Will the Stephen Strasburg Limit Cost the Nationals the NL East Title?
Seemingly everyone inside the world of baseball—and even some outside of it—has weighed in on the Washington Nationals' impending decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg. The team has predetermined an innings limit to prevent further damage to the Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) in Strasburg's right elbow as he recovers from Tommy John surgery.
A wide range of athletes and sports personalities, from current baseball players like Jake Peavy and Jeff Francoeur; to former players like Dennis Eckersley; to ESPN's baseball genius, Stephen A. Smith, have argued that Stephen Strasburg should not be shut down no matter what the cost.
The question has been whether or not the Washington Nationals will actually shut Strasburg down, which GM Mike Rizzo has answered with an emphatic yes.
Instead, the real question is, will the innings limit cost the Washington Nationals the NL East title?
Yes, it will.
Statistically, Strasburg may not be the best starting pitcher on the team. That title would go to either Jordan Zimmermann with his NL-leading 2.38 ERA and a team-best 20 quality starts or Gio Gonzalez, whose 15 wins tie for the NL lead.
But Strasburg has a quality the other pitchers on this staff do not possess: intimidation. Standing at 6'4" and 220 lbs, he has an MLB-leading average fastball velocity of 95.8 mph, and as a result, he has the fifth-most strikeouts in MLB, with 173 in 139.1 innings. As proof of his dominating skills positively affecting his team, the Nationals are 18-6 whenever Strasburg starts.
Should Stephen Strasburg be shut down this season?
The loss of Strasburg’s imposing figure in the rotation will hurt the Nationals tremendously, weakening perhaps the team’s greatest asset. Strasburg will most likely be replaced in the rotation by John Lannan, who has an average fastball velocity of only 89.5 mph. That number is the worst on the entire Washington Nationals staff, including the bullpen.
Furthermore, Lannan averages only 4.7 strikeouts per nine innings with a 1.420 WHIP for his career, whereas Strasburg has a career average of 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings, with a 1.061 WHIP. With Lannan pitching in place of Strasburg, opposing teams will have more confidence in facing the Nationals' rotation as a whole.
Plus, this decision is beginning to spoil the chemistry of a tight-knit clubhouse. The Nationals know the decision will be made, but some players don’t like it. Veteran Mark DeRosa told USA Today how he felt about the decision:
You take the best pitchers off any team that has a chance to make it to the postseason and it's devastating. At the same time, we knew it going in. You kind of hoped the better we played the more the decision changed to the opposite.
This feeling will grow as the shutdown deadline approaches, and the negative effect on the clubhouse will become even greater once Strasburg is actually shut down. The topic will be impossible to avoid if the Nationals begin to falter without Strasburg, and the negativity will have a snowball effect.
If Stephen Strasburg is shut down, what will be the end result for the Washington Nationls?
Six of Washington's starting position players have never played in a postseason game: Ryan Zimmerman, Danny Espinosa, Steve Lombardozzi, Kurt Suzuki, Michael Morse and Bryce Harper. The same can be said for four of the five remaining projected starters in the rotation: Zimmermann, Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler and Lannan. The doubt caused by knowing Strasburg is no longer backing these guys up will have a deleterious effect on their performance as playoff pressure mounts.
This crack in the Nationals’ foundation will be all the Atlanta Braves need.
Since the All-Star break, Atlanta is 22-10. Only the Cincinnati Reds (24-8) have been better in that time in the National League. Atlanta has already counteracted the Nationals' own surge, completely negating Washington's impressive 24-11 mark after the break. The Braves currently stand at 68-49, 4.5 games behind the Nationals through Wednesday's games. They will jump on the opportunity to gain ground on the Nats and eventually catch them.
And these Braves have felt the fires of September baseball, unlike the young and mostly untested Nationals team. In 2011, the Braves' season went up in flames as the leaves began to change. Atlanta blew a 9.5-game lead down the stretch, a fiery descent of historic proportions.
This year's Braves roster is largely unchanged, and they won't allow history to repeat itself. Once the Braves see a weakness in the division leader, the team will take advantage of the opportunity and guarantee a trip to the postseason.
But this is not all to say the Nationals will not make the playoffs. In fact, their lead over Atlanta reached a season-high 5.5 games earlier this week. Atlanta is currently tied for the lead in the wild-card race with the St. Louis Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Pirates. If the Nats fade down the stretch and relinquish the division lead to the hard-charging Braves, they will still be able to compete for one of two wild-card spots.
Greg Fiume/Getty Images
Furthermore, all this is not to say that shutting down Strasburg is a bad decision. The Washington Nationals went down this road last season with Zimmermann, and they are taking the same steps this year. And so far this season, the Nats have reaped the rewards of their own precautions with Zimmermann.
The Nationals' brain trust, led by Rizzo, will stick to their plan, which is based upon their own stubborn conviction. Rizzo intends to stick to his previously determined strategy, according to Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post:
It’s not on Davey Johnson or Mr. Lerner. It’s on me. I know it may stain my reputation or my career. There’s no way it can ever be proved if I was right. The easy thing for me is just to do nothing. But I’m hardheaded. The decision was made five months ago because it was the best decision for Stephen and the Nationals. And nothing is going to change it.
Rizzo and the Nationals will not risk the future of their ever-strengthening franchise by endangering the health of their star pitcher for one moment of glory; they have patiently positioned themselves for multiple years of glory.
Because of this foresight, the future of the Washington Nationals is bright, even if a storm cloud is brewing in the immediate future.
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