Nationals should take no chances with Stephen Strasburg’s innings limit


Stephen Strasburg, shown during his June 30 start in Atlanta, one in which he lasted just three innings in the heat, is expected to be on a 160- to 170-inning limit this season with the Nationals. (Kevin C. Cox/GETTY IMAGES)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist July 5, 2012

It’s time to lay the Stephen Strasburg inning-limit non-issue to rest. There is no debate here, no “two sides,” about the Nationals’ intention to shut down Strasburg’s season at 160 to 170 innings, probably about Sept. 10. There is only the Nats’ side, which is correct, and the nincompoop side, even if it is endorsed by former players or “experts.”

First, consider context: Strasburg combines incredible talent with, so far, an alarming penchant for physical mishaps.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Strasburg has started 33 games in his career, the equivalent of one full season. He’s 15-7 with 238 strikeouts in 185 innings.

If he played a full career at current levels, he’d rank No. 1 among starting pitchers in baseball since 1920 in many categories, including strikeouts per nine innings (11.6), ERA (2.68), least walks plus hits per inning (a 1.027 WHIP) and best strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.17). The current leaders are Randy Johnson (10.6), Whitey Ford (2.75), Pedro Martinez (1.054) and Curt Schilling (4.38). There’s more, but that’s enough.

Now, the flip side: In the span of just 33 starts, Strasburg, who takes the mound against the Rockies on Friday night, has gone on the disabled list for shoulder tightness and had elbow ligament replacement surgery. He came out of a game after three innings because he looked ready to collapse from the heat. He’s left a game early with biceps tightness and another after cutting his finger clipping his nails. And he left a game this season in part because he got “hot stuff” in a place where it doesn’t belong.

Is this a guy you tell “Just keep pitchin’, hoss. What could go wrong?”

Some of this was serious, some precautionary and some bizarre. But look how much there’s been. Also, Strasburg, who pitched only 44 innings last year, has never thrown more than 123 innings in any season, at any level. This year, the Nats are asking for 160 to 170 innings, plus 23 in Florida.

Yet the dopes keep saying, “Go for it. Man up. The NL’s weak. How often do you have a long-shot chance to go to the World Series?” If the Nats made the Series (the rationale for this nonsense), what’s an extra 10 starts?

Excuse me while I go beat my head against a wall.

Doctors and baseball’s best brains have studied the recovery of pitchers from Tommy John elbow surgery since 1974. That’s 38 years, folks. The data has been interrogated, tortured and water-boarded. Each decade, the total recovery rate has improved. It’s now 89 percent. Partly, it’s medical. But it’s also experiential. Baseball ultimately asks, “What works?”

And the methods that work best — not 100 percent, but very high — become best medical practice. That’s what the Nats are following.

You want fear, here’s fear. In the last two weeks, Kyle Drabek, son of Doug Drabek, and ex-Nat Todd Coffey have both learned that they’ll need a second TJ surgery. Usually, that means The End. You get one shot, one new elbow. Except for a few Chris Capuanos, there are no second TJ successes.

This won’t-die Strasburg fuss is a testament to the age, its gift for screaming about fake issues, its defiance of fact and its shamelessness when confronted with the simplest common-sense ethics. Who believes this stuff?

Luckily, the Nats and General Manager Mike Rizzo don’t.

“We know what’s right for us. And we have the guts to stick with it,” Rizzo said. “We’re an organization that prides itself on proper development of players. That’s what we explain to every parent about their son and every agent about a player. What’s changed? What’s different than it was with [Jordan] Zimmermann? Oh, a Washington team is in the race. I guess people are shocked. We’re building a team that we think will be good for a lot longer than one season.”

There is no magic number for innings that fits everybody who comes back from this surgery. It’s similar to bringing amateur draft players from high school up through the minors. How many more innings should they pitch each year? If you jump the number by more than 20 percent from one year to the next, bad things tend to happen. “Tend.” That’s all.

For more than 35 years, baseball has analyzed how big a jump in strain — total innings, total pitches, between-start work, spring training, high-stress innings — a pitcher can take without getting hurt again. Special attention goes to those under 25 who aren’t fully mature. Strasburg is 23.

Then you make your best guess. And you monitor the pitcher’s every breath.

There are two things so stupid that you never do them. First, you don’t voluntarily shut a pitcher down for weeks then start him back up, creating, in effect, a second spring training. You also can’t pretend that “skipping starts” is feasible. Why? Because you aren’t skipping anything. The issue isn’t innings; it’s total workload on the arm. While skipping starts, a pitcher stays on a throwing program. For Strasburg, that’s 95 mph. It isn’t “rest.” The stress and risk accumulate. Short of suspended animation, you can’t beat it.

By accident, Strasburg and the Nats’ Jordan Zimmermann had identical surgeries one year (plus a few days) apart. So their rehabs mirrored each other. After consulting everybody, including the Oracle at Delphi, Zimmermann was put on a 160-inning leash — if everything went perfectly. Zimmermann literally sits a few feet away from Strasburg’s locker. He’s 100 percent now, maybe better than before. What kind of clown thinks the Nats are going to do anything differently with Strasburg?

The Nats also have seen this work with Sean Burnett (1.47 ERA) and Ryan Mattheus (1.95). Why reinvent the TJ wheel?

Isn’t everybody’s pitching arm different? Of course. No one can measure that. Will this still be best medical practice in 30 years? Who knows? But you can bet your last buck the Nats will shut down Strasburg about Sept. 10 — if everything goes perfectly. And they should.

Strasburg deserves a square chance at a full career. The Nats deserve a fair chance to build a successful franchise for many years, not just a bid to make the fans and pundits (who have no skin in the game) giddy by “going for it” in ’12.

Perhaps the most important issue is the simplest: Exploiting Strasburg’s enthusiasm (and he’d pitch until he drops) is just plain wrong.

If the Nationals take such a callous risk with Strasburg, especially after saying they wouldn’t, everybody in baseball will take note. Sign with the Nats, or sign a contract extension as a Nats pitcher, and you know the team policy: If the stakes are high enough, you’re just red meat.

What team would risk the career of a pitcher who might someday stand with the greatest? What kind of club would stress to the max a pitcher who already may have a pitching delivery that works against the health of his arm? What wouldn’t such a team do?

But that’s not who the Nats are. Right now they’re sending the proper message about their franchise’s character to every current and future player. Everybody in the game is watching.

The Nationals’ own fans should be the first, not the last, to get on board.

For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, go to washingtonpost.com/
boswell
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