The Strasburg Shutdown Revisited

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Whenever Strasburg took the mound last season it was known
that the day after would bring a slew of articles about the impending shutdown.
Most in the national media believed that the Nationals were foolish and that
they were squandering a chance for the World Series. Many, and more now, point
to the Nationals Game 5 loss at the hands of Pete Kozma and the Cardinals as
proof that they were right. People inside the beltway are quick to point out
that if Strasburg had started in the playoffs then Ross Detwiler wouldn’t have
and Nationals fans may not have this:

Jayson Werth Homerun Game 4 NLDS from TJ Cooney on Vimeo.

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There are still a number of misconceptions about the Strasburg shutdown. For
one, it was never 160 innings. The fact that it ended up at that point is more
coincidence than anything else. The Nationals never shared what their exact
plan or reasoning was but it isn’t hard to deduce what they were looking at. It
is believed that one of the biggest causes for pitcher injury is a change in
arm slot caused by fatigue. This can be measured by looking at a pitchers
release point during the course of the season. Mike Rizzo could have monitored
this from either Pitch/FX data or by asking Steve McCatty and Davey Johnson to
watch for a change in arm slot and release point. Either way would get the job
done. 

There is some evidence in basic stats
that Strasburg was suffering from fatigue. His average fastball velocity in
August and September dropped from 97.05 in April through July to 96.73. His
control also suffered drastically. In April through July Strasburg had an
average K/BB ratio of 4.67 that dropped to 2.87 in Strasburg’s final seven
starts. There is plenty of evidence that Strasburg was starting to get fatigued
and it is highly probable that an organization as careful as the Nationals had
even more evidence in addition to whatever contact they had with Strasburg’s
surgeon and their own team doctors.

The final misconception about the
Strasburg shutdown is that it was done to prevent future injury. Outside of
never allowing Strasburg to throw another pitch, that cannot be done. The
reason for the shutdown was to limit the risk of re-injury to
Strasburg’s surgically repaired elbow. Think of it like a seat-belt or an
airbag. Their purpose is to limit the risk of injury when you’re in a car
accident. If you were to get into a head on collision with a train no seat-belt
or airbag will save you, but there are very few people who would point to that
as a reason to not wear a seat-belt or own a car with an airbag. Most car
accidents are not head on collisions with trains. Limiting and managing risks
is part of a GM’s job and Mike Rizzo and the Nationals felt that the best way
to limit the risk of re-injury to Strasburg’s elbow was to shut him down.
 

Now because of the shutdown questions
have started to surface as to how many innings Strasburg will pitch in 2013.
Davey Johnson has said he would like Strasburg to be a 200 inning pitcher. That
is good, because an Ace starting pitcher should be a 200 inning pitcher. In
2012 there were 31 pitchers that pitched at least 200 innings ranging from the
238 1/3 of Justin Verlander to the right at 200 of CC Sabathia. The closest the
Nats came was Gio Gonzalez who finished the year at 199 1/3 innings pitched.
Jordan Zimmermann who was similarly shutdown in 2011 managed to clock in at 195
2/3 innings pitched, and in some ways that gives us an idea of how Strasburg
will be handled in 2013.

In 2012 Jordan Zimmermann averaged 97
pitches a game and 6.1 innings pitched, both second highest on the team to Gio
Gonzalez. Strasburg averaged 93 pitches per game and 5.7 innings pitched. In
2011, the year he was shutdown, Zimmermann averaged 95 pitches per outing and
6.2 innings a start. The Nationals were slightly more careful with Strasburg in
his shutdown year than they were with Zimmermann in his, but Strasburg is a
completely different body type and it is a good thing to treat them
differently, but Zimmermann did see an increase in pitches per outing from 2011
to 2012, and it can be reasoned that Strasburg will see a similar reasonable
increase.  

The Strasburg shutdown is always going
to be one of the first things talked about when the Nats are mentioned. They
could win the next ten World Series and some expert somewhere will say that
they should have won eleven. The Strasburg shutdown will haunt the Nationals
franchise and nothing can be done to get rid of it. Those that thought it a
mistake will always think that and those that see the reason and logic behind
it will be drowned out by the screaming masses. Even now as the Reds prepare to
move forward with Chapman in the rotation and a shutdown of their own, the
Nationals cannot escape the voices that say nothing like this has ever happened
in the game of baseball.

How many innings Strasburg pitches in 2013 is
largely going to be determined by how he pitches, much like it would for any
other major league starting pitcher. If Strasburg is at 190 innings with two
starts left and the Nats in a tight race with the Braves then he will pitch
those last two games. 200 innings isn’t a limit, it is a goal, and the only Strasburg
shutdown in 2013 will be of the NL.

5 comments

  1. I can’t believe that we’re still talking about the Strasburg Limit. Back when we were first talking about the Strasburg Limit, I mentioned that the organization has a stated policy of limiting young pitchers to 120% of their previous maximum innings pitched–and noted that following that formula, Strasburg would probably pitch between 148 and 160 innings: http://natstradamus.wordpress.com/2012/07/13/taking-strasburg-to-the-limit/ He pitched 159.1–two outs away from a 130% increase. That was surprising in and of itself.In my 2013 projections, I used the 120% increase rule to project that Strasburg would pitch around 190 innings this season. http://natstradamus.wordpress.com/2013/02/18/projecting-the-2013-nationals-extra-innings/What gets lost in all of this is that in 2012, only 27 National League starting pitchers pitched more than 190 innings. Only 18 NL starters pitched at least 200 innings. It’s as if the folks who hyperventilate about the Strasburg Limit think that every starting pitcher should be Old Hoss Radbourn, who pitched 509.1 innings for the 1886 Boston Beaneaters. A quick look around the league will show that even a 200 inning target for Strasburg is optimistic–and that 190 isn’t all that bad.

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    1. I think a lot of it is selective memory. Now everyone only remembers the star pitchers who were freaks of nature and could through huge amounts of innings without too many adverse effects. Nobody remembers the countless others who were ruined by such disregard for how much a pitcher was used. With what we know now not doing what the Nats have done with Strasburg would be reckless and irresponsible. Let the idiots yearn for a made-up memory of manly pasts, while the Nats continue to be prudent.

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    2. I think it is selective memory. Now people only remember the stars who were freaks of nature and could withstand throwing large amounts of innings. Nobody remembers the countless others who were ruined by such treatment. With what we know now if the Nats didn’t do with Strasburg what they did, they would’ve been irresponsible and reckless. Let the idiots yearn for an imaginary manlier time, while the Nats continue to be prudent.

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  2. Perhaps the better question at this point is what changes in usage will Davey/Rizzo use to keep Stras from potentially showing similair fatigue when he gets to the 160-190 range in September of ’13. Davey doesn’t like to mess with guys routine, so I doubt we’ll see anything drastic.

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    1. Same thing they did with Jordan Zimmermann. He was taken out early in a number of starts when he was only at 80-95 pitches. Strasburg may be treated the same or he may not be. The number of innings he pitches is going to in many ways be entirely up to him. If he is throwing free and easy in the sixth inning of a 2-1 game he pitches the seventh. Strasburg is going to make 33 starts and if he averages 6.06 innings a start then he is throwing 200 innings. He averaged 5.7 last season and at that average he is at 188 innings. Strasburg has it in him to be a six or seven inning a night pitcher. At some point in time the Nats are going to have to let him pitch big boy innings and treat him no differently than the Tigers treat Verlander or the Yankees Sabathia. Let how he pitches in each of his 33 games be the ultimate indicator of how many innings he pitches.

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