Everybody around baseball has an opinion about the Washington Nationals shutting down Stephen Strasburg. In an election cycle where people talk about all the things we lack in America, nobody suggests there’s an opinion shortage. The Nationals’ general manager, Mike Rizzo, decided long ago that the team would limit Strasburg’s innings this year because he’s coming off Tommy John surgery, and because he’s just 24 years old, and because he’s perhaps the most promising young starter to enter baseball since Mark Prior.
Yes, well, Mark Prior. We’ll get back to him in a minute.
The Strasburg shutdown arrived a few days early; he was supposed to make his last start this coming week, but after a rough outing Friday night, the Nationals decided they had seen enough. They announced that Strasburg is done for the year. This decision is complicated by the fact that the Nationals, at this moment, have the best record in baseball, and our nation’s capital will (almost certainly) have postseason baseball for the first time since 1933, when a team led by Heinie Manush and General Crowder and player/manager Joe Cronin won the American League and promptly got clobbered by the New York Giants in the World Series. In the 25-plus years after that, the Washington Senators were so terrible the only time they won was in the play “Damn Yankees,” and Washington’s unofficial slogan became: “First in war, first in peace, last in the American League.”
The Senators then moved to Minnesota. A new Washington team -- also called the Washington Senators -- began, and they, too, were terrible, despite the rather entertaining and briefly promising era of Ted Williams as manager, and then they moved to Texas. It took more than 40 years for baseball to tear the Expos out of Montreal and bring baseball back to Washington. As you can see, there’s kind of a lot of emotion riding on this Washington team.
So, yes, there are a lot of opinions about Washington shutting down Stephen Strasburg NOW, right now, right at the beginning of the most important seven weeks of baseball in Washington in 80-plus years. Most of these opinions seem to be that the Nationals’ decision-makers have completely lost their minds, though some disagree and think the Nationals are perfectly sane and should therefore be tried and punished to the fullest extent of the law for doing something this fundamentally reprehensible. There is, however, a minority of people who should not be ignored, who believe the Nationals’ management is only mildly stupid and wrongheaded.
Fox’s Tim McCarver has been the most public about his disagreement with the Strasburg shutdown -- I’ve heard him so angry about this decision on broadcasts that he can’t even form words, he just kind of splutters his disbelief. Jim Kaat -- who I think is a great guy and who should be in the Hall of Fame, by the way -- wrote an open letter where he seemed to be telling Strasburg that this is his decision (even though it isn’t) and it’s not the Nationals’ decision (yes it is), and if he wants to pitch then, by gosh, he should pitch (for whom?).
These opinions are what I like to call “Other People’s Money” opinions. They really are the best kind of opinions to have. These would include demanding that an owner spend more money, that a player accept less money to stay, that a college kid stay in school when he might get drafted high, that a GM sign a free agent for a boatload of cash, that an aging star retire rather than soil the fans’ memories. One of the great things about being a fan is getting to have these opinions more or less risk free. I think we all can agree that if the Nationals were to follow what appears to be the majority line, and Strasburg WAS to hurt himself, the only thing any of us could really do as penance is say: “Oops. Hey, my bad.”
Meanwhile, the Nationals could be without their flagship pitcher, Strasburg’s career could be irrevocably damaged, and there aren’t enough “Oops, my bads” in the world to cover for that.
That’s not to say that I think the Nationals are making the right decision. Truth is, I have no idea. Strasburg himself expressed enough frustration and anger at being shut down on Saturday that you get the sense if this WAS his decision, he would pitch. Then again, of course he would. He’s 24 and a furiously competitive ballplayer. I’ve never known one who didn’t want the ball.
Pitchers’ arms are diabolical things. All the efforts to save pitchers’ arms -- the five-man rotation, the unconditional pitch count, the effort to slowly build up innings -- have had what effect? It’s so hard to tell. I’ve seen studies that show pitchers are getting hurt now more than ever, and others that show that pitchers are not getting hurt as much, and there’s probably too much static in any of it to get at much that’s real.
