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A Realistic Plan for Keeping Stephen Strasburg Healthy, On the Mound

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A Realistic Plan for Keeping Stephen Strasburg Healthy, On the Mound
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
The Nationals need Stephen Strasburg to be in the dugout less and on the mound more.

Breaking news: Stephen Strasburg made it through a start.

Granted, it was only a five-inning outing, but when a player with Strasburg's injury history is coming back from yet another disabled list stint, he's gotta start somewhere.

The 24-year-old right-hander's latest ailment was a strained lat muscle on his right side, which forced him first to leave his previous start on May 31 after only two innings and then miss the requisite 15 days.

The Washington Nationals made it clear prior to Strasburg's first start back on Sunday that he would, understandably, be handled with care.

If Strasburg were a toy, that warning phrase would be written in the instruction booklet numerous times. In bold, italicized typeface. And underlined.

The Nationals' handle-with-care approach to Strasburg started immediately. But here's the thing about that: It hasn't worked.

Strasburg has been on the DL four times (twice for the Tommy John surgery/recovery), and given the starts already missed this season, he's now unlikely to reach the 30-start plateau in any of his first four MLB campaigns.

That's the problem when it comes to Strasburg—he's the toy that's so much fun to play with but one that seemingly can't be taken out of the box without risk of breaking.

So let's draw up a new set of instructions that could mean lots of fun—and more of it—for Strasburg, the Nationals and baseball in general.

 

Step 1: Forget the Pedigree

Until teammate Bryce Harper came along, you'll recall Strasburg was arguably the most-hyped prospect in the history of baseball.

Donald Miralle/Getty Images
In his final year at San Diego State, Strasburg went 13-1 with a 1.32 ERA and struck out 195 in 109 innings.

After a tremendous career at San Diego State, the 6'4", 200-pounder went No. 1 overall in the 2009 MLB draft and signed for $15.1 million, a record for guaranteed money given to a drafted player. 

That stuff is Wikipedia-worthy for sure, but the Nationals need to forget it all.

At some point, no matter the hype and the background and the potential, a player is what he does on the diamond. We've reached that point with Strasburg.

 

Step 2: Forgive the Past

You'll also remember that the Nationals, amid widespread controversy and debate, shut down Strasburg last September, a year after he had Tommy John surgery, as part of a predetermined plan that was supposed to help keep him healthy for the future.

Strasburg, of course, wasn't happy about it.

He'd pitched 159.1 mostly dominant innings—and then didn't appear in a game after September 7, including the postseason.

Washington lost a hard-fought National League Division Series in five games to the St. Louis Cardinals, leaving everyone to wonder whether things might have turned out differently had Strasburg been allowed throw.

Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
After a rousing Game 4 win on Jayson Werth's homer, the Nats lost to the Cardinals in the 2012 NLDS last October.

It was the ultimate lose-lose situation for Washington, and that's just how it played out.

Again, though, the Nationals need to forgive themselves for that as well as forgive everyone who criticized the decision, which was unpopular but also entirely theirs to make.

Move on.

 

Step 3: Remove the Bubble Wrap

At some point here, the bubble wrap, the protective covering, the kid gloves—whatever cliche you prefer—is going to have to come off.

Strasburg started Sunday on the road against the Cleveland Indians, and while he picked up his sixth loss of the season (against just three wins), the right-hander was, at times, his usual dominant self, surrendering just one hit and one run while whiffing four in five frames.

He only threw 82 pitches, although that was to be expected going into the start, but only 44 of them went for strikes and he walked a season-high four.

Under the circumstances, that's a perfectly reasonable approach. And one that should be thrown out going forward.

If Strasburg is healthy enough to pitch, let him pitch.

He's ready to throw at full throttle next time out.

 

Step 4: Wind Him Up

Strasburg is still young. Kind of.

He turns 25 on July 20—a little over a month from now—so he's young, but he's not a kid anymore.

That 21-year-old who broke into the bigs by whiffing 14 Pittsburgh Pirates in his first-ever start back in 2010? Gone.

Among all the amazing numbers and flashy radar gun readings Strasburg has compiled to this point in his career, the most amazing Strasburg stat is this: He never once pitched more than seven innings in a major league game until the 54th start of his career, which came on May 16. Of this season.

For comparison, between 2010, Strasburg's first season, and this year to date, 119 starters have pitched into the eighth inning of a game within the first 53 games of their careers.

Here are a few you may never have heard of, along with the number of times they threw at least 7.1 frames: Josh Tomlin (six times), Brett Cecil (six), Scott Diamond (five), Brad Bergesen (five), Mitch Talbot (four), Hector Noesi (three), Anthony Swarzak (two), Guillermo Moscoso (two), Luke French (two), Barry Enright (two)...you get the point.

None of them, it bears repeating, are named Stephen Strasburg.

 

Step 5: Watch Him Throw

This applies from both an enjoyment angle as well as a keeping-tabs-on-him one.

In other words, when Strasburg is throwing well and at full capacity, the Nats shouldn't get distracted by the dizzying assortment of 98 mile-per-hour heaters, knee-buckling curves and where'd-it-go changeups to the point where they forget to monitor him.

Check his effort. Log his pitch count. Be aware of the intensity of his more stressful innings.

It goes without saying that the Nats are already on top of this. They know what to look for—maybe too much so.

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports
Manager Davey Johnson and GM Mike Rizzo: Contemplating when to remove Strasburg from his next start?

But if all signs are go, why not let Strasburg, well, keep going?

To this point in his career, it feels like Strasburg's first pitch in a game signals not the start of something great about to unfold but the start of a countdown to an end.

It feels like manager Davey Johnson and general manager Mike Rizzo have simply been waiting to take Strasburg out of every game he's ever started.

As many different approaches as have been tried in the history of the sport, one thing has been proved true: There's no secret formula for keeping pitchers healthy and pain-free.

And guess what, the warnings that come with Strasburg also come with every other pitcher ever.

Pitchers get hurt. It happens. It's unstoppable.

The difference between Strasburg and most every other pitcher, though, is that at least they, you know, got to pitch.

Pitchers are meant to throw, just like toys are meant to be played with.

It's time for the Nationals to throw out the box Strasburg came in.

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