KANSAS CITY, Mo. — This week in the World Series, Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard of the New York Mets will go where the Washington Nationals would not allow Stephen Strasburg to tread in 2012 nor Joe Ross to travel in 2015.
Next year or the year after, in September or October, if the Nats pitcher is mega-prospect Lucas Giolito, it is a solid assumption the Nats will say “Nay” again.
Who’s right? Or are both correct from where each sits? And what does your opinion tell you about yourself?
The Mets have gambled, and so far won — big. Harvey pitched six creditable inning here Tuesday night, allowing three runs. He struck out only two (tying a career low) and he was hit fairly hard and the Mets lost, 5-4, in 14 innings. But they were also playing in the World Series.
The Nats have been cautious, taking a very long view of what defines success. Or perhaps they’ve just been protective of what they see as corporate assets. But they are also at home, for the fourth postseason since becoming a contender, with two division titles but nothing more to warm them — no chance to play for a pennant or in a Series.
Right now, the Mets are laughing — and cheering. But according to their manager, they’re also crossing their fingers that their decisions will not haunt their franchise or sit heavy on their consciences in coming years.
When Harvey took the mound for the Mets in Game 1 on Tuesday here, it climaxed a multiyear debate on how contending teams should handle a star pitcher in his first year back from elbow ligament replacement surgery.
The Mets, their fans and much of the New York media pressed Harvey and his agent to reverse what the Harvey camp thought was an understanding that he would end his season at about 180 innings. Hurt in 2013, he pitched zero major league innings in 2014.
Now, Harvey says he is delighted about everything, can’t wait to pitch some more and, by the way, let me throw 100 pitches a start. He was at 202 innings entering Tuesday night.
Every patient and elbow is different. Recoveries vary widely. It would be hard to create a baseball test case where “best medical practices” has meaning, but the odds of ignoring those protocols and getting away with it are so tempting. The risk-reward is huge because Tommy John surgeries usually work the first time. Second ones usually flop.
Is Harvey doing what’s right for his franchise, his teammates, his fans and his entire city? Is he simply doing what’s expected of a pro athlete: give what’s asked, especially since his elbow doesn’t hurt and he’s still mowin’ ’em down?
Or is Harvey, 26, ignoring his surgeon’s best advice, adding risk of a second such elbow surgery and, potentially, jeopardizing 95 percent of his career earnings so he can play the hero and please everyone?
Should we cheer his desire to seize this great moment? Or should we watch through our fingers and hope that a pitcher, who may be one of the greats, can have a full career? In Queens, more than a few may say, “Both.”
Unlucky pitchers often blow out the next season when they ramp back to 100 percent effort after a winter off or as their innings mount in summer. In 2013, three Braves pitchers, who had followed protocols less conservative than the Nats in 2012, all had second surgeries. The franchise was set back years, the GM fired and the Nats looked as wise then as they look silly, to some, now.
When Syndergaard, 23, starts Game 3, he highlights a similar inflammatory issue: To win now, should a team ask a young pitcher with great promise to throw far more innings than he ever has before? Syndergaard’s previous high in a season: 135 innings. If he starts Games 3 and 7, with the season at stake, he could end up near 190, many the definition of what doctors call “high-stress innings.” Current wisdom says to increase innings by no more than 20 percent, or 25 maximum, especially when a pitcher is younger than 25.
Usually. If you’re not in a pennant race. If your team doesn’t play in New York, where “tough” is central to the city’s sports ethos and self-image.
The Nats are consciously and sometimes defiantly at the opposite end of the spectrum. In 2012, they consulted with Strasburg’s doctor and, in spring training, established his innings limit. When circumstances changed (the Nats won 98), their decision didn’t. At the least, the decision was principled.
Seven weeks ago, the Nats took Ross, 22, out of the rotation as he neared the team’s development guidelines: a 20 percent increase from his previous minor league high. They stuck to their guns — or were inflexible, depending on one’s view — while still in a race, or on the edges of one.
Since 2012, Strasburg has started Game 1 of a division series in 2014, won a strikeout title that year, too, and ended this past season on a torrid six-week run. Along with Max Scherzer, he’ll top a rotation that should contend for next season’s division title. Ross also is projected in that rotation. But his innings cutoff this season might impact next season, too. If the Nats make the playoffs next year, Ross may be in a Syndergaard-like situation.
Our opinions often flow from our half-conscious assumptions. When I write, I try to put the public/fans first (second and third, too); then players, often exploited in many sports; finally, executives and coaches, frequently the underappreciated brains of sport. Rich owners, agents and the media — well, we’re on our own.
When it comes to protecting young pitchers, I realize I see from the players’ point of view before any group. (Football concussions, too.) Fans often love the sound of “When will we have this chance again? Go for it! We pay. They owe us.”
Really? For decades, I’ve seen pitchers, overused and worn out young, carrying their surgery trophies through their clubhouses in a bottle — a ligament or a bunch of gruesomely large bone chips. I appreciate the tough dark humor of their profession. I admire them. But I seldom admire the people who chewed them up.
The Mets may soon win a World Series. They’re taking a big shot and a big chance. They play in a market dominated by the Yankees 40 years before the Mets existed. They’re always fighting uphill for market share. They haven’t given their fans a title since 1986 and play in a new park built at huge public expense. The whole franchise is still recovering financially from vast loses by ownership in the Bernie Madoff investing scam. Talk about pressure to perform — now. All valid reasons. The Mets made the decision for their young stars and, with considerable push from fans and media, made it untenable for the hurlers to do anything but keep chuckin’.
“Now, we’ll play [the decisions] out,” Manager Terry Collins said last week.
The Mets might win. And their pitchers might never feel a twinge in the next couple of years. But it’s not the only right way to do business. Or play baseball.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.