Stephen Strasburg dominated hitters for five months in 2012. If he has his way, he'll have a chance to do it for six or seven months in 2013. Despite overwhelming disdain for how the Washington Nationals handled Strasburg's workload during the pennant race last season, there is precedent to limit his innings again this season.
A case can be made that Strasburg is the best inning-by-inning starting pitcher in the big leagues right now. At the age of 24, the Nationals have one of the most desirable commodities in professional sports: a young, cost-controlled ace. Knowing that, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo devised a plan to keep Strasburg healthy on the path back from Tommy John surgery. An NL East crown and playoff appearance in 2012 didn't change the organizational philosophy.
Strasburg was vocal about his displeasure last September, looked sullen on the bench during the postseason and has let it be known that he wants the reigns off completely this year. In theory, he should be a major part of the decision making process in Washington. Not only is Strasburg dominant; he knows what his body can and can't handle at this juncture—years removed from the actual elbow procedure.
On the other hand, Strasburg was allowed to throw over 100 more innings in 2012 than he did during an abbreviated 2011 season on his path back from surgery. While comparing and contrasting 24-year-old starters with Tommy John patients can be a fruitless endeavor, the idea of Strasburg piling on too many innings this season is a legitimate issue, especially if Washington plays deep into the postseason.
The Verducci Effect has become a hot topic of baseball discussion over the years. In short, Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci labels any 25-and-under pitcher who increased his innings by 30 or more to be at an increased risk from injury. Even if you disregard how diligently Washington handled his innings and the shut down last year, Strasburg still easily falls into that category.
If the kid gloves come off in 2013, he will be on the list again next year. Consider this: Matt Cain and Justin Verlander, the respective aces of the 2012 World Series participants, threw around 29 innings each in the postseason last October. If the World Series had gone the distance, those numbers would have been in the mid-30's.
Allowing Strasburg to be a "workhorse" and achieve the lauded 200-inning plateau seems more than reasonable for a pitcher who has shown zero signs of discomfort or setbacks since Tommy John surgery. Yet, Washington is the NL East favorite for a reason. They are loaded, poised for a big regular season, and with Strasburg leading the staff, a run through October.
200 innings in the regular season is a goal; 30 more in October is a must. If Strasburg is allowed to take on a 230+ IP season in 2013, he'll have pitched 70+ more innings in 2013 than he did last year. Due to his stature as one of baseball's brightest stars, his prowess coming out of San Diego State, and the Nationals' rise to league superpower, it's easy to forget how young Strasburg still is.
While skipping starts or shutting Strasburg down again aren't realistic notions, limiting his innings is. If Washington fully intends on playing deep into October and keeping Strasburg healthy long-term, care might still be necessary.
As Adam Kilgore pointed out in the Washington Post, Strasburg was only allowed to throw at least 105 pitches in five of 28 starts last season. Limiting pitches was a way to limit innings, and thus save Strasburg starts for the 2012 Nationals.
“I’m not trying to get out there and get used to throwing 90, 94 pitches,” Strasburg told the Washington Post. “You look at some of the top pitchers in the game, they go at least 110 every time out. I’m going to be prepared for it. I’m not saying that they’re going to let me do it. But I’m going to be physically ready for it.
He may be ready for it, but that doesn't mean it has to happen.
Limiting pitches should be in vogue again for Davey Johnson and Mike Rizzo. Only this time, they'll be saving those pitches and innings for October.
Joe Giglio is a MLB Lead Writer covering the NL and AL East. Follow him on Twitter @JoeGiglioSports.
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