Was Stephen Strasburg's Future Really Protected by His Shutdown Last Season?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJune 6, 2013

The Washington Nationals were hoping that Stephen Strasburg wouldn't have to go on the disabled list. As Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post reported, the team was crossing its fingers that Strasburg's lat strain wouldn't give him any trouble in a midweek bullpen session.

So much for that. The Nationals announced on Wednesday that their ace right-hander felt discomfort while playing catch on Wednesday and had to be placed on the 15-day disabled list.

You know what this means, right? It means we have to talk about the shutdown.

Of course we have to talk about the shutdown. More so than the Tommy John operation he underwent in 2010, the shutdown could end up being the defining moment of Strasburg's career.

The whole point of the shutdown was to preserve Strasburg's health for the long haul. Now here we are less than a year later, and the young ace is hurt. He may not be suffering from an injury that's going to sideline him for a long time, but he's dealing with a totally non-fluky, very pitching-related injury all the same.

Don't worry, I'm not going to ramble on about what a dumb idea the shutdown was. Calling it that would require implying that that shutdown is the reason Strasburg landed on the disabled list on Wednesday, and I'm not...well, not that dumb.

But while Strasburg's trip to the DL doesn't show how dumb the shutdown was, what it does show is how futile it was. Well-intentioned, to be sure, but pointless. That's apparent now in retrospect, but there were always warning signs that could end up being the case.

ESPN's Jayson Stark wrote last August that the Nationals' plan for Strasburg had support from the medical community. And despite some brief confusion, the late Dr. Lewis Yocum eventually made it clear that he was in on what the Nationals were doing and supportive of the club's decision.

The Nationals also had data they were looking at. General manager Mike Rizzo told ESPN that "there's no pitcher that's gone from 44 innings pitched in one season, after Tommy John surgery, to 200 the next season, without injury down the road."

The Nationals followed through with their plan almost every step of the way in 2012. Strasburg never pitched more than seven innings in any start, and he only had two starts in which he threw over 110 pitches. On average, he threw only 93 pitches per start.

But while the Nationals had support from the medical community, data telling them what not to do and a plan that they followed to a T, what they never had were any assurances that the whole thing was going to work.

Here's a key passage from Stark's article:

Is there "proof" that pulling the plug on Strasburg's season—at 160 innings, 170 innings or any other number—will keep him healthy? Here's the bad news: There's none. No matter how they handle him.

Will Carroll, B/R's resident injury guru, said pretty much the same thing while he was still writing for Sports Illustrated: "All in all, lowered innings totals don't automatically equal health, and similar pitchers have gone more innings without apparent issue. Without the benefit of data, the Nats...are guessing." 

Virtually every starting pitcher is on some sort of pitch count or innings limit these days, yet Jeff Zimmerman of FanGraphs found that 39 percent of all pitchers who start one year will end up on the DL the next year, and that they lose an average of over 60 days per DL trip.

I did my own digging awhile back on the relation between pitch/innings limits and injuries, and I came away unconvinced that caution is guaranteed to prevent injuries.

In essence, what the Nationals were looking to do was find a way to prevent Strasburg from falling prey to the sort of things that pitchers just happen to fall prey to. Even in the days of extreme caution, they still get hurt. Pretty much all the time, at that.

Simply by virtue of the fact that he's a pitcher, the odds were never good that Strasburg was going to be more durable this year than he was last year. Sure enough, his body first started to ache in late April when he had a bout with forearm tightness, and then his shoulder started barking last week.

Strasburg's going to take a breather for a while, but the safe bet is that there are more injuries still out there for him to discover. He'll still be a pitcher when he comes back, after all, and the nature of his mechanics could contribute to this unfortunate reality. 

Baseball America (subscription required) was noting as far back as 2009 that some within the Nats organization were concerned Strasburg "eventually could break down because he locks out his elbow on his follow through, putting torque on his shoulder."

Biomechanics expert Paul Reddick broke it down even further with Lindsay Berra of ESPN The Magazine last year, but the gist was more or less the same. Strasburg's delivery is powerful, but hardly efficient. Until he alters it, his arm is always going to be bearing the brunt of the effort.

So, here are the key things we know about Strasburg:

  1. He had Tommy John surgery in 2010.
  2. There was never any guarantee that shutting him down early in 2012 was going to preserve his health.
  3. Pitchers, in general, have a tendency to get hurt and that their injuries tend to be serious.
  4. He isn't proving to be more durable this year than he was last year.
  5. His mechanics aren't efficient.

Signs such as these don't guarantee that Strasburg is going to run into another major injury somewhere down the line, but the guy is unlikely to ever be a Justin Verlander- or Greg Maddux-esque picture of health for the duration of his career. And if he is indeed going to be as injury-prone as the next pitcher, a lengthy DL stint is always going to be lurking.

That was true both before and after the shutdown. Nobody should ever say it was a dumb idea...we're just never going to be able to say it was a smart one, either.


If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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