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Can Stephen Strasburg Even Handle Being a Big-Time MLB Ace?

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Can Stephen Strasburg Even Handle Being a Big-Time MLB Ace?
Greg Fiume/Getty Images
After a poor start Sept. 7, Stephen Strasburg's season is finished.

Apparently, even the Washington Nationals were so sick of all the Stephen Strasburg shutdown talk that the team decided to finally put an end to it. 

OK, maybe that's not exactly why the Nationals announced on Saturday (Sept. 8) that Strasburg's 2012 season is suddenly finished, as reported by multiple outlets, including The Washington Post. Strasburg was expected to make one more start this year, Wednesday (Sept. 12) versus the New York Mets.

Is it a big deal that the Nationals are cutting Strasburg's season short by one start? When it's phrased like that, maybe not. But the reason given for prematurely sidelining him is at least a bit curious.

Manager Davey Johnson told reporters, including the Washington Times' Amanda Comak, that the media attention over Strasburg's impending shutdown had worn down the 24-year-old star. 

The media hype on this thing has been unbelievable. I feel it’s as hard for him as it would be anybody to get mentally, totally committed in the ballgame. And he’s reached his innings limit. So we can get past this and talk about other things for a change.

With all due respect, Mr. Johnson, I think we're going to be talking about this for a while, at least through the next week. 

Strasburg certainly didn't present a strong case for his season continuing after his latest start. Facing the Miami Marlins, he lasted only three innings before being pulled from the game. Strasburg allowed five runs and six hits (two of them home runs). He walked three batters and struck out only two, his lowest total of the season. 

Greg Fiume/Getty Images
Stephen Strasburg allowed five runs in his final start of 2012.

It was the second time in his past three starts that Strasburg had allowed five runs.

That strengthened the perception that his reconstructed right elbow was wearing down under the grind of his first full season since recovering from Tommy John surgery. As I wrote in early August, this was becoming increasingly apparent to beat writers covering the Nationals. 

During the second half of the season, Strasburg's ERA went from 2.82 to 3.73. His strikeout-to-walk ratio decreased from 4.57 to 3.45. He allowed seven home runs in 60.1 innings after giving up eight in 99 innings before the All-Star break. Everything with Strasburg was trending in the wrong direction. 

So shutting Strasburg down now, even with only one start remaining in his season, makes sense from a physical standpoint and from a baseball standpoint. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said as much in his remarks to the press, including the Washington Times' Tom Schad.

After yesterday’s start, we just figured that mentally and physically, Stephen looked like he was fatigued. We said let’s pull the plug today and move on with the season and try and finish the season off positive.

Rizzo went on to explain that it was a relatively easy decision among Johnson, Rizzo and pitching coach Steve McCatty.

With 159.1 innings pitched after Friday's start, Strasburg's workload fell within the 160-inning limit that had been originally projected for him by many analysts and observers. Would one more start and another six innings really matter, especially when Strasburg appeared to be struggling?

Evan Habeeb-US PRESSWIRE
Davey Johnson and Mike Rizzo decided now was the time to shut down Stephen Strasburg.

All right, fair enough. But that's not what Johnson said when explaining Strasburg's shutdown.

The Nats manager made it sound as if his young pitcher couldn't handle all the attention and scrutiny that the media was giving him. In doing so, he made Strasburg sound mentally weak. When asked to clarify, Johnson didn't walk back from this either, telling reporters, including Tom Schad of the Washington Times:

I know he’s been struggling with it for weeks. I know he doesn’t sleep good thinking about it. Shoot, I’ve heard so much advice from every ex-pitcher, every guru on the matter.

If you’re not there 100 percent mentally—I mean, he’s a gifted athlete. His velocity could still be there. I don’t see the crispness. I don’t see the ball jumping out of his hand. It’s more, I’m a firm believer this game is 90-95 percent mental. He’s only human. I don’t know how anybody can be totally concentrating on the job at hand and media hype to this thing. I think we would be risking more sending him back out.

I'm not going to pretend I know what it's like to push through the rigors of a full major league season with a surgically repaired elbow. Heck, I've never once thrown anything as hard in my life as Strasburg throws a baseball more than 100 times a game.

I also don't know what it's like to have to face repeated questions from local and national baseball reporters about how my arm feels and how I feel about my team wanting to shut me down for the season. I'm sure it absolutely is a grind. 

However, Johnson's remarks call into question whether Strasburg can handle the burden that comes with being a team leader and staff ace.

Isn't this level of attention and scrutiny what comes with life as a major league starting pitcher? Do the Nats think Strasburg won't face this kind of questioning next season, especially as he approaches 160-180 innings again?

Or will the presumption just be that he's ready to pitch 200 innings because he got through this season and should be stronger?

Joy R. Absalon-US PRESSWIRE
Are the Nationals coddling Stephen Strasburg too much?

If that's the case, the Nats were probably right to shut down Strasburg before the playoffs. Apparently, he would have become a blubbering mental mess—going "Bu-bu-bu-bu-bu...!"—when facing the harsh national spotlight that comes with postseason baseball.

Johnson did Strasburg no favors by portraying him as wilting under the mental grind of media hype. (And if he's trying to blame the media for this, that is dubious at best, garbage at worst.)

If I was Strasburg, I'd be upset that my manager threw that perception out there. Of course, Strasburg can dispel this notion by talking to the press about this later on.

That is, if Johnson thinks he can handle it. 

Please allow me to clarify: I don't think the Nationals made the wrong decision here. As crazy as it sounded all along to shut Strasburg down when the Nats have a chance to contend for a World Series championship, I think the physical evidence was increasingly supporting the team's position.

(However, considering how closely I've followed the Nationals this season and how often I've written about Strasburg, maybe I'm suffering from a form of Stockholm syndrome.)

Strasburg is the Nationals' top pitcher. He is a No. 1 starter and a deserving candidate for the NL Cy Young Award. But the team needs to begin treating him more like an ace or give him the opportunity to be one. Perhaps that will happen next year.

For now, however, the Nats' decision to end his season prematurely and blame it on the mental grind of constant interrogation over his status, rather than the physical toll of throwing more innings than he ever has, makes Strasburg look as if he's not ready for the responsibility.

If that is actually the truth, the Nationals have a major concern going into next season. 

 

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