The Washington Nationals currently have the best record in baseball (85-53) and all the amenities that go with it: a 6.5 game lead in the NL East and the potential for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. They are also exhibiting all the proper signs of an elite team: a stacked pitching staff that ranks 1st in the NL in ERA and runs allowed, which mixes perfectly with their 4th ranked offense. Playoff baseball in Washington is nearly a guarantee this year (99% chance on Baseball Prospectus) for the first time since 1933, when the Senators fell in the World Series to the New York Giants in 5 games. So why are the Nats shutting down the fireballing Stephen Strasburg? Who’s going to take his spot? Is it a good idea? And could Washington have done anything differently to keep him available for October baseball?
First things first, if Washington wants their best 4 pitchers to start in the playoffs, shutting down Stephen Strasburg is detrimental to that idea, but maybe not as much as you would think. Washington has a deep, talented pitching staff, but no starting pitcher in baseball is more proficient at striking batters out (11.1 K’s per 9) than the 1st overall pick from 2009. Power pitchers, particularly strikeout pitchers, tend to have a greater amount of success in the playoffs, so even though Washington’s staff is so deep, his loss will still hurt.
The postseason staff will be led by Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann who have been excellent this season, with each pitcher posting an ERA+ of 134, well above the league average of 101 this year. Gonzalez in particular has been dominant in his 1st year in the National League, striking out more than a batter per inning (185 K’s in 175.1 innings). He’s also been damn near unhittable, allowing the fewest hits per 9 innings in baseball (6.8 per 9 innings) as well as the fewest homeruns per 9 of any starter.
Edwin Jackson will slot in nicely to the #3 spot, bringing his solid peripherals (8.1 K/9 inn, 1.173 WHIP, 3.63 ERA) and playoff experience from a year ago as a St. Louis Cardinal and from 2008 as a Tampa Bay Ray. Wentzville Holt High School alumnus Ross Detwiler will more than likely take over the 4th spot, and his performance this year has been solid as well. Detwiler has a 3.15 ERA in 140 innings pitched even with a more pedestrian 5.5 K’s per 9 innings. He’s excelled this year at moving the ball around the strike zone while keeping it in the stadium. As you can see, this is still a strong staff, which should make Washington’s brass feel a little better about the shutdown, which may be the right move in the long run.
GM Mike Rizzo and his staff have done a ton of research and they are attempting to make the most informed, correct decision they can. Remember, Strasburg had Tommy John surgery a year-and-a-half ago, and he’s never thrown more than 123 innings professionally, and players who make too large of an innings jump are at risk for injury. Stephen Strasburg isn’t the only pitcher they’ve used this plan on either, just the first one who’s deeply entrenched in a playoff race. Jordan Zimmermann, another pitcher who had Tommy John, was shut down just one year ago at a similar inning limit of 161.1. Other big league teams are doing the same as well. The Chicago Cubs are shutting down Jeff Samardzija after his next start, a decision that draws very little media fire when your 20 games out of a playoff spot.
It takes guts to decide to shut your best pitcher down, and if nothing else, you have to give Mike Rizzo credit for sticking with his plan. As Rizzo said in an interview recently with ESPN, “I’ve thought about what I could have done differently and how I could have handled it differently,” Rizzo said. “I was always taught, ‘Be frank and forthright, and tell the truth and everything will be OK.’ We told the truth going as far back as last winter. There was never any deception over what we were going to do and when we were going to do it. I felt that was the right way.”
The Nationals have invested a lot of money, and would like to invest a lot more in the future of their ace, which makes this an easy decision for the front office. If Strasburg were to throw another 4 regular season starts along with a conservative 2 playoff starts he would be staring down 200 total innings, a massive jump in workload. The Nationals just cannot afford that type of risk, because player’s who blow their arms out a 2nd time become much, much less likely to return to the big leagues (i.e. Mark Prior).
So why didn’t the Nationals skip Strasburg’s turn in the rotation a couple of times, a la Chris Sale? Or why didn’t they use the Kris Medlen plan, which would have had Strasburg beginning the year in long relief before being stretched out to start? The answer lies in routine. The Nationals are adamant that their ace stick to a normal Major League work routine, one which has a pitcher take his turn in the rotation every 5th game. Their hope is that Strasburg will develop into the kind of ace that can throw 200+ innings a year, and the franchises belief is that it takes a measured amount of patience to get a pitcher to that level.
The next month and a half of baseball will be very revealing in Washington. The rest of the pitching staff may pick up the slack and Strasburg’s absence may go unnoticed while the offense continues their 2nd half roll. Or the pitching staff may come unhinged just enough to allow Atlanta or San Francisco or Cincinnati or any number of NL contenders to take the Nats down in a short series. That’s the beauty of baseball, we just don’t know if this was the right decision yet.