Stephen Strasburg, who leads the National League in strikeouts and sits in the top five in most measures of pitching value, is edging ever closer to his shutdown date. Despite pitching for a team that holds the largest division lead in the National League and possesses a 9½-game lead on "playoff position," the ace righthander can see the end of his season on the horizon.
The Nationals, in a policy voiced by general manager Mike Rizzo, determined at the start of the season that Strasburg's usage would be limited to protect his arm, and more recently set that usage limit at 180 innings. With Strasburg sitting at 133 2/3 innings and averaging roughly six innings per start, that means he has about eight starts left before his season ends -- no matter how much time his teammates have left in theirs.
The merits of Washington's plan
Right now, the Nationals are the clear favorite in the NL East and will be one of the top contenders once the postseason rolls around, and neither of those things is sure to be the case in subsequent years, no matter how bright the futures of Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Gio Gonzalez and the rest of their core. Flags fly forever, and voluntarily reducing your chance to raise one because you believe you'll get more chances is hubris. The baseball gods do love to have their way with hubris.
Let's leave the debate for now, though, and look at Strasburg's usage. If the pitcher's limit was to be measured in innings, why did the Nationals never act as if that were the case? After all, it's been evident since the middle of May that they were exceeding expectations, and since at least June that they had to be taken seriously -- to take themselves seriously -- as contenders. With that in mind, where was the aggressive approach to ensuring that Strasburg's 180 innings would include full usage in September and October? At no point have the Nationals skipped a Strasburg start, as the Tigers did with 20-year-old Rick Porcello in 2009. At no point have they exaggerated a minor injury to allow him some time on the DL. Strasburg has started 23 times for a team on its 24th time through the rotation -- and he'll make his 24th start Wednesday in San Francisco.
Moreover, while manager Davey Johnson has been fairly aggressive about taking Strasburg out of games, he could have been more aggressive. Strasburg has faced more than 27 batters just once all season -- and in that case, he faced 28. Strasburg has exceeding 100 pitches just 10 times and 110 pitches just twice. He has often been removed from games despite pitching well and having low pitch counts: five times he's been lifted having allowed one or fewer runs with fewer than 95 pitches thrown.
Even so, there were wasted opportunities. Consider Friday night in Arizona, when Strasburg was allowed to bat with the Nats up 4-1 in the top of the seventh with two on and two out. Not only would sending up a pinch-hitter have improved their chance of scoring, but it would have saved Strasburg from pitching a relatively low-leverage inning. There are other examples -- June 8 at Fenway, July 20 against the Braves, July 25 against the Mets -- where Strasburg tacked on an inning in a situation where the difference between him pitching and not pitching made very little difference to the Nationals' chance of winning the game.
If you're going to limit a pitcher by his innings totals, you're obliged to ensure that he doesn't waste those frames. These are the Nationals rules, not mine, and by their rules, Strasburg could have saved enough innings this year to lock in one more start. That may not sound like much, but if you're the Giants, possibly headed for a showdown with Ross Detwiler rather than Strasburg in the Division Series, it's a massive difference.
There's nothing Washington can do now to lower that 133 2/3 innings count. The question now is leveraging those last 46 1/3. With a 5½-game lead in the division, the Nationals should be managing Strasburg with an eye towards having him available in the NL Division Series -- and playing things by ear from that point forward.
To do this doesn't require much. After Strasburg makes his start Wednesday, the team can either DL him -- it's been said that any starting pitcher can be found to have sufficient damage to warrant a short DL stay -- or merely skip his next start, recalling John Lannan to pitch in his stead on the 20th against the Braves (or in the prior series, against the Mets, so as to let the team's better starters pitch against Atlanta). Strasburg can return to the rotation during the team's road trip to Philadelphia and Miami, and beginning September 1, the Nats can take advantage of the expanded rosters -- and their strong No. 6 starter in Lannan -- to use a six-man rotation in the season's final month.
With this mild manipulation and continued careful management by Johnson, Strasburg would make about seven starts the rest of the season and be under the 180-inning mark at season's end, leaving him able to start Game 2 of the Division Series after Jordan Zimmermann. At that point, the Nationals would be free to evaluate Strasburg's availability on an ad hoc basis for each postseason series, weighing the risk of additional work against his contributions to winning the NLCS and the World Series. The important thing now is to make sure that Strasburg doesn't exhaust his arbitrary eligibility before even getting to the Division Series.
These are the Nationals' rules, not mine, but if they're going to lay them down, it's incumbent upon them to follow them in a way that is fair not only to Stephen Strasburg, but to Strasburg's teammates, to the Nationals' organization and to their fans.