Have Nationals Handled Stephen Strasburg Perfectly?

Stephen Strasburg #37 of the Washington Nationals pitches against the Miami Marlins at Nationals Park in Washington, DC. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

We've heard a lot of things this season about Stephen Strasburg's innings limit, but one thing hasn't changed: If the Nationals are in the World Series, their ace won't be pitching for them.

If you're interested in pitchers, or Stephen Strasburg, or the Washington Nationals, or the National League, or Major League Baseball, or baseball, or sports, or the whole danged enchilada, the first thing you should read do is Jayson Stark's long piece about shutting Stephen Strasburg down after (approximately) 160 innings.

Did I mention it's long? I will wait.

Cool, thanks.

That's as full an accounting of this situation as you will find, or are likely to find until someone who works for the Nationals finally opens up and explains exactly why they believe that exactly 160 innings is the right innings limit for their phenomenally young hurler. You know, as opposed to 155 innings or 165 innings or, just to shoot the moon, 180 innings.

But if you don't have the "time" to read Jayson's piece, let me summarize ... There are doctors who are encouraged by the Nationals' caution with Strasburg, who underwent Tommy John Surgery last year. Those same doctors can't say that throwing just 160 innings this season will lower the chance that Strasburg will be injured again. The Nationals claim to have studied the matter backwards and forwards, but of course they're not going to let us see their output.

And so here we stand, with Strasburg set to pitch his last inning sometime in September, after which he'll watch his team try to finish its run to a postseason berth, then win Washington, D.C.'s first World Championship since 1924.

I admire the Nationals' caution, too. I hate it when pitchers get hurt. But from the beginning, I've been wondering about this:

We spoke with one longtime pitching coach who didn't want to be quoted, because Stephen Strasburg isn't his player. This coach is all for innings limits, all for pitch counts, all for watching ALL pitchers carefully to keep them all as healthy as possible. But why, he wondered, aren't the Nationals working to control Strasburg's innings now so he'll be available later, when the games matter most?

"I appreciate the fact that they're being mindful of protecting their players," he said. "I just think there are more creative ways they can do this."

We consider this man to be one of the most thoughtful pitching coaches in the game, and one who has a long track record of keeping pitchers relatively healthy. But one technique he has employed for years to accomplish that is one the Nationals have said they won't even consider:

Let the guy skip a start every once in a while!

The White Sox are doing exactly that with Chris Sale, whose schedule has been worked around off days in a way that has enabled him to go a week and a half between starts three different times this year. So why, this pitching coach asked, aren't the Nationals taking the same approach with Strasburg?

"I just don't understand," he said, "why someone isn't saying: 'Let's start managing this different. Let's go with a six-man rotation. Every fourth turn through the rotation, let's skip his start so we can buy him those extra starts later in the year.' That makes so much sense to me. I don't understand this [approach] at all."

I don't understand it, either. It seems like the Nationals have replaced an old paradigm -- let pitchers pitch until they get hurt, which has actually been out of style for a while now -- with something new that's nearly as ill-considered as the old one. The only way to keep Strasburg healthy is to bench him after 160 innings and no time off? Really?

Stark finishes with an Ode to October.

In the first half of Orel Hershiser's career, he was a Hall of Famer. Then he got hurt, and was an innings-eater in the second of his career. He might have gotten hurt because he threw a million innings in 1988 when his Dodgers won the World Series, and he says, "Would I give back the 55 scoreless [innings] and winning the World Series so I could have a longer career? No way."

There are other quotes from other pitchers. But it's not their arm. Yes, the Nationals have a chance to win the World Series this year. But if Stephen Strasburg stays healthy, he should be in a position to win other World Series down the line. Along with Cy Young Awards and maybe a plaque in the Hall of Fame.

The other thing that nobody seems to be mentioning is that the Nationals have a chance to win the World Series even without Stephen Strasburg. He's certainly the Nationals' most talented pitcher, and perhaps their best pitcher. But they've got a bunch of really good pitchers. Here are the five Nationals' starters, ranked by Wins Above Replacement (and averaging the two reputable sources, Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, which use slightly different methods to compute WAR) ...

1. Jordan Zimmermann (3.8)
2. Gio Gonzalez (3.3)
3. Stephen Strasburg (3.2)
4. Ross Detwiler (1.8)
5. Edwin Jackson (1.8)

The October innings -- assuming of course the Nationals qualify for the tournament -- that don't go to Strasburg will go to Detwiler or Jackson, both of whom are solid National League starting pitchers. One might argue that the difference between Strasburg and Detwiler is even smaller than it seems, because a) Detwiler spent some time in the bullpen earlier this season, and b) Strasburg's been relatively ineffective lately, giving up six home runs in his last six starts (granted, his strikeouts and walks have still been fantastic).

Strasburg is probably somewhat less likely to get hurt if he throws 180 innings with no break, than if he throws 220 innings (including October) or 200 innings, with or without breaks. The Nationals are somewhat less likely to win the 2012 World Series without Strasburg, than with him.

There are a lot of probablies and somewhats in there. Generally speaking, I believe the Nationals are a little too rigid in their thinking, and I believe the Nationals' critics are a little too dismissive of the Nationals' chances of winning a World Series without Strasburg.

Specifically, though? I don't believe the organization has handled this situation as well as it could have.

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