Everybody has an opinion about what to do with Washington pitcher Stephen Strasburg, including his teammates. One of them told me last weekend, "If you're going to limit his innings, they should make him the closer now. Can you imagine how his stuff would play one inning at a time?" Others have suggested the Nationals should have begun his season a month later, essentially deferring the five starts he made in April for late September and the postseason.
It has become a great American parlor game: What would you do with Strasburg? No offense to the gamers, but it holds just as much seriousness and credibility as Charades or 20 Questions.
The one man actually making the decision on Strasburg, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, has given exhaustive study to innings workloads for young pitchers, in particular those coming off Tommy John surgery. He also knows better than anybody Strasburg and his medical history, his mechanics and his makeup.
Five months ago Rizzo put a plan in place to limit Strasburg to about 160-170 innings. It wasn't something he invented for Strasburg. "It's something we've done with six or seven guys, including Jordan Zimmermann," Rizzo said, "and we think it's worked well."
Five months later, the Nationals have the best record in baseball and Strasburg, 23, has struck out batters at a higher rate than anybody this young except Dwight Gooden and Kerry Wood. The easy thing for Rizzo to do working in a town that hasn't seen the World Series since 1933 is to scrap the plan and just keep handing Strasburg the ball -- running up about 220 devil-may-care innings if Washington made the World Series. This is what the Cubs did with Mark Prior in 2003, and his career never was the same. Rizzo's other option would be to invent a plan on the fly, such as shutting down Strasburg and ramping him back up for October or using his last innings out of the back of the bullpen.
It all sounds so easy, until you understand the study Rizzo has put into this and that we really are talking about a human with a $200 million career in front of him, not the simple mathematics of innings. The fact is that Strasburg, like most starting pitchers, is a routine-oriented, highly trained athlete. He also employs mechanics and high-velocity stuff that put him in a high-risk group to begin with. (His late load, in which the baseball is not well above his shoulder at front foot strike, is reminiscent of how Prior threw.) He's not the kind of pitcher or asset to subject to an off-the-cuff plan now that the Nationals are winning. Recent development failures of Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, Daniel Bard and Neftali Feliz speak to the difficulty of changing roles for young pitchers.
"I'm taking the decision out of [manager] Davey Johnson's hands and out of Stephen Strasburg's hands," Rizzo said.
I was one on board with the innings limit but believed the Nationals would be more judicious in using those 170 innings, similar to what Detroit did in 2009 with 20-year-old Rick Porcello. The Tigers pitched Porcello all season -- including a 163rd game, a tiebreaker at Minnesota -- but gave him extra rest 14 times, including a 15-day break in July. He finished with 31 starts, 170 1/3 innings, an ERA+ of 114, and was healthy and throwing the ball well on Oct. 6.
Since that big age 20 season, though, Porcello is 33-31 with a 4.75 ERA, the sixth-worst ERA among pitchers in that span with at least 70 starts. His ERA+ is 88. The Nationals included him in their case study.
Strasburg will make his next start Friday against Miami (his last start this year at home) and his final start Sept. 12 in New York. He will have made all of his last 15 starts on normal four days rest -- no extra days. He will finish with 29 starts and about 169 innings, or just about the same workload as Porcello, but without the accommodations.
Strasburg threw the ball great in his most recent start, providing six shutout innings against St. Louis Sunday. But over the past two months, the Nationals have noticed slight signs of normal wear on Strasburg. There has been more inconsistency, for instance, especially with being wild in the strike zone and in getting swings and misses off his fastball. They have noticed in a few starts how Strasburg's followthrough sent him farther off line toward first base, an indication that he was supplying more effort to generate velocity. Nothing major, but just normal start-to-start inconsistency you find with a guy whose elbow was rebuilt.
"Last year it was up and down for me pretty much all year," Zimmermann said. "Guys told me to expect that. This year I've felt good all year. There's a big difference."
While Strasburg gets all the attention, Washington needs to keep an eye on Zimmermann, 26. He has made only six September starts in his career and passed his innings high in his last start while seeming to hit a wall. Over his past four starts Zimmermann is 0-2 with a 7.91 ERA while allowing a .349 batting average.