So much of what teams do to protect pitchers seems to me a bit like doing rain dances or throwing fair maidens into volcanoes -- a desperate and hopeful attempt to pacify the God of Ligaments. But these decisions are being made after consulting doctors and poring over mounds of research, so it's possible that these maneuvers are PRECISELY the right way to go. Nobody really seems to know.
Back to Mark Prior -- he was Strasburg before Strasburg. Both were tall and powerful right-handed pitchers from San Diego. They both won the Dick Howser Trophy as best college baseball player while pitching for California colleges. Prior went 15-1 with a 1.69 ERA and 202 strikeouts in 138 innings his junior year at USC. Strasburg went 13-1 with a 1.32 ERA and 195 strikeouts in 109 innings at San Diego State. Prior made nine minor-league starts before joining the Chicago Cubs. Strasburg -- because the Nationals wanted to be more cautious -- made 11 minor-league starts.
Prior might have been the best pitcher in the National League in 2003. He threw 211 innings (way more than ever before, if you buy into such things) and was overpowering. His 2.43 ERA was third in the league, his 245 strikeouts was second (to his supremely talented teammate Kerry Wood) and the Cubs rode him to a first-place finish in the division and, as it would turn out, their closest bid to a World Series appearance since World War II ended. Then, in quick succession, there was the Steve Bartman game (which wasn’t Bartman’s fault), an Achilles tendon injury, a long stay on the disable list, a cracked elbow, a hurt shoulder, a strained oblique, various bouts of tendinitis, and a blindingly promising career that devolved into those sad words “what might have been.”
Would these have happened had the Cubs shut down Prior in the final month of the 2003 season? We don’t know this. What we do know is that there would have been fan assault on Wrigley Field that would have made that scene in “300” look like two neighbors fighting over the hedges.
Mark Prior’s sad story is not a good enough reason for the Nationals to shut down Strasburg, of course. There are plenty of examples, if you want to find them, about young pitchers who threw a lot of innings and had long careers. But here’s the thing: Prior’s example is out there. The Nationals decided long ago that the right thing to do the year after Strasburg had Tommy John surgery was to shut him down. Rizzo and the rest didn’t know then that the Nationals’ success would arrive early, that the team would play inspired baseball for more than five months, that they would have the best record in the game at shutdown time.
But they studied it closely -- very closely -- and determined that shutting him down after 160 or so innings was their best bet to keep him healthy and make certain that he was a part of the Nationals’ future. There are no guarantees. He could get shut down and hurt himself in spring training next year, everybody knows that. But they believed this was their best shot to beat the dire arm-injury odds.
And if Rizzo and Co. believed it was their best bet then, well, then it’s their best bet now, too. Of course, it stinks. Of course old-school baseball people will shout about it. Of course Nationals fans will land somewhere in the range between disappointed and raving mad. Of course many people will say that the Nationals are in position to win, and that changes the dynamic, that means throwing caution to the wind, that means following the unwritten rule of sports: When you have a chance to win you have to go for it.
It should be said, by the way, that the Nationals are still a really good team even without Strasburg. They absolutely could win the pennant anyway, especially if Bryce Harper keeps up the Superman act and the fabulous young rotation keeps pitching like they have all year. The playoffs are a crapshoot -- now more than ever -- and Rizzo has built a team that is dominating the National League much earlier than anyone expected, and these are easy details to forget while all this Strasburg fighting is going on.
I guess the way I see it is this: Rizzo believes this was the right thing to do six months ago, and so it’s the right thing for him and the Nationals to do now. I have no idea how it will work out, and neither does anyone else. It could blow up in Rizzo’s face; the Nationals could blow it this year without Strasburg to steady them and, for whatever reason, never contend again. Then again, the Nationals could win this year anyway, and Strasburg could stay healthy and lead the Nationals into becoming the dominant team of the decade. Or anything in between.
But I’ll tell you what: I respect the heck out of the guy for doing what he believes is right no matter how hot it gets around him. There is no shortage of opinions, no, but only a few of those opinions face real consequences. Mike Rizzo could have done the popular thing and just about everyone would have patted him on the back for it. He decided to do what he believes is right even though he’s getting unmercifully ripped for it. I thought we wanted more of that in Washington, not less.