Stephen Strasburg Would Have Stunk If He Had Pitched in the Playoffs

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Stephen Strasburg Would Have Stunk If He Had Pitched in the Playoffs
Greg Fiume/Getty Images

I am sick and tired of reading articles that connect the shutdown of Stephen Strasburg to the playoff collapse of the Washington Nationals, as if there is a direct causal link between the two. 

One reporter claimed that a Nationals player told him the team would have been up 2-0 in the series if Strasburg had been pitching.  Another article stated that the decision to shut down Strasburg cost the Nationals a chance at the World Series.  And finally, one article hypothesized that this decision would make Nats general manager Mike Rizzo the target of venom for years to come

This conjecture was made as if Strasburg’s presence on the Nationals’ playoff roster would have guaranteed the team’s postseason success. 

Well, what if Stephen Strasburg had indeed pitched in the playoffs for the Washington Nationals and his pitching turned out to be abysmal??? 

This scenario is not too far out of the realm of possibility.  Yet it seems to be just that, for many critics of the Washington Nationals. 

Stephen Strasburg was struggling as he neared the 160 inning limit imposed by Mike Rizzo and the Nationals brass.  In fact, the Nationals shut him down after his September 7 start, as opposed to after the September 12 start, as had been predetermined.  The team saw his obvious struggles on September 7 against the Miami Marlins, as Strasburg gave up six hits and five earned runs in only 3.0 innings. 

After that start, Mike Rizzo (pictured) explained his reasoning for shutting Strasburg down one start prematurely:

Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

After yesterday’s start, we just figured that mentally and physically, Stephen looked like he was fatigued.  We decided, what’s the difference of 159 1/3 innings or 163 or 164 or 165 1/3 innings?  We said let’s pull the plug today and move on with the season and try and finish the season off positive.  When you put two and two together with the parameters we had in place already, it was a fairly easy decision to say, let’s pull the plug after today instead of having one more start and six more innings. 

If Strasburg had continued to pitch a full workload, he would have totaled approximately 185 innings for the season.  His arm would have been very fatigued by then.  And then he would not have been the dominant playoff performer all these critics are assuming he would have been.  Not only that, but the additional strain on his arm could have caused a setback in his recovery from the surgery, or even a career-ending injury. 

And Strasburg would have fared no better if Rizzo had for some reason followed the asinine idea of stopping him and starting him instead of shutting him down.  Skipping starts would have taken Strasburg out of his routine, and he would not have been sharp.  And if the team had shut him down around the same time they actually did only to start him up again for the playoffs, the results could  have been disastrous. 

There is a reason pitchers report first to spring training.  Their bodies need to grow accustomed to throwing again, and the workload is gradually increased until the pitchers are ready to throw an entire game. 

And why are these precautions necessary for pitchers? 

To avoid injury.

How would Stephen Strasburg have pitched in the NLDS if he had not been shutdown?

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Let’s not forget that in addition to his sensitive elbow, Stephen Strasburg would have been making his first career postseason start.  This special type of stress does not always suit a pitcher very well. 

One need look no further than to the Washington Nationals rotation for examples of the deleterious effect of postseason stress on a pitcher’s performance. 

Gio Gonzalez may very well win the 2012 NL Cy Young Award.  But he didn’t pitch like it this postseason, the first of his five-year MLB career.  In Game 1 of the NLDS of the St. Louis Cardinals, Gonzalez pitched just well enough to earn a no decision.  He gave up only one hit, but because of his season-high seven walks, he surrendered two earned runs.  He left after throwing 110 pitches in 5.0 innings. 

In the decisive Game 5, he was even worse.  After being spotted a six-run lead through three innings, Gonzalez gave up one run in the fourth as he walked the leadoff batter, who subsequently scored on a double. 

The fifth inning may have been Gonzalez's single most blatant display of wildness from the entire season.  After giving up two hits to start the inning, Gonzalez walked the bases full. He retired the next batter, but then uncorked a wild pitch while pitching to the following hitter, allowing a run to score.  

Gonzalez then walked that same hitter to load the bases once again, before issuing his third walk of the inning to the very next batter, letting a second run cross the plate.  He got the next batter out to end the inning, but was done for the night after surrendering three runs, again lasting only five innings. 

Did Gio Gonzalez do enough to help the Nationals win the NLDS?

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With a six-run cushion, the Nationals needed a better performance from de facto ace Gio Gonzalez.  But they received no such thing, and it signaled the beginning of the end to their dream season. 

Perhaps an even better parallel for Stephen Strasburg is Jordan Zimmermann.  In addition to being a playoff rookie as Strasburg would have been, Zimmermann has also undergone Tommy John surgery in his career.  In fact, he himself was shutdown just last year.  

After pitching 195.2 innings this regular season, Zimmermann could have been feeling the effects of a heavy  workload on his surgically repaired arm.  Whether due to a tired arm or playoff jitters, Zimmermann was bad in his first postseason start.  He gave up five runs in 3.0 innings in Game 2, taking the loss in an ugly performance in St. Louis. 

As the first-time playoff performances of Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann illustrate, immediate success is not guaranteed for playoff debutantes.  The same possibility would have existed for Stephen Strasburg.  Even if Strasburg had not been shut down, he may not have succeeded in the playoffs, and the Washington Nationals may have lost anyways. 

Then the Nationals would have one potentially damaged pitcher and zero World Series rings to show for it.    

Myopic baseball pundits and hypercritical fans should consider both sides of the coin before giving their two cents on the Washington Nationals handling of Stephen Strasburg. 

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