When the topic of Stephen Strasburg’s innings limit surfaces, it raises one crucial question among fans, media and even some Nationals players: What happens if the Nationals are in a playoff race and their best pitcher runs out of innings?
General Manager Mike Rizzo gave a clear answer today. The Nationals will not manipulate Strasburg’s pitching schedule in order to extend his season, letting him pitch every fifth game from the start of the regular season until he hits roughly 160 innings, and then ending his season.
“There’s not going to be a whole lot of tinkering going on,” Rizzo said.
“We’re going to run him out there until his innings are gone and then stop him from pitching.”
In Strasburg, the Nationals have one of the most dominating pitchers in baseball, a right-hander who in 17 major league starts has a 2.54 ERA while striking out 116 and walking 19. But they also have a starter who is 23 years old and has thrown only 92 major league innings. Rizzo believes his development is far from complete, and to alter his schedule from a typical every-fifth-day regiment would adversely effect that growth.
Even if it means playing in October without their best pitcher, Rizzo does not want to sacrifice Strasburg’s development.
“He’s a young pitcher that’s still learning how to pitch in the big leagues,” Rizzo said. “I think it’s unfair for him to get him ramped up in spring training, start the season on a regular rotation then shut him down or skip him. We’re going to make him comfortable – regular rotation, regular rest. I think we’re deep enough that we can do that. We want to give him the best opportunity to get him into the rhythm of being a major league pitcher.”
With seven capable starters in their major league camp, the Nationals would have the versatility to mix up Strasburg’s schedule. They could, for example, have Ross Detwiler swing between relief and starting and replace Strasburg with Detwiler once a month. Such a plan would have the drawback of forcing Strasburg to throw more pitches in the bullpen between starts to stay fresh, anyway. But Rizzo is not even considering any type of alternative plan.
“I don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” Rizzo said. “We’re going to be as careful as we can with every day. We’re not going to discuss six-man rotations or not starting him until a month later just to get him through his season.”
The Nationals are limiting his innings because last season, coming back from Tommy John surgery, he threw just 44 innings between the majors and minors, and the Nationals feel a full workload would put too much strain on his reconstructed elbow.
Asked about the innings limit, Strasburg said he had not even been told what exact number he would have to throw. But the Nationals will most likely put the number around 160, the same as Jordan Zimmermann had last year in his first full season back from the surgery.
“A lot can happen,” Strasburg said. “Right now I’m just really focused on going to spring training, working hard, getting better and getting to know the new faces here, bonding as a team and putting ourselves in the best position to win a lot of ballgames here.”
One Nationals player, speculating based on Strasburg’s competitive nature, said Strasburg would not be easily convinced to stop pitching during a playoff race. “They’re going to have to lock him in a cage,” the player said.