Stephen Strasburg innings debate: Mike Rizzo deserves benefit of the doubt


“We’re going to run him out there until his innings are gone and then stop him from pitching,” Mike Rizzo said during spring training about Stephen Strasburg (GARY CAMERON/REUTERS)

The country has never been more divided as the debate rages on. Adopt a conservative approach, or a liberal one? Stay the course, or adjust direction? Make a promise and keep it, or throw it out the window based on which way the wind is blowing?

Election? What election? No, Stephen Strasburg’s pitching future is the subject that is pitting brother against sister, mother against son, talk show caller against talk show host. Everyone except Lincoln and Douglas has weighed in, and ESPN is trying to get them for a special “Outside the Lines.”

As Archie Bunker would say, stifle. There is nothing to debate. It’s a done deal. Sometime soon, Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo — you know, the guy who put together the team that has put together the best record in baseball — will tell Strasburg to have a seat, and that will be that. This is no surprise move, no sneaky ploy. No one was misled by management into buying tickets for starts that won’t happen. Strasburg has been on an innings count since the day he signed. It was adjusted the day he underwent Tommy John surgery. It’s not a hard and fast number, but it will hover between 160 and 180 innings, probably. Any fan who feels tricked or lied to or misled hasn’t been paying attention.

It’s a rare GM who tells his star athlete, and you and me, exactly what he’s going to do, and then does it. Think about that. Don’t we all need a little more honesty in our lives? So when the GM tells you from the get-go, nearly two years ago now, that his star pitcher is going to be on a count, and that it’s not going to matter what the situation is, and when he repeats that over and over, takes full responsibility for that decision and makes sure it’s clear that the manager and owner get no blame for it, and he never wavers, you ought to be thinking, “Hey, this guy is perhaps not a giant liar,” not, “What an idiot! I have a much better solution.”

Because you don’t.

I’ve heard some doozies. We all have. Shutting him down for a month (say, August) so he can pitch in October was perhaps the most ludicrous, although it’s a tough scale. Skipping starts might work with a more seasoned pitcher, but Strasburg, remember, had very few major league starts going into this season. Anything that messes with a pitcher’s timing and routine is not good for that pitcher’s long-term development.

“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.

“He’s a young pitcher that’s still learning how to pitch in the big leagues. 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.”

Was this a top-secret club memo? No, it was something Rizzo said. To reporters. During spring training. In February.

(And yes, back in the good old days Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson weren’t held to pitch counts and inning counts and set days between starts and all the other babying rules by which today’s pitchers live. We don’t live in the good old days, which is sad when we realize we’ll never get to see Johnson pitch, and happy when we get the flu. So again, stifle.)

Going to a six-man rotation is the least silly of the ideas put forth, but it’s still a non-starter — no pun intended — because he’d still have to throw between starts. A pitcher doesn’t just stride to the mound every five days, toss the rosin bag a few times and let ’er rip. The innings count takes into account all the work between starts, which while not as taxing as throwing against real, live major league hitting is work nonetheless, and a strain on the arm.

Face it, Rizzo has thought of all this. I’m sure he’s spent some sleepless nights trying to think of a way to protect his pitcher and keep him around. But he knows there isn’t a way, that the rules set forth when Strasburg underwent the surgery are rules that have been devised and refined over the years as more pitchers have had the procedure and recovered from it. No two pitchers are alike, but there is a pattern, and the Nats in particular look at Jordan Zimmermann’s recovery as a road map. While Zimmermann’s record this season is just 9-7, he has 27 walks and 114 strikeouts and if he ever got consistent run support from the offense he might be the best pitcher in the rotation.

Rizzo is considering Strasburg, 24, the player as well as Strasburg the Nationals player. This is a kid we’re talking about, in baseball terms. While Natstown would like to see him finish his career here, that might not happen. Do you want a GM who only cares about the player’s health as far as his contract extends? As far as the season extends? As far as this month extends? Through the weekend? If you do, you’re not much of a fan. Or a person.

Someday — and I don’t think this is farfetched — Strasburg will be making a Hall of Fame induction speech (which may be the hardest start he will ever make) and if that happens, I’d be stunned if he didn’t thank Rizzo and the Nationals for being careful with his thunderbolt of an arm.

Rizzo’s opinion should also carry more weight than the blatherings of ESPN’s various bloviators. When Stephen A. Smith talks Wizards, listen. When Dick Vitale talks Hoyas, listen. Turn down the volume, or mute the television and hit the CC button, but pay attention. Otherwise, let’s assume for the sake of argument — and it’s a safe bet — that Mike Rizzo knows more about baseball than those two, or any of the other “national” experts who’ve weighed in in recent days, starting with Tim McCarver during the All-Star Game, who acted like he’d just discovered the polio vaccine when he revealed the Strasburg plan. Remember, most of these folks couldn’t spell “Nationals” before this season. (Although in fairness, it wasn’t that long ago that the team itself spelled it “Natinals,” so let that bide.)

Rizzo should know more than those guys, or you, or me. That’s his job, and if you look at this team, you’d have to say he’s doing his job pretty well. He will be considered for various executive of the year awards, and rightly so. You or I could have drafted Strasburg or Bryce Harper. It’s the Gio Gonzalezes and the Adam LaRoches and a million other decisions along the way that have come together to make this team the best in baseball right now. And that means Rizzo has earned the benefit of the doubt.

Back when the nation — and much of the nation’s capital — was ignoring the Nationals, per usual, even Strasburg admitted that while he wouldn’t be thrilled about being shut down, he knew it was coming: “We’re all in this together. If it does come to that, it would be tough. But I know that we have a lot of people, a lot of doctors that have a lot more education than I do about injuries like this. I know they have my best interest at heart, so I’ve got to trust what they want me to do, just roll with it. What we’re trying to build here is not just a team that tries to win it for one year. We’re trying to build a team that can be in contention every single year.”

Be mad at Rizzo if you must, and argue till the cows come home about his decision. But he never lied about what was coming, he’s doing it for Strasburg’s own good and he’s saying that he thinks the Nationals have more than one postseason to look forward to. Honesty, compassion and optimism — isn’t that what you want from your general manager?

For Tracee Hamilton’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/hamilton.

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