Stephen Strasburg's Innings Limit Part of Trend to Protect Pitchers' Health
Stephen Strasburg struck out 10 hitters and allowed just one run in six innings Tuesday night, pitching around a 51-minute rain delay. He earned his 15th win of the season. The Washington Nationals extended their lead over the Atlanta Braves in the National League East to seven games, with a 4-1 victory.
Strasburg is now 15-5 with six weeks left in the regular season. It would be safe to assume we could start talking about the possibility of the 24-year-old winning 20 games in his first full season back on the mound after undergoing Tommy John surgery in September 2010.
But we’re not having that discussion because Strasburg is nearing the end of his season. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo has said since spring training that Strasburg is on an innings limit this season (thought to be between 160 and 180). After Tuesday’s start, the young right-hander, who leads the National League with 183 strikeouts, is at 145.1 innings pitched this season.
Given that he hasn’t gone beyond seven innings in any start this season, that equals roughly two to four more starts before he leaves things to his teammates to see if the Nationals can win the franchise’s elusive first World Series.
Going back to their 36 seasons as the Montreal Expos, the franchise has won one postseason series in its history, and that came in the strike-shortened 1981 season. That is it as far as playoff glory goes for the Nationals/Expos.
Montreal had the best record in baseball at the time of the players’ strike in 1994. But since the rest of the season and the entire postseason were cancelled due to the labor stoppage, the franchise was left with the lone playoff appearance.
Is Mike Rizzo's plan the right one for Stephen Strasburg?
Talk of the innings cap on Strasburg has been there all season, but it’s picked up in earnest now that he is within striking distance of the 160 mark.
There is some thought that the Nationals can survive without Strasburg. The starting rotation as a whole leads baseball with a 3.23 ERA. Even without Strasburg’s numbers, the rotation would still have the best mark in Major League Baseball. Tyler Clippard has been lights-out at the end of games, picking up his 28th save Wednesday night to preserve Strasburg’s win.
Ian Desmond, despite almost a month on the DL with an oblique strain, leads all shortstops with 19 home runs. Adam LaRoche leads National League first basemen with his 23 home runs and 78 RBI—impressive despite Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder taking their talents to the American League in free agency.
Trying to keep pitchers healthy has become an obsession with baseball executives over the last couple of decades. And why shouldn’t it be?
Given the sizable investments clubs make in acquiring the talent to compete in baseball’s arms race, it makes sense that organizations would want to go the extra mile to keep those investments protected and healthy.
But it’s a crapshoot.
Obviously, pitchers with a violent delivery, such as former relief aces Rob Dibble and Eric Gagne, are going to be at increased risk of breaking down due to injury. Fittingly, the careers of both unraveled after arm problems robbed them of their once-elite velocity.
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There’s been a lot of talk about the danger of the so-called “inverted W” delivery, which Strasburg uses, along with former phenom Mark Prior, among others. The naysayers against the delivery are led by Chris O’Leary, an author, speaker and consultant who is also something of a self-appointed expert on the mechanics of baseball.
But the Nationals aren’t the only organization trying to appear as if they know the unknowable; specifically, what is an injury risk, and how are those risks lessened, if not prevented entirely?
The Colorado Rockies have used a four-man rotation since June, with each starter limited to 75 or so pitches. Of course, the Rockies’ bullpen is beyond overtaxed, even with the addition of an arm that would traditionally be in a five-man rotation.
But the bottom line is that no one really knows. The Rockies freely admit they’re guessing and trying something innovative within the context of a lost season to see if it works.
But Rizzo doesn’t know that shutting down Strasburg will prevent further injury any more than he knows that pitching him through September and into October will guarantee that Strasburg suffers a health setback. There are some doctors who say it will, but they don’t really know either. Every pitcher and every arm is different.
Duquette doesn’t know if throwing a cutter is bad, but because he thinks it is, that becomes the rule of law in the Oriole organization.
But it’s part of a broader trend in baseball. Teams are moving away from the innings-eating workhorses of old—the guys like Robin Roberts and Catfish Hunter, among others, who would go out there and power through 300-plus innings every season.
Minor league prospects are on strict pitch counts. This leads to pitchers who can reach the major league level lacking knowledge of how to work through a jam at key moments later in games.
You’d think a team would want to keep a guy like Strasburg going and going because you never know how big an organization’s window is for winning the big trophy with all the flags. It seems obvious in Strasburg’s case that the fear of blowing millions of dollars on an injury-plagued bust is trumping all other thinking, including trying to take advantage of the position the Nationals are in to win it all right now.
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