Are The Washington Nationals Justified In Shutting Down Stephen Strasburg?

By Mark Hock

The Washington Nationals are in an impossible situation with Stephen Strasburg. The 23 year old ace is without a doubt the best player on a loaded Nats squad. However, Strasburg is coming off Tommy John surgery and Washington wants to limit the number of innings pitched. It’s a reasonable decision, one that focuses on protecting the long term health of Strasburg even at the cost of this season. They’ve received a lot of criticism for the move, as it’s unfathomable that a team would shut down their best player when they have a shot at winning the World Series. Are the Nationals making a huge mistake by shutting down Strasburg?

One can’t fault the Nats for shutting down Strasburg. The bottom line is that he’s coming off a major surgery, and his body simply cannot handle throwing 200 innings at this point. This situation is unprecedented, and it’s impossible to know whether shutting Strasburg down is the right move. The smart play is to keep Strasburg on a reasonable innings limit, giving his body the opportunity to recover so you can unleash him in 2013.

This isn’t the first young pitcher the Nats have guided through the recovery process of a Tommy John surgery. Jordan Zimmermann had Tommy John surgery back in 2010, and the Nats limited his innings to 160 in 2011. This year he’s been even better, posting a 3.01 ERA. While each pitcher and every situation is different, Zimmermann is a good example of how shutting a pitcher down early after a major surgery can be the best move for the long term health and success for both the team and the player.

While we can’t really fault the Nationals for shutting down Strasburg, that doesn’t mean they made the right move. If they delayed Strasburg’s start to the season by having him in extended spring training or in the minors, they could have controlled his innings better so that he would not have reached his innings total by the middle of September. If they had built up his innings slowly, Strasburg would have had a lower innings total which would have allowed him to pitch in the playoffs.

There’s no guarantee that the Nationals would be where they are without Strasburg. However, the Nats have a very strong rotation even without Stras. They would have even had a replacement starter for him in John Lannan, a pitcher who has shown he can hold his own in the majors. While he’s never posted a strong strikeout to walk ratio, and his advanced stats aren’t very good, he does have a career 3.99 ERA and likely would have been an effective fill in until Strasburg would have hypothetically returned sometime in May.

While the Nationals are probably doing the right thing in shutting down Strasburg, it’s clear that they made a mistake with regards to his innings limit this season. Given how difficult it is to win a World Series, a team with an opportunity to win one should do everything it can to make sure they can go deep into the playoffs. The Atlanta Braves won the division 14 times in a row, but they only had one World Series to show for it. For all we know, this could be that one Nationals team that had a shot at winning the World Series – and by shutting down Strasburg, they’re preventing their best player from giving them a shot at winning the title.

 On the season Strasburg is 15-6, leading the league in strikeouts among starters (11.2 K/9, or 195 in 156 2/3 innings pitched) and posting a fantastic 2.94 ERA. 

Follow me on Twitter at Mark_Hock for news and analysis about Major League Baseball.

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