Much has been discussed about the ‘premature’ shutdown of Stephen Strasburg, as the Nationals head into the last month of the regular season with a commanding lead over the Atlanta Braves for the top spot in the NL East. I won’t inundate you with links for the thoughts, and opinions of many who have weighed in on the matter; a bit of googling or 30 seconds of listening in to the sports talk radio show of your liking will give you all of the fodder you need to keep abreast of the situation. In the end, the decision to keep Strasburg at what many consider to be a pedestrian 160ish innings for the season, postseason be damned, rests with but a handful of people; those people will continue to toe the company line, and say that this decision was done with the best of intentions, not only for Strasburg, but for the collective futures of those affiliated with the Nationals.
While Mike Rizzo, Davey Johnson, and in some respects, super-agent Scott Boras bear the brunt of the decision-making, and the vitriol revolving around ending Strasburg’s season, there remains one other person implicated, with of an opinion that bears enough weight to be considered in full, and the only man of this brain trust that has experienced the mental and physical dilemmas that predicate the decision to shut down Washington’s ace.
Steve McCatty, more than most, can and will vouch for the need for a franchise to protect the arms of their pitchers, not only as a pitching coach, but also as someone who wishes to prevent history repeating itself – his own. While known now as the no-nonsense mustachioed pitching coach, and a man who has nurtured and re-energized the careers of many a Nats pitcher, he himself was a pitcher, and one who enjoyed success, albeit fleetingly. A member of the Oakland A’s in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s, during the reign of Billy Martin, McCatty was part of a feared starting rotation that embodied, and fell victim to, BillyBall.
The early 80’s provided a renaissance of sorts for Oakland baseball, and McCatty was an integral part of this rejuvenation. As much joy as the early ’70s A’s teams brought the East Bay in the form of 3 World Series titles from 1972-74, the late 1970’s brought as much anguish, culminating in a harrowing 54-108 record in the ’79 season. However, as with any managerial changing of the guard, and of a philosophy, growing pains will prevail, and prevail they did under the helm of Martin.
The ’79 season gave way to a hopeful 83-79 1980 season, which then brought a great, albeit shortened 1981 season for the A’s, not only due to a player’s strike, but a poor showing in the American League Championship Series, seeing the A’s being swept by the New York Yankees.
Coinciding with this resurgence of winning in Oakland was the progress and apex of McCatty’s pitching prowess. Aside from a handful of innings in 1977 and 1978, Cat’s career didn’t really take off until the ’79 season, which saw him jump from 75 innings pitched in the majors and minors in ’78 to 205.2 innings pitched between Oakland, and AAA Ogden in ’79. After ending the ’79 season with an 11-12 record, good for 19% of the A’s win total that year, McCatty’s innings saw about a 175% increase from 1978. Just looking at his MLB numbers for those two years, Cat saw an 828% increase in workload. Take into consideration the Nationals policy for increasing a pitcher’s workload during the formative years, and the numbers further astound.
While his workload increase from ’79 to 1980 was a more tolerable 7%, and more in line with the natural progression of a young starter maturing into his role as a top flight starter, the wear and tear that BillyBall brought to the arms of the A’s was starting to show. However, McCatty soldiered on, and was rewarded with a fantastic 1981 season, which saw the A’s take the AL West, and McCatty go 14-7, good for a second place finish in AL Cy Young Award voting. He did this to the tune of 185.1 innings pitched, which at first glance, isn’t that much. However, given the strike shortened season, this is deceiving. Were it not for the strike, McCatty was on pace for a 20 win season, with around 250 innings pitched, assuming a typical starter making 30 starts in a season.
That’s not all that was impressive about his 1981 season. For ’81, Cat averaged over 8 innings PER START, with an astounding 16 of his 22 starts completed. 16 complete games, with two of his starts seeing him go 10 innings. This was par for the course for Oakland pitchers under the BillyBall philosophy, and it served them well…for two years.
As the calendar turned over to a new year and baseball season, the A’s saw their good fortunes of 1981 fizzle away in 1982 – a 68-94 record, and arm injuries to the starters signified the beginning of the end. As his fastball velocity went down, so did McCatty’s innings. Acknowledging pitching through pain most of those halcyon years, and those following them, Cat became nothing more than a junkballer after 1981, getting by on changing speeds, and veteran guile, his once mighty fastball all but a memory, post 1981.
In the end, McCatty’s promising career careened to a halt in 1986, spending most of his remaining years and innings as a reliever, and mop up man, his days of almost Cy Young caliber dominance exactly that – days past. No one remembers who came in second, and that point is driven home when it’s your middle reliever holding that uncrowned achievement.
Time heals all wounds, and to this day, Steve McCatty doesn’t speak ill of how Billy Martin used him or the rest of the pitching staff during his days as an Oakland Athletic. He was paid to pitch, and that’s exactly what he did, to the detriment of the team in the end, and to the detriment of his arm, and baseball legacy.
The siren song of taking your horse and using him in a maximal fashion each start is alluring, but the rocks off of the shore of championships, and the glory bestowed upon those who achieve it, are too craggy to navigate without an unfailing compass of knowledge, which is lacking when it comes to the handling of post Tommy John surgery hurlers.
The Nationals have not been there yet, to set foot on the sandy beaches of World Series glory, but the shore is in their sights for the first time in their voyage as DC’s team. There is much to be said about being in the always troubling position of being the one who sets a precedent, be it successful, or a warning to others to not follow in their footsteps.; this is the position that the Nationals find themselves in, and their every move along their course to the postseason without Steven Strasburg is being eyed with hawk-like acuity by others.
The desire to be first is all-encompassing, but it should not be at the cost of the livelihood of any player, his long-term health, and his career. Steve McCatty has tread these waters before, and drowned in the vortex of winning now, at all costs, all hands and arms on deck. One can only hope that his career provides enough of a warning to Washington to stay true to the course they have set out on, as the siren sings on.