off chance that the Nationals actually made the playoffs.

If it’s about a certain quality of rest between starts – say 4 days – wouldn’t they have been better having him throw a simulated, controlled four or five “innings” while the team was on the road so he could throw a real 7-inning game when the team came back home? Making Strasburg take the mound on the road shouldn’t be a concern because winning now obviously is not a priority. At least not if it comes at Strasburg’s expense.

Wouldn’t the Nationals have been better off letting Strasburg rest on the road? Strasburg currently has 12 starts on the road that ultimately don’t matter vs. 11 starts at home where they reap the benefits of money at the gate and concessions? And couldn’t the simulated innings and missed road starts have bought some more time down the stretch and into the Fall? As it became more and more apparent that the Nationals would be playing in the postseason, shouldn’t altering the plan to keep Strasburg around have become a priority? There must have been a way to change the manner in which he reached 180 innings that would have at least given their best player a chance to affect their chances in the postseason. At least then everyone would have been right.

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