Stephen Strasburg's Shutdown and Playing the Odds in the Playoffs

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Stephen Strasburg's Shutdown and Playing the Odds in the Playoffs
Greg Fiume/Getty Images

I didn’t really intend to write more about Stephen Strasburg. I already covered the issue once, and that was going to be it. But, even with the shutdown upon us, more information on the decision has come out. 

First is the interesting one: Dr. Lewis Yocum, the surgeon who repaired Strasburg’s ligament last year, originally claimed that he wasn’t consulted when determining the (approximately) 160-inning limit. Even though he later clarified that he agreed that Strasburg should be limited in some way, there isn’t any real indication that he provided them with an actual number.

Yocum mentions that there’s been no study on the correct way to handle pitchers returning from Tommy John surgery which is technically true. But Rany Jazayerli, one of the foremost researchers on the subject of young pitcher injuries, has a very interesting new piece up at Grantland. I would definitely recommend reading the whole thing.

Jazayerli was one of the first people to examine pitch counts and how they can preserve young pitchers’ arms. Pitch counts are younger than you may realize; Rany’s original study was first published at Baseball Prospectus in 1998, only a decade after STATS Inc. first began tracking the figures. It wasn’t really until the start of the 2000s that teams really began to really track their young ace’s pitches thrown in a game, a point that Jazayerli brings up in his new article.

That’s more important than you may think. When you hear people listing all the young pitchers who have blown out their arms from overuse, it’s important to recall that we have maybe a decade worth of cases with which to draw conclusions from. Maybe less, in some cases; as I mentioned last time, even Mark Prior and Kerry Wood were still being managed with no regards to pitch counts as late as 2003. 

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Due to the Nationals' pitch count limits, Stephen Strasburg's case is already entirely different than Mark Prior's.

In that regard, the Nationals have already done a lot to preserve Strasburg. But really, that’s not the point I want to make; other people have already covered the chance of possible future injuries, and while it’s a useful background, I’m not sure what I can add on the topic. 

My first is really simple: could the Nationals have handled the situation any worse? They didn’t talk to the doctor that performed the surgery to get his opinion on how it would hold up. They made the situation a huge issue months before it came up. They more or less made up an innings limit, then maybe flip-flopped on it, then caved in even earlier than it sounded like they would. They made no effort to save Strasburg for higher-leverage innings in October, even after it became clear that they would be playing then. 

My second point is more or less examining the numbers people throw around and trying to determine what they mean. First, there’s the “protecting the investment” argument. The Nationals signed Strasburg to a $15.1 million, four year deal. While that seems like a lot of money for a draftee, from the straight dollar perspective, the Nationals have already received their payment back with interest. This year alone, Fangraphs calculates that Strasburg has been worth 4.3 Wins Above Replacement. With one WAR currently going for $5 million on the open market, that means This year alone, the Nationals have essentially received $23 million from their investment. 

Regardless of what happens, they’ve made their money back. Maybe the investment won’t be as great if he’s injured, but with the fairly low chance that he’ll be ruined based on his already-careful handling, the Nats have already gotten their money’s worth. 

But the bigger numbers are the playoff odds. Baseball Prospectus gives Washington a 100% chance to make the playoffs and a 99.7% chance to win the division. For all intents and purposes, we can assume they are a given to enter the eight-team tournament that is the (now-post play-in game) playoffs. 

Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Short playoff series can be very random, so just entering the playoffs gives you a close to 12.5% chance of winning it all. With the Nationals, maybe they’re closer to 15%. They would have to be even better with Stephen Strasburg pitching though, right? 

The biggest argument for saving Strasburg for 2013 is that it would be better for their playoff odds in the future. Will it though. The Nationals, as is, already have a close to maybe 15% chance of winning. We can’t even write them in for their division yet next year, with a strong Braves team and a Phillies team that’s shown signs of life late in the year and the ever-present specter of bad luck. Their odds for winning in 2013, right now, can’t be any greater than maybe 7 or 8%. 

Basically, it’s the “bird in the hand” argument. There’s no guarantee the Nationals’ odds at a World Series would be this high again, and given the low additional chance at re-injuring Stephen Strasburg, why not maximize their odds at their highest? Granted, don’t run him into the ground or anything. But what’s wrong with how they’ve been doing it?

Let’s say that he gets one or two more regular season starts (to keep him in shape, since they bizarrely refused to give him time off earlier) and four playoff starts. With six innings per start, that would come out to 30 to 36 more innings. 

Would 36 more reasonably-managed innings really increase his chance of injury that significantly? It’s doubtful, given that the team has already managed his pitch counts so well. Would they increase the chance of a Washington title? Definitely, and in the end, that method would probably maximize both their chances at multiple titles and their chances at a healthy Strasburg for the future.

This article is also featured at Hot Corner Harbor.

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