The Nationals’ decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg just as they hit the stretch run already has started gaining steam as one of baseball’s major second-half story lines. The All-Star Game broadcasters discussed it as Strasburg pitched his inning. “SportsCenter” is running charts detailing how many starts he may have remaining. It is a topic tailor-made for talk radio and debate shows. Everyone has a take.
The person with the most qualified opinion resides in the Nationals’ clubhouse, just one locker down from Strasburg himself. Jordan Zimmermann made his final start last year on Aug. 28*. After he had thrown 161 1/3 innings in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery, the Nationals shut him down. Under far less scrutiny and with exponentially lower stakes, Zimmermann went through what Strasburg is about to experience.
Here Zimmermann is now, one of the best, most consistent pitchers in the major leagues. The Nationals took the training wheels off him, and Zimmermann has responded by pitching at least six innings in all 18 of his starts. He has a 2.48 ERA, fourth-lowest in the National League. This weekend, one NL scout said if he had to pick one Nationals starter to start a playoff series, he’d take Zimmermann over Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez. A year after the Nationals shut him down, Zimmermann is thriving.
“Obviously, it worked out,” Zimmermann said. “It was best for me. At the time, I wanted to keep pitching, because I felt good. I wanted to keep going. After coming back this year and feeling the way I feel, I look at it as it was the right choice to make.”
Zimmermann recognizes the difference between the decision the Nationals made with him and the one they have made with Strasburg. On the day Zimmermann made his final start of 2011, the Nationals were 18 ½ games out of first place with 30 games to play. This year, the Nationals will be in the middle of a playoff race when they remove Strasburg.
“It would be pretty tough,” Zimmermann said. “I’m sure that he’ll have a little something to say. I don’t know if he can change [Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo’s] mind or not. We’ll see when the time comes. We all want him to pitch, but we definitely want him to stay healthy and have him for the long haul, too.”
“I’m definitely happy,” Zimmermann added. “We were out of it, so it was probably the best thing to get shut down. But if we were in the hunt, I’m sure I would have said a little something.”
Rizzo is not looking at the shutting down of Strasburg through the prism of competition. He views it strictly from a health standpoint. This is not to take sides, but rather to show how Rizzo views the decision – and therefore to show how set-in-stone the decision is.
Back in early May, I used Bryce Harper’s recent call-up as an example of Rizzo changing his mind on a certain plan. The Nationals wanted to wait for Harper to come to the major leagues after about 250 plate appearances at Class AAA, but injuries in the majors hastened his promotion.
If circumstances could change the plan for Harper, I asked Rizzo, then could they change the plan for Strasburg? Would a pennant race change his mind?
“This is about health of a pitcher coming off Tommy John surgery,” Rizzo answered then. “It’s not a development issue like Harper. Timetables on development can change, just because players all develop at different rates in all different scenarios. To me, this is a longevity question. It’s a health question. It’s caring about the player and the person more so than the won-loss record.”
More than two months later, Rizzo has still yet to discuss the limit with Strasburg. First of all, the Nationals still have not finalized the number. The best estimate is 160 innings, the same limit Zimmermann faced. But it will be based on several factors, including stressful innings and how Strasburg feels and pitches as the season progresses. Second, Rizzo feels that players don’t necessarily need to be briefed on this kind of decision.
“He has to do his job,” Rizzo said. “He’s going to prepare the way he prepares. He’s going to have to do his job. And I’m going to have to do my job. We don’t discuss all of our roster moves with our players. We make roster moves. We have a plan for everybody.”
Strasburg said in an MLB Network radio interview the Nationals will “have to rip the ball out of my hands.” One Nationals player said at the end of last year that the Nationals will have to “lock him in a cage” in order to sideline Strasburg.
Rizzo understands Strasburg will be upset. He’s already had to tell one pitcher his season was over early. “Zimmermann was upset, too,” Rizzo said.
Rizzo at least seems open to watching the season play out before he sets a fixed number of innings on Strasburg. There will be a limit, the number just hasn’t been decided yet. Zimmermann agreed that not every pitcher coming off Tommy John surgery should be treated the same.
“Every guy is different,” Zimmermann said. “Some guys can throw 200 innings the year after and be fine. Other guys can’t throw 150 and they’re breaking down again. The way he’s been pitching, he’s been pitching great. It’ll be interesting to see what they do.”
In Zimmermann’s case, he started to wear down in his performance. In 18 starts before the 2011 all-star break, Zimmermann posted a 2.66 ERA while striking out 82 batters and walking 21. In eight starts after the all-star break, Zimmermann punched up a 4.47 ERA with 42 strikeouts and 10 walks in 46 1/3 innings. Still, he said he never tired.
“I felt as strong at the end of the year as I did at the beginning of the year,” Zimmermann said. “I didn’t really feel like I was any weaker or losing velocity or anything. I felt the same.”
This year, Zimmermann doesn’t have to worry. He is the horse of the Nationals’ staff. No one can say how it would have turned out if he hadn’t been shut down last year. Would he have blown out? Would he have pitched exactly the same this season? There’s no way to know. But, as he said, it has certainly worked out.
Now, he’ll wait, with the rest of the baseball world, and watch to see how it works out with Strasburg.
“It’s one of things, I guess,” Zimmermann said. “If you do let him go and pitch, and all of a sudden he gets hurt, now what? You’re going to sit second-guessing yourself. If you shut him down, it’s probably the safest thing to do. But if we’re in the hunt or still in the lead, I don’t know. It’s a tough one.”
*Just by the way, that was a truly epic game. It lasted 5 hours, 15 minutes and went 14 innings. Davey Johnson got ejected. Rick Ankiel saved the game with that amazing throw from deep right-center field to third base. Ryan Zimmerman tied it in the eighth with a pinch-hit, RBI single off Aroldis Chapman. Joey Votto hit a walk-off homer off Collin Balester. Henry Rodriguez got seven swinging strikes in two scoreless innings. Just crazy stuff happening everywhere.
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FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Pawtucket 8, Syracuse 5: John Lannan allowed six runs in five innings on nine hits and a walk, striking out two. Corey Brown went 3 for 4 with double. Carlos Rivero went 2 for 3 with a homer and a walk. Carlos Maldonado hit a pinch-hit home run.
Akron 5, Harrisburg 4: Destin Hood went 3 for 4 with two doubles and a walk. Eury Perez went 3 for 5. Chris Rahl went 3 for 5 with a double.
Potomac 14, Lynchburg 0: Michael Taylor went 2 for 3 with a home run, a double and a walk. Kevin Keyes went 2 for 3 with a home run and a walk. On rehab, Xavier Nady went 0 for 4. Nathan Karns allowed no runs in six innings on one hit and two walks, striking out six. He lowered his ERA to 2.12.
Lexington 11, Hagerstown 1: Brian Goodwin went 1 for 3 with a home run and a walk. Caleb Ramsey went 2 for 4 with a double.
Lexington 8, Hagerstown 4: Brian Goodwin went 2 for 4 with a double. Kylin Turnbull allowed six runs in two innings on six hits and a walk, striking out none.
Auburn 5, Connecticut 1: Khayyan Norfork went 1 for 3 with a home run. Blake Monar allowed no runs in six innings on three hits and a walk, striking out five. Robert Benincasa allowed no runs in one relief inning on one hit and no walks, striking out two.