The dilemma has stoked debate throughout the major leagues, among players, fans and media.
How can the Nationals even consider shutting down their best pitcher when they have the best record in the majors, look like the best team in the National League, and could very well win a World Series championship? The idea just seems insane to anyone who believes that a team gets few chances at a World Series title and needs to capitalize when it's within reach.
Yet the Nats—especially general manager Mike Rizzo—have been steadfast since spring training with their insistence that Strasburg will be held to an innings limit to prevent him from overworking his reconstructed elbow in his first full season since Tommy John surgery.
However, Rizzo never put a number on the innings limit, at least not publicly. Maybe to give himself some wiggle room.
The general presumption has been that Strasburg would be restricted to 160 innings, as teammate Jordan Zimmermann was last season when he was coming off reconstructive elbow surgery. With Strasburg at 133.1 innings as of Aug. 13, that would give him approximately four more starts, ending his season Sept. 2. (Strasburg averages six innings per appearance.)
But either Rizzo had a different number in mind all along or the limit was fluid, depending on how Strasburg progressed through the season. Rumblings have surfaced in recent weeks—mostly from MLB.com Nationals beat writer Bill Ladson—that Strasburg will be allowed to pitch 180 innings.
That would give Strasburg eight starts and push him to Sept. 24, the second-to-last week of the regular season.
Whether or not Rizzo changed his mind on Strasburg's limit as the Nationals exceeded expectations and developed into a playoff contender is something that we may never know. (Maybe Rizzo will share his thoughts in a moment of candor toward the end of the calendar year.) But the plan has to have changed from what was originally laid out before the season.
Just because the Nats intend to keep Strasburg on an innings limit doesn't mean they can't resort to creative means to extend their ace's season into October, however. Back in June, I came up with five ideas on the subject, some more serious than others.
But there are less drastic or wacky ways to extend Strasburg's season by at least another couple of weeks. For instance, the Nationals have five off-days on their schedule between Aug. 13 and the end of the regular season. Those would allow the Nats to either skip a turn in Strasburg's regular rotation and push everyone else up a day on regular rest.
Teams have starting pitchers skip their turn all the time in an effort to provide a little more rest. Why not do this with Strasburg, as the Chicago White Sox have done with Chris Sale?
How about going to a six-man rotation, which the Nationals could easily do with John Lannan—who's spent most of the season with Triple-A Syracuse—Chien-Ming Wang or Tom Gorzelanny? The Braves just decided to do that in light of Tommy Hanson's return, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution's David O'Brien.
Another suggestion that's been tossed out there is shutting Strasburg down now and then bringing him back in September. No worries about an innings limit then, right? Use those four to eight remaining starts in the postseason when the Nats are playing their most important games.
ESPN's Outside the Lines (via Jayson Stark) brought up this very suggestion to Rizzo, who responded by saying that every authority on the matter warned that was a bad idea.
"Because every injury expert that we have spoken to [says] the effect of shutting a pitcher down and then ramping him back up and having him throw a full go is much more dangerous than having him pitch through the season and shutting him down," Rizzo said.
That makes sense, of course. Think of any form of physical exertion. If you're jogging, then stop and let your body cool down—you shouldn't just go into a full run again without a warm-up. You can't build yourself up to where you can bench press 200 pounds, stop for six weeks, then go back into the gym and lift that same weight without progressing up again.
Presumably, the Nats wouldn't just let Strasburg go cold if he were shut down now. He'd pitch bullpen sessions, throw long-toss, do strengthening exercises, and get treatment on his elbow and shoulder from team training and medical staff. But that would put wear on his arm as well.
Besides, even if Strasburg tried to stay sharp, throwing a bullpen session or simulated games isn't the same—in terms of stress, leverage or opposition—as actual, live competition. Strasburg couldn't just flip a switch and be in ace form again right away. He would have to work his way back to that and the postseason is hardly a setting for a pitcher—no matter how good he is—to try and find his touch again.
There's no need for the Nationals to resort to something so drastic anyway.
Everyone can still win here. Rizzo can say he protected his prized pitcher's arm with an innings limit. Strasburg can pitch in the postseason, something that's not guaranteed to happen again. And the Nationals as a team can put their best lineup on the field with the shared goal of competing for a championship.
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