Strasburg won’t overtax his arm this season. He will be shut down.
Goodbye, Bull Durham meatheads. Hello, modern medicine.
When Strasburg takes the mound Sunday against the Cardinals, he will pitch one of his final two or three games of a masterful all-star season — his first full one since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2010 to repair the torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.
What if, for just one day, we took a break from our entrenched debate sides and appreciated the game’s best young right-handed talent directing a 97-mph fastball like a power point presentation?
He has 20 innings or less remaining to buckle hitters’ knees with dancing curveballs and 91-mph change-ups whose bottoms fall out. Before the team takes the proper medical precaution prescribed by the man who performed the surgery, what if we just all give in to the old axiom we have for centuries? That a doctor really does know best.
And then take Strasburg’s two or three remaining starts for what they are – his playoff games, his reward for being as responsible as anyone for putting a once woebegone franchise into commanding position of a pennant race before he has to give the ball to Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler, Edwin Jackson and soon John Lannan so they can bring the Nats home.
For the misguided who remain undeterred, let’s make this clear once and for all: There are case studies. There is evidence to believe that younger pitchers, even those that didn’t undergo surgery, should be extremely cautious before they think they can throw as hard as they want for as long as they can.
Zimmermann, who followed the same protocol a year ago after coming back from Tommy John surgery, until recently was almost the most consistent arm on the staff. That’s right — this season the Nationals benefited from the very same medical advice a year ago. No one made a stink about it because they weren’t sailing toward the NL East pennant.
Tommy John disagrees but he forgets he was 31 when he became the first patient to have his career saved — not 22, like Strasburg was when he had the surgery two summers ago. John hadn’t thrown 600 innings by his 23rd birthday — and that number is key.
Boras last week gave The Post’s Adam Kilgore some very interesting numbers from research the agent’s firm had done.
Compiling a list of 12 pitchers between 1983 and 2003 who had thrown at least 600 innings by 23 years old — Greg Maddux, Dwight Gooden, Fernando Valenzuela, Bret Saberhagen, Steve Avery and Alex Fernandez among them — they found that 11 did not exceed 700 innings following their 30th birthday. They burned out early. The only exception was Maddux, whose calling card was painting corners as opposed to throwing heat, and he underwent a conditioning and strength program at a young age.
In another study, Boras’s staff examined 21 prominent, durable pitchers that threw 1,500 innings past the age of 30 since 1990. Among them were Kevin Brown, Tom Candiotti, Roger Clemens, Chuck Finley, Tom Glavine, Orel Hershiser, Randy Johnson, Derek Lowe, Al Leiter, Dennis Martinez, Jamie Moyer, Terry Mulholland, Mike Mussina, Kenny Rogers, Curt Schilling, Tim Wakefield, David Wells and Maddux. Maddux was the only pitcher on that list to have thrown more than 500 innings by the age of 23. Other than having career longevity, all but Maddux shared the other defining characteristic with that group. Through age 23, they had thrown 500 innings or less.
“For us, it showed if you burn ‘em up too soon, where the bodies aren’t mature and they aren’t strong and haven’t had the benefit of the conditioning, maturity and age of others, they aren’t going to have the careers they and their teams’ envisioned,” Boras said.
What a concept. Just as kids have pitch counts in Little League so they don’t ruin their arms, young adults appear to need inning counts in the majors so they don’t become Rob Dibble or Mitch Williams, none of whom ever threw more than 110 innings in their careers as closers.
Strasburg, as mature as he looks for his age with the facial hair and his über-serious approach to his craft, is still building his arm strength. His shoulder, labrum and rotator cuff — every ligament, really — is still getting used to violently throwing the baseball after having quadrupled his workload in a year, to a projected 160-plus innings from pitching just 44 innings a year ago.
We use “invest” all the time in sports, but do we really understand its intrinsic meaning? Developing Strasburg into the horse of the best staff in baseball for just this moment is small-prism thinking; he should be that guy for years, continually getting better with age until his joints and limbs hit natural expiration dates.
Who wouldn’t want that, including Boras? The agent has taken a measure of grief for a line in an earlier column I had written about Strasburg. I quote him saying he and Rizzo had put the Nats together. Having the benefit of listening to the tape several times, two sentences should have been put together, which would have read, “When Rizzo and I put this team together with eight or nine of my guys on the team . . .” It sounds like semantics, but Boras was clearly making a point about how many times he’d negotiated with the Nationals general manager – not taking credit for their roster.
Bottom line, the takeaway from that column should have been that the guy actually trusted Rizzo not to behave like Mazzone did with Avery, overtaxing his arm at a young age until he was out of baseball by 29.
“Look, I had two guys who were brilliant young pitchers at a very young age – Alex Fernandez and Steve Avery,” Boras said. “They both have children. They both have families. And you know what? If I had this information and the clubs had this information, I think we may have done things differently.”
Everybody has agendas, but I really think Boras wants to ensure he never neglect a client’s arm again with what he knows now.
He’s not running the Nationals; I think this Strasburg situation is running Boras – ragged. He’s tired of explaining what Rizzo is also blue in the face explaining: that this isn’t about baseball or a town that has had neither a big-revenue sport championship parade in two decades nor a baseball playoff game since 1933.
It’s about a kid, who had a tendon pulled from his thigh two years ago surgically attached to his right elbow, rehabbing the right and logical way – not the wrong-headed, emotional way.
Let’s stop the debate and enjoy Strasburg while he lasts this season with a comforting thought: He’s coming back healthy next season. Before the crapshoot of another postseason begins, that should be enough for now.
For Mike Wise’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/wise.