This is an instance where competition smacks up against the advancements in analytical data and medical knowledge. It's good to hear Nationals GM Mike Rizzo add that there is also room in this decision for the "eye test" to decide when to shut down Strasburg. There is no "magic number" and no "right" answer, other than it's worth acknowledging that Washington deserves credit (even if you disagree with the club) for looking after the player.
But also keep this in mind: as long as Washington is using teammate and fellow Tommy John patient Jordan Zimmermann as the template, you should know that Strasburg could, in his next start Tuesday in Miami, reach the total pitches Zimmermann threw last year when the Nats shut him down. Strasburg (2,359 pitches) is only 105 short of where Washington stopped Zimmermann (2,464).
Now think about how much the game has evolved in just nine years. In 2003, the Chicago Cubs were the Washington Nationals (they hadn't seen the playoffs in five years and hadn't won a postseason series since 1908) and Mark Prior was Stephen Strasburg. The Cubs were riding a young, strong ace, who was pitching his first full major league season. Prior turned 23 that September; Strasburg turned 24 last month.
By Sept. 1, Prior had thrown 167 2/3 innings and 2,644 pitches. The Cubs were 69-66 and 2 ½ games out of first place. The idea of limiting Prior's innings wasn't considered by the Cubs or anybody in baseball.
And so Prior took the ball on Sept. 1. He was leading 6-0 after five innings and 7-0 after six innings. He pitched eight innings and threw 131 pitches.
Beginning with that start and through three postseason starts, Prior averaged 125 pitches in the last nine starts of his first full season. Four times in those last nine starts did Prior throw more than 130 pitches.
Here's some perspective on what it means to exceed 130 pitches four times in nine starts. Only two pitchers have exceeded 130 pitches four times in the nine years since then: Livan Hernandez (10) and Jason Schmidt (4).
Prior changed the game. He never was the same after throwing 234 2/3 innings and 3,769 pitches in 2003. After that he went 18-17 with a 4.27 ERA in only 329 innings because of a series of injuries. The industry began to consider in-game pitch limits and season innings limits. It learned through medical studies that the two biggest contributing factors to arm injuries are overuse and poor mechanics. (Strasburg also has the same mechanical flaw as Prior, getting the ball above his shoulder after his front foot lands, though his late load has been less pronounced post-surgery.)
If Strasburg were born nine years earlier, he would be pitching without restrictions, as Prior did. But the game has evolved. The two biggest, most high profile influences on starting pitching usage in the modern era are Billy Martin and Prior -- Martin for burning out his 1980 Oakland rotation, which caused managers to cut back on innings and complete games, and Prior for breaking down after 2003, which caused teams to protect expensive pitching investments under the "saving bullets" philosophy, in which pitches and innings are carefully counted. The game, and Strasburg, are better for it.
Two major league players get busted for juicing within a week and the reaction from fellow ballplayers to having their reputations sullied by way of association was . . . well, good luck finding anything stronger than "disappointment." The outrage and calls for stricter penalties came from retired players (such as Johnny Bench), managers (Kirk Gibson, whose Diamondbacks got waxed by Ryan Braun's Brewers last year and trail Melky Cabrera's Giants this year) and media.
Outrage from active players? Forget it.
When Cabrera and Bartolo Colon, each having a bounceback to their careers, are revealed as PED users, they taint not only their careers but also their profession. It's understandable how a casual fan might see the choices of Cabrera and Colon and wonder about other players with breakout or bounceback seasons. For instance, I thought about the collateral damage to a guy such as Reds outfielder Ryan Ludwick, who at age 34 has hit 25 home runs and posted a .908 OPS, the second-best such numbers of his career after just 13 homers and a .647 OPS last year.
"It's frustrating to think people who don't know me might question me because of what others do," Ludwick said. "I'll take a test every day if I have to."
For the record, Ludwick's numbers were crushed by Petco Park in San Diego last year and such a deep mechanical funk in Pittsburgh that he said he could not hit the ball to the right side of the field even in soft toss. Having reworked his stance and approach, he is back to producing near his 2008 big year in St. Louis.
But after talking to Ludwick and other players, I realized I shouldn't expect ballplayers to speak out on behalf of the clean players. Battling public perception is a fight not worth the energy, attention and, let's face it, the scorn of other players. You don't step out of line on an issue not of your doing. As one All-Star told me, "It's just the culture of the game. Every workplace has a certain culture, just like yours."
"Maybe someday we'll have stiffer penalties," Ludwick said. "But even with stiffer penalties there are always going to be some guys who will try to get around the rules. It's always been that way, especially with the money at stake. But I will say that when guys are caught, I think it's also a sign that our system is working. And that's a good thing."
Synthetic testosterone administered trans-dermally is a cutting edge problem in all sports, but it's hard to find anybody in baseball who agrees with BALCO mastermind Victor Conte that half the major league players are using banned drugs. That would mean about 500 players are juicing and only five have been caught? One reason that "failure" rate seems so unlikely is because of what the players call the thoroughness of the testing.
Here's just one example from one player: he said he has been tested as many as six times this season, both before games and after games, both at home and on the road, and always in the direct presence of a specimen collector, including one time, because of a bowel condition, in which he had to be seated in an open bathroom stall.
Another time, a player took a bathroom break in the seventh inning of a game, only to be chosen after the game to provide a urine sample. It took so long to provide the sample the player had to send his family home rather than wait on him. It also caused the player to impose a new rule for himself: no more bathroom breaks from the seventh inning on. You just never know when the collector will call your name after the game.