Highbrow Sports — September 23, 2012 4:17 pm

The Shutdown: Part 2


Robert Kindman contributed statistical analysis to this article.

Now that Stephen Strasburg is officially sitting out the rest of the season, the only use we have for him is to speculate about what impact his shutdown will have for the future of the Nationals. Baseball being first and foremost a business, it is worth investigating what kind of impact the decision will have on the National’s bottom line.

Two statistics are of primary importance. First, Strasburg brings in about $225,000 of extra revenue per home start.  Second, a World Series win could be predicted to add $38 million to the National’s revenues for the following year. Now, the question is, does it make financial sense to sit Strasburg and potentially miss out on this World Series for the sake of increasing your chances in the future? The answer isn’t what you think.

History has shown that once the playoffs begin, the results are essentially random because of the small sample size, giving each of the eight teams roughly a 12.5 percent chance of winning. On the average playoff team, having a dominant ace to start the playoffs gives a bump to your chances.

But the Nationals are in a unique situation in that they have arguably the deepest and most potent rotation in baseball. Using the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) statistic, Strasburg has added about five wins to the Nationals’ record this season as compared to what a theoretically average player would. But the Nationals have five starters, including Strasburg, who all have strong WARs. In a normal playoff run, three starters make the majority of the starts and an ace can be expected to make 3-6 starts. Looking at WAR, ERA, and innings pitched per start, the likelihood of Strasburg turning in a dramatically better set of postseason starts than the next three rotation-mates is not terribly high. Where your starting pitcher does make a big difference is in the regular season, where the larger sample size results in more wins added by a specific pitcher.

The main argument for letting Strasburg pitch is that since making the playoffs is far from guaranteed, and they are there this year, it would be wise to go for the jackpot. But in reality, there is no complex decision to be made because having Stephen Strasburg for the playoffs does not dramatically improve this particular team’s chances and therefore does not dramatically improve their chances of earning the $38 million World Series bump. Doing your best to ensure that he can pitch for you well into the future– making an extra $225,000 per start, or almost $4 million per year, and giving you a significant leg up in making the playoffs– greatly improves your chances of winning a World Series in the future. After all, if the playoffs are essentially random, your best chance comes not from any one year, but from making it as often as possible.

Strasburg has done his job this year as well as anyone could have asked, but from this point on his value is greatly diminished. With a team this talented and this young, the Nationals stand to reap the greatest reward from the longest possible career for Stephen Strasburg, and should achieve this end by any means possible, including this much maligned shutdown.

  • Paul Schied

    This makes a lot of sense for the Nats, at least on paper, but is there something more important here than the money (and future chances at a World Series) the Nats stand to gain? Doesn’t this strike at the heart of what sports is supposed to be about? Baseball is more about luck than any other major sport– the likelihood that the better team will win in any one game isn’t a lot better than 50%. But it’s still about competition. And I would argue that it’s an affront to the game not to put your best players on the field when there’s a championship on the line. Maybe Nationals fans will be content to look at the numbers and nod along in agreement, but if the White Sox ever did anything like this, I don’t think the rational arguments you advance here would persuade me.

  • Andrew Seo

    Great analysis, Peter. The reasoning for shutting him down largely makes sense, as you present it. However, I think it presupposes one very important fact: that the Nationals will be consistent playoff and World Series contenders in the years to come. Many of the pitchers on the staff are having career years, and I’m just not entirely convinced that the Nationals will be perennial favorites in a division that has been one of the most competitive recently (the NL East is the only division to have 4 teams to feature in the World Series in the past 13 years). Even though an extra Wild Card slot has been added and the NL will be reduced to 15 teams soon, I think this year represents one of the Nationals’ best chances of winning it all. I understand the stresses of a heavy workload, but it would have been prudent for the team to rest him more in the regular season so that he could at least make a start or two in the playoffs.

  • Peter Kaplan

    Thats a very good point. And it definitely is true that betting on the National’s dominance for the foreseeable future is risky, considering the depth of the NL east. It should be noted however, that the Mets are pretty terrible, the Marlins appear to be rebuilding again, and the Phillies are due to receive teamwide Medicare this coming season. The biggest threat is from the Braves which is legitimate. But the nationals staff looks to be superior or at least equal to just about any other team in the NL for the near future. Also I absolutely agree, the Nationals choice to shut down Strasburg now as opposed to resting him more during the season is very debatable, I believe that the stats show Strasburg helped a great deal during the regular season, but regardless, not having him for the playoffs must be disheartening for a Nat’s fan. Especially considering the incredible success of Kris Medlen on the Braves, who underwent TJ about 18 months ago, was used sporadically at the beginning of the season, and is now rampaging through the league. If he wins the World Series for the Braves, I may have to rethink my argument. We’ll see what strategy works.

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