Are the Washington Nationals Insane to Shut Down Stephen Strasburg?

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Are the Washington Nationals Insane to Shut Down Stephen Strasburg?
Greg Fiume/Getty Images
Stephen Strasburg has struggled in his past four starts.

Maybe the subtitle of this post should be "How Mike Rizzo Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Shutdown." 

Stephen Strasburg's innings limit has been an issue looming in the background for the Washington Nationals all season long. Naturally, as we get closer to September, the issue has been stepping closer to the foreground.

Strasburg's shutdown is coming, and Rizzo, the Nats' general manager, isn't budging on his decision. 

The case for Strasburg's September shutdown became much stronger Tuesday night as the Nationals' young ace had his worst outing of the season. Strasburg lasted only four innings, allowing six runs and eight hits. He served up two home runs and struck out just three batters, his lowest total of the year. 

Strasburg's bad night highlighted what is becoming a troubling second-half trend. In four starts since the All-Star break, Strasburg has a 4.43 ERA. In two of those four appearances, he's allowed four runs or more. 

Yes, we're talking about only four starts. Start beating your desk while chanting "Sample size! Sample size! Sample size!" (Or maybe I just hear that in my head.) It's not a huge amount of evidence from which to draw a conclusion.

But those four starts might be a demonstration of what happens to a pitcher pushing through his first full season following reconstructive surgery on his elbow. Strasburg is alternating good start with bad start. 

In his first outing after the All-Star break, he threw six scoreless innings against the Miami Marlins. The next time out, Strasburg gave up four runs to the Atlanta Braves. For his third start, he held the Mets to one run over seven innings. Then we had Tuesday night's six-run blowup versus the Philadelphia Phillies.

As CSN Washington's Mark Zuckerman writes, this kind of inconsistency is typical of a pitcher coming back from Tommy John surgery. He'll have great stuff and be able to locate one night. But then in his next start, the control or the velocity isn't there. The inconsistency gets worse as the pitcher tires out from the season's workload. 

Chris Trotman/Getty Images
Jordan Zimmermann pitched 160 innings last season.

Strasburg's second half is beginning to look much like Jordan Zimmerman's from last season. In his first full season after Tommy John surgery, Zimmermann had a 2.66 ERA in 18 starts. But in eight second-half starts, his ERA was 4.47. 

Obviously, what works for one pitcher might not apply to another. Yet Zimmermann's 2011 is the template most are looking at when trying to project how Strasburg's 2012 will end up. Zimmermann was limited to 160 innings last season, which is how most people came up with that number for Strasburg's limit this year. 

Meanwhile, Rizzo has to be looking at Strasburg's recent performances and nodding his head in affirmation. Though he's refused to put a number on Strasburg's innings limit, he surely knows what it is. We've heard that Strasburg could throw up to 180 innings this season. But that's beginning to look less likely. 

With his four-inning outing on Tuesday, Strasburg is now at 121.1 innings for the season. If he's being limited to 160 innings, that leaves him with 39 to go, or roughly seven more starts. If it's 180, Strasburg is looking at about 10 more appearances. Following the current rotation. Strasburg's season will then either end on Sept. 2 or Sept. 24. 

The shutdown might come somewhere in between. CBS Sports' Danny Knobler reported that the Nats were looking for a starting pitcher at the trade deadline who could make three starts. Presuming that those three appearances would take Strasburg's final three turns in the rotation, that would take him to 170 innings. That leaves Strasburg with eight more starts. 

The idea that the Nationals would shut down their best starting pitcher with two to three weeks remaining in the regular season, when the team is fighting for a division title and has a chance to go to the World Series, has always seemed insane.

Is there another team that would do such a thing? If the Nats lose a close series in the postseason, the questions about using Strasburg may never stop being asked. How would that decision be justified to the the other 24 players on the roster who have a chance to win something?

Greg Fiume/Getty Images
Gio Gonzalez buys into the decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg.

But apparently, the players are buying into this, judging from Gio Gonzalez's comments on ESPN Radio Wednesday.

"I want the best for Stras," Gonzalez told Scott Van Pelt (via D.C. Sports Bog). "If he’s healthy and strong, and he’s gonna continue to play for the rest of his career, over and over with the Washington Nationals, I really don’t try to [analyze] that.

"I don’t really try to sit in the office and [say] ‘Hey, Rizz. What are you doing?’ I think he knows what he’s doing and I think that we want the best for Stras. And if that’s the situation, we’re more than happy to back him up."

If Rizzo is insane, he may be crazy like a fox.

Though such opportunities can never be guaranteed, Rizzo's insistence on sticking to this innings limit speaks to the confidence he has in the future of his team. He expects to be in this position again and for more seasons to come. The plan can't be changed just because the Nationals accelerated their progress and played above expectations this season. 

Rizzo told MASN broadcasters Bob Carpenter and F.P. Santangelo that he'll "sleep like a baby" (again via D.C. Sports Bog) when Strasburg is shut down for the season because he knows it was the right decision. 

But my experience with babies sleeping is that they wake up a lot in the middle of the night and start crying. Is that what shutting down Strasburg is really going to lead to? There could be a lot of late-night sobbing in D.C. if this decision ends up costing the Nationals. 

 

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