Dusty Baker was once the manager of the Chicago Cubs and had two of the best young starting pitchers — Kerry Wood and Mark Prior — at his disposal. During the infamous 2003 season, Baker gave each of them a heavy workload, as is his custom. Both pitchers subsequently struggled with injuries and fell short of their potential. The perceived cause and lagging effect created a narrative and Cubs fans still harbor a certain animosity toward Baker for overusing the pair.
Fourteen years later and he’s doing the same thing with the Washington Nationals rotation. Fangraphs explored the ways in which its being pushed to — and perhaps beyond — the limits despite Washington’s 14-game lead in the National League East. Baker is foregoing the option of reducing his pitchers’ stress and plowing forward in the interest of, apparently, winning the division by as healthy a margin as possible.
The Nationals starting staff has averaged 100.5 pitches per outing this year, second only to the Boston Red Sox starters. They’ve thrown 100-plus pitches in 76 games. The next highest total in the National League is Arizona, with 57.
There is great debate over the magic acceptable number of pitches to throw in a start but some agreement that 120 is a good indicator of pressing luck. The Nationals have exceeded that number four times. The San Diego Padres are the only other staff with at least two such occurrences.
Ace Max Scherzer, who needs to be physically removed from the game by the National Guard at times, has done this three times. Tanner Roark also had an outing in which he threw 118.
A deeper dive reveals Gio Gonzalez has eclipsed the 100-pitch mark in 22 of his 25 starts. Even Stephen Strasburg, famously shut down for preservation a few years ago, has starts of 118 and 119 to his name.
Baker is sticking to his guns and, true to form, firing all the bullets in his chamber. He’ll worry about reloading later. It’s tough to quibble with the results as of now but he’s definitely opening himself up for fair criticism should his staff falter during the playoffs.
His reputation, combined with the Nationals’ history of early postseason exits, and, most importantly, the seeming gratuitous workload are elements for a perfect storm of backlash. Further, Baker has an above-average bullpen at his disposal, so it’s not like putting games in their hands is a significant risk.
Because it’s baseball this storyline is flying under the national radar. Imagine, if you will, the reaction to a NFL coach not only keeping his star running back in games after clinching a bye in the playoffs, but feeding him 30 carries. People would be apoplectic. Pundits on sports shouting shows would be especially shouty.
Baker is being Baker. Washington’s fans are hoping he isn’t overcooking his rotation. It’s a risky recipe for success and it’s burned his teams in the past.