The Stephen Strasburg matter is simple — if he feels good, let him keep pitching


As right-hander Stephen Strasburg creeps closer to his alleged innings pitched limit for 2012, opinion continues to swirl as to what the Nationals should do with their ace — shut him down as scheduled, or let him keep pitching. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
John Feinstein
Columnist August 26, 2012

It is difficult to know where to begin when discussing L’Affaire Strasburg.

One would think the story is fairly simple: Stephen Strasburg is the most important player currently under contract to the Washington Nationals. By all accounts, his future and his potential as a pitcher have almost no boundaries. He turned 24 last month and is already considered one of the best pitchers in baseball on a team that has been a feel-good story almost from Day 1 of the 2012 season.

John Feinstein is a sports columnist for The Washington Post and also provides commentary for the Golf Channel and National Public Radio. View Archive

When the Nationals take the field in October for Game 1 of the National League Division Series — as they almost surely will — there’s no doubt that the baseball should be in Strasburg’s right hand.

That, of course, is where the story gets murky and a whole cast of characters gets involved. Strasburg’s arm, shoulder and surgically repaired elbow have become the most protected entities in Washington this side of the President of the United States. One almost expects to see men in sunglasses with cords in their ears running alongside him whenever he comes in from the right field bullpen at Nationals Park.

Depending on who you are listening to, Strasburg will a) pitch 160 innings and be shut down for the season; b) pitch 180 innings and be shut down; c) pitch until Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo says he shouldn’t pitch; or d) not pitch again until he’s eligible for free agency. There’s also e) all of the above.

At the center of all of this stand Rizzo and Strasburg’s agent, Scott Boras — who, depending on the day of the week and his mood, is either running the team or has never heard of the team.

Generally speaking, Rizzo is a direct sort of guy, someone who tells you what he thinks and why he thinks it. There is absolutely no questioning the job he has done in putting together a team that currently has baseball’s best record just two years removed from back-to-back years with one of baseball’s worst records.

Boras isn’t quite as easy to read. Two weeks ago he told The Post’s Mike Wise — among other things — that, “Mike Rizzo and I put this team together.” He also puffed his chest out and said he’d told Rizzo in no uncertain terms that if he didn’t take some kind of blood oath to preserve, protect and defend all things Strasburg back in 2009 that he’d “send [Strasburg] back to college.” Exactly why any general manager wouldn’t pledge to protect the health of a multi-million dollar player is hard to figure, but Boras wanted everyone to know that neither Rizzo nor anyone working for the Nationals was likely to cross him then, now or in the future.

When Boras’s comments — which are on tape — were read back to him, he began back-pedaling at Darrell Green-like speed. He may have backpedaled a 4.29 40. By the time he was finished he had told Adam Kilgore, The Post’s Nationals beat writer, that he had no idea when Strasburg might be shut down and that he never even discussed it with Rizzo.

All of that said, let’s cut to the chase: Strasburg should not be shut down at some arbitrary time based on innings, pitch count, Rizzo’s eye test or Robert Griffin III’s completion percentage. He should only be shut down if and when there is any tangible evidence that his shoulder, elbow or arm are hurting in any way at all. Because here are the facts on young pitchers and Tommy John surgery: There are no facts. Oh sure, there are numbers, but what applies to Jordan Zimmermann doesn’t necessarily apply to Strasburg and what applies to Strasburg may not apply to this year’s No. 1 draft pick, Lucas Giolito, who also is about to undergo Tommy John surgery.

Boras likes to scream about Steve Avery, one of his clients whose career was allegedly ruined by being over-pitched (for the record, he never had Tommy John surgery) before the age of 25. Avery, it should be noted, pitched almost 900 innings in the majors before 25. If Strasburg pitched another 50 innings this year (giving him 195 for the season) and then pitched another 100 by his 25th birthday next July, he would still be under 400 innings.

What’s more, for every Avery, one can find a Tom Seaver, who pitched 800 innings by the time he was 25 and was still pitching quite effectively — for 250 innings — at the age of 40. Ancient history you say? Okay, how about Felix Hernandez, who pitched 1,152 major league innings before 25 and seems to be doing just fine a couple of years later?

What do these statistics prove? Nothing. When it comes to predicting injury, statistics tell us nothing because everyone’s body is different, especially when it comes to pitching. Sandy Koufax threw a laser-like fastball and had a knee-buckling curve ball. He was through at the age of 30. Nolan Ryan threw a laser-like fastball and had a knee-buckling curve ball. He pitched a no-hitter when he was 43 and pitched until he was 46.

There’s no science to this—only statistics. Strasburg might be shut down tomorrow and blow his arm out in spring training next year. He also might pitch through October and never be injured again.

Magical seasons aren’t guaranteed. People around here might think the Nats are going to be serious contenders for the next 10 years and they might be right. Of course, when the Washington Capitals lost in seven games to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs, it wasn’t that big a deal because the Caps had this “window” during which they’d win at least a couple of Stanley Cups.

How is that working out so far?

Strasburg may be healthy next year but another one of the young pitchers might not be. Zimmermann might get hurt — again. Gio Gonzalez might not have another great year after the National League has seen him for a full season. Here’s the point: You never know.

The great Earl Weaver always said, “I’ll worry about next year, next year.”

That doesn’t mean the Nats should be callous or careless with Strasburg. It does mean they should be aware that a plan hatched in February when you aren’t certain you’ll contend needs to be recalibrated in August when you have a chance for a very special season.

You certainly don’t worry about what Boras thinks. Anyone who worries that he might not send a future client to the Nats because Strasburg pitches in October hasn’t studied history — not statistics, history. History says Boras will always take the highest bid — period. If the Yankees throw the most money at Strasburg when he’s a free agent in a few years you can bet Boras will tell Rizzo how much he loves and respects him — and tell Strasburg to sign with the Yankees.

As long as Strasburg is still throwing 98 mph and looks completely healthy, he should pitch. Let Boras shop his Kool-Aid and his Alexander Haig, “I’m in charge here,” act somewhere else. Pitching a healthy Strasburg in October is not a betrayal, it’s simply recognizing that circumstances have changed.

Not pitching him is a betrayal: to the pitcher, to the team, to the fans and to the city.

For more by the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com. To read his previous columns for The Post, go to washingtonpost.com/
feinstein
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