The Nationals can win the World Series without Strasburg -- they are that good and balanced of a baseball team. But they can't win it without Strasburg and Zimmermann -- at least the Zimmermann of the first four months. Gio Gonzalez is the true ace of the staff because he can take the ball deep into games. Edwin Jackson is a workhorse, but an unreliable postseason starter (four postseason starts: 5.60 ERA and an average of 4 1/3 innings per start). Ross Detwiler is a solid fourth starter in a postseason series.
Zimmermann, like Strasburg, is only a six-inning pitcher. At 26 years old he has faced only six batters in his major league career after the seventh inning. Since July 8, Zimmermann and Strasburg have pitched six innings or less 19 times in 20 starts.
When I asked Johnson about his use of young starting pitchers, he pointed out how changes in how pitchers are developed have changed how the major league game is played. The Nationals, he said, like most teams, use strict pitch counts on minor league starters -- starting around 75 and getting them to 90 before they are considered major league ready. A pitcher literally is trained, both physically and mentally, to be a six-inning pitcher. The graduate school training -- to get a starter to face lineups a third or fourth time around -- takes another year or two on the major league level.
In these graduate school years Johnson has proved to be adept in the training. For instance, he will get a young pitcher out of a game after a strong sixth inning even with a decent pitch count rather than risk a poor seventh inning that puts a negative spin on his outing.
It is hard to argue with Johnson's track record. As Mets manager in 1986 he won 108 games, with 104 of those wins credited to pitchers in their 20s. All of them went on to long careers with few injuries to arms or elbows, including Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, Bobby Ojeda, Sid Fernandez, Rick Aguilera, Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco.
How far the Nationals advance in the postseason will depend heavily on their bullpen, which has the fifth best ERA in the league and has thrown more innings than any NL club except those wacky Rockies.
Strasburg will watch all of the excitement from the dugout with his jacket and sneakers on and contribute nothing despite full health. It will be an odd sight, but one created by careful study to try to do best by Strasburg.
Here are some of the other case studies involving Tommy John patients that the Nationals considered:
• Jamie Garcia. The Cardinals shut down Garcia, then 23 years old, on Sept. 13, 2010 -- his first full season after Tommy John surgery -- with 163 1/3 innings. Nobody noticed because St. Louis stood 7 ½ games out of a wild card spot. The next season the Cardinals won the World Series while pushing Garcia to 220 1/3 innings, a huge jump in innings that I predicted put him at risk this year. Garcia broke down with shoulder trouble, has a 4.52 ERA and doesn't look like the same pitcher.
• Josh Johnson. The Marlins allowed the 25-year-old Johnson to throw 209 innings in 2009, his first full season after Tommy John surgery. (He had made 14 starts after coming back the previous season.) Johnson pitched well the next season before breaking down late with back trouble, then broke down with shoulder trouble last year, and this year has a 3.86 ERA and a declining strikeout rate. He doesn't look like the same guy.
• Francisco Liriano. The Twins let Liriano make 34 starts (minors included) and throw 199 1/3 innings in 2008, his first full season after Tommy John surgery. He was 24 years old. Since then Liriano is 33-44 with a 4.78 ERA. He doesn't look like the same pitcher who dominated in 2006.
Those are just a few examples from the many cases Rizzo studied. Many pitchers make it back from Tommy John surgery just fine. What is relevant here is that we're talking about someone who is 23 years old and doesn't have a strong foundation of innings under his belt.
"He's never thrown more than about 123 innings," Rizzo said. "If this is Tim Hudson, a guy coming off Tommy John with years of development, that's something different entirely."
Rizzo deserves credit for protecting the pitcher and for taking full responsibility for the decision. It's truly a modern decision, one made with the kind of awareness, statistical study and medical information that wasn't in play in 2003 when the 22-year-old Prior ran up 234 2/3 innings, a 67-inning increase from the previous season. Maybe it's true, as Padres GM Josh Byrnes likes to point out, that the more we learn about pitching development the more complicated it becomes. What becomes known enlightens the vastness of what is unknown.