Stephen Strasburg’s season is over. Baseball fans will be deprived of the joy of watching baseballs fastest fastballs, sharpest curve balls, and most devastating changeups for the rest of the season. This while Strasburg’s Nationals are fighting to secure their first first place finish ever. What makes this event especially unbearable is that Stephen Strasburg is not injured, and is by all accounts in the best shape of his life. Rather, for the first time in any major sport in recent memory, a first place team will willingly bench its best player unconditionally for the end of the season and the playoffs.
This bizarre move is part of an ambitious and potentially groundbreaking strategy. Pitching, more than any other position in sports, remains a complex mix of athleticism, mental focus, and essentially voodoo. Modern science has availed us of high-speed video and biomechanical analysis, methods of studying pitchers that have yielded a thousand theories and proof for just about all and none of them. Pitchers should long toss, or they should throw weighted balls; they should run sprints, and they just have to rub this cream on this area. This incredible uncertainty surely makes pitching a terrible investment. “If you want to make one good major league pitcher, start with 5 prospects,” the saying goes. Teams are willing to let most pitchers throw as long as they are effective and then dispose of the corpses when they are no longer useful.
But most pitchers are not Stephen Strasburg. Most pitchers don’t draw 20,000 extra fans for their major league debut, and 6,000 extra fans every time they pitch. Most pitchers don’t cause a $1.5 million merchandise revenue spike in anticipation of their major league debut. In Strasburg’s first month in the majors his jersey became the best selling Nationals uniform of all time and the best selling jersey of any MLB player for that month. Darren Rovell from ESPN.com estimates that Strasburg generates an extra $225,000 of revenue for every home start. For Strasburg to make two more starts this season would make no financial sense, $500,000 being negligible for an MLB franchise. But that extra revenue for the next ten years? That’s a whole different story.
The most important thing that recent pitching history has taught us is that young arms and lots of innings don’t produce good results, especially when Tommy John surgery (as Strasburg had last year) is in the mix. Young studs like Mark Prior, Francisco Liriano, and Josh Johnson, to name a few, have all had promising careers derailed by injuries that the National’s believe have been caused by overuse. These high profile disasters have hung a dark cloud over high inning counts for young studs. And the Nationals clearly want to avoid the same results.
That is why Strasburg entered this season with a 160 inning limit. The reasoning behind this is that 160 innings appears to be a reasonable inning count for a young pitcher coming off an injury. But while the Nationals intentions have been clear, the science behind their rationale is not. There are no definitive studies saying that 160 is a magical “safe” number of innings for a pitcher in Strasburg’s situation. The most recent example of the strategy succeeding is in teammate Jordan Zimmerman, a fellow hard throwing right hander who had Tommy John at a similar age as Strasburg did. In his first year back last year, Zimmerman threw 160 innings and was shut down; this year he is going strong into the postseason. It appears that the strategy worked for Zimmerman, but what predictive power this has for Strasburg’s arm is murky at best.
Every responsible member of a MLB organization understands the value of protecting arms and every team has different strategies to ensure their players safety. But no team has faced this unique combination of circumstances, where a once in a generation stud pitcher, an uber-prospect, came into the league, exceeded every expectation, and had the good fortune to lead a surprise playoff powerhouse. Perhaps most frustrating of all for the National’s, if the strategy does work out and Strasburg never gets hurt, they will have no way of knowing whether this mandated rest was the reason.
The Nationals have a fantastic problem. They are risking alienating a fan base, losing money, and hindering a legitimate chance to win a World Series, all in the hope that this year of sacrifice will lead to a decade of reward behind one of the best pitchers in the game. And as frustrating as it may be to experience, it should delight any fan to think that this young pitcher could avoid the list of the should-have-been’s and prove that he is the one out five prospects who realizes his full potential.