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/