The main point of discussion over the past few days, namely from the national media, has been the Stephen Strasburg shutdown. Ultimately, as has been reported multiple times, he will be shut down and there will not be a discussion, although the conversation about it will continue well into the offseason. There is however, another Nationals starter who could use a shutdown. One who has been an absolute rock this season and would be sorely missed during a run through the playoffs: Jordan Zimmermann.
In 2011 Jordan threw 161.1 IP over 26 games started, the most he has ever thrown in a season thus far, resulting in an IP/g of in-between 6-6.1. So far this year, Jordan has thrown 151.0 IP and at his current pace of just a hair under 6.1 IP/g, after the 9 starts he has left this regular season, he would be at 208.0 IP. That’s a significant increase in workload, to the tune of a 28.9% increase from his previous career high. Factoring in a postseason run at his current pace could put Jordan at anywhere between 214.1 IP (32.8%) and 246.0 IP (52.5%). Even if he pitches the median number of games, 3, at his current pace you’re looking at 227 IP in 2012 and a 40.7% increase in workload YOY. That seems like a hell of a risk to take.
The most well-known theory on increases in a pitcher’s workload is known as the ‘Verducci Effect’ which postulates that you want to cap increases year-over-year (YOY) at 30 IP. Baseball Prospectus, The Hardball Times, Baseball Analysts and Sabernomics have all argued against this theory. While I don’t particularly agree with the risk being related to a specific number innings, I really do think it has to deal with how tired a pitcher is and if mechanics are suffering as a result. But ultimately, as with any other physical activity, dramatically increasing your workload, be it lifting, running or pitching can put you at a higher risk for injury.
There are plenty of cautionary tales as far as drastically increasing a pitchers workload, some of which don’t even have to come in the form of an injury. Cole Hamels experienced a 44IP (24%) increase in 2008 over 2007 and in 2009 sported what still stand as career worsts in OPS against, WHIP, H/9, ERA, W/L, and ERA+. There have also been several young pitchers on Verducci’s list this year that have found their way to long term DL stints including:
- Michael Piñeda- 22.7% increase in 2011 over 2010, 0 IP in 2012 year due to shoulder injury
- Derrick Holland- 31.4% increase in 2011 over career highs, missed most of June due to a shoulder injury
- Jaime Garcia- 19.2% increase in 2011 over 2010, only 66.1 IP in 2012 due to shoulder injury.
These are just a few of the names that have had issues after a significant increase in workload. That being said, there are a lot of pitchers who have increased their IP’s and not had any issues further down the line. But it would be naïve to think that there is no connection between the two events whatsoever and that the odds of injury or underperformance don’t increase directly in proportion with the workload. Ultimately, my point here isn’t to prove or disprove Verducci’s hypothesis, it’s to ask this one simple question: is it worth rolling the dice on an arm like Jordan Zimmermann’s?
 I am, by no means, saying that the Nats making the playoffs is a lock. I am optimistic, but I will not say it’s a definite until the math tells me it’s a definite.
 This is assuming no tweaking of the rotation on off-days or the addition of a starter once the rosters expand on September 1.
 Minimum games pitched being 1 (Swept in NLDS) and maximum being ~6 (2 in NLDS, 2 in NLCS, 2 in WS).
 Named after MLB Network’s (formerly SI’s) Tom Verducci.
 Also due to a World Series run.