Stephen Strasburg's Inning Limit and the Washington Nationals' Playoff Chances

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Stephen Strasburg's Inning Limit and the Washington Nationals' Playoff Chances
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I know the topic has been beaten to death. But I have some sort of interest in the Nationals (even if I don’t fully understand why), so I might as well weigh in on the Stephen Strasburg inning-limit story. 

I can understand the desire to keep Strasburg healthy. I trust the Nationals have looked into the topic. But I think there are plenty of problems with the “keep pitching him until he hits 180 innings, then shut him down for the year” plan.

First, there’s the apparent plan to just pitch him like normal until he hits 180 innings. A win in April does count the same as a win in September. However, that isn’t true for October. Three losses ends your season totally. Playoff starts are disproportionately weighted, so why not save Strasburg for those? Why not skip starts here and there to save him for the games that spell an automatic game-over for the season?

Second is the 180 limit itself. Why 180 innings specifically? I mean, to an extent, it makes sense. More innings are bad. But why set a hard limit that apparently means a total end for Strasburg’s season? Why not be flexible? 

I liked the prior “We’ll shut him down when we think it’s time” approach. That seemed to account for so many things, including how the team is doing and how Strasburg is feeling. I would imagine the latter is much more important to determining if a player re-injures their elbow. Look at players like Joel Zumaya, who have managed to injure their arms repeatedly despite rarely pitching anything close to excessive innings. 

Yes, players like Mark Prior and Kerry Wood injured themselves after heavy workloads. However, the early 2000s were a different time, before pitch counts were as big as they are now. Prior threw 120 or more pitches in a start nine times during 2003, while Wood crossed that margin 13 times in 2003 alone (as well as eight times during his rookie season).

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Strasburg has yet to reach that mark once in his career. Maybe innings are the determining factor, but number of pitches seems to be just as likely a culprit, and the Nationals have been much smarter about managing Stephen in that regard.

But then there’s the more team-focused argument. Yes, the Nationals have a deep rotation, and Strasburg might not be the ace just yet (although I would probably put him as their No. 2 right now, even ahead of Jordan Zimmermann).

But I don’t think that there’s any argument that, come October, a Gio Gonzalez-Strasburg-Zimmermann-Jackson/Detwiler rotation is stronger than a Gonzalez-Zimmermann-Jackson-Detwiler one. Playoff series are short, and you need to take every advantage you can.

I know there’s the argument that the Nationals’ window to win should stay open for several more years. But windows to win don't always stay open as long as they should. The Phillies and Brewers were both supposed to be good at least for this year, maybe next. The mid-2000s Mets and Indians were supposed to remain competitive for years. 

And will that window ever be as good as it is now? The rotation hasn’t faced any major injury set-backs (yet, not to jinx it). The line-up (with the exception of catchers) looks to be healthy for the stretch run, if not the playoffs themselves. Adam LaRoche and Ian Desmond are having career years. You should take advantage of every playoff appearance you can.

Even if you do continue winning, you never know if you'll wind up like the Indians or Braves or Mariners teams of the 1990s; good, but with not enough to show for it, World Series-wise.

Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Not only that, it’ll be hard to catch them. The Braves have been good, but have had much worse injury luck. The big-market Phillies look to be temporarily out of the picture. And on top of that, the Nationals have built up a 70-43 record, good for a .619 winning percentage, to go with a 4.5 game lead on the division. That makes them strong favorites for the division, a huge factor with Bud Selig’s new playoff scheme in place.

Yes, they may be better next year, or the year after. But they’re on pace for 100 wins and have the best record in baseball. This will be hard to top. If I’m betting on next season’s win total, barring a late collapse, I’d probably take the under on the Nationals.

Not that I expect them to be bad next year. It’s just very difficult to predict a team to repeat or improve on “best record in baseball”, especially a year or two down the road. 

I mean, I can’t fault a team too much for being careful. But this seems to be a very good year to try for it all. You need any advantage you can get in a short series, and Stephen Strasburg is definitely an advantage.

Would there be any harm in skipping one or two of his starts the rest of the way to prepare for October? I mean, why not aim for a 170-inning goal and save him for the postseason? 

The playoffs are already pretty random; there’s no guarantee he’d be going too far over the 180 mark even if he does pitch. He might get anywhere from one to maybe five starts (I would guess one in the DS, two in the CS and two in the World Series at most). If you go over those two extra starts you save by skipping late-season, he hits maybe 190 innings or so.

Is the difference between 180 innings and 190 innings really that big injury-wise that it’s worth totally shutting down one of the best pitchers in the league during a chance at a title?

This article is also featured at Hot Corner Harbor.

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