Stephen Strasburg is not going to pitch again this season. Not in any of the Nationals' remaining regular-season games. Not in the postseason. The what, when and why of the Nationals' decision to shut Strasburg down have been reported, debated, and analyzed at great length and in great detail. And that reporting, debating and analysis will undoubtedly continue, and will be framed by, the Nationals' performance in the 2012 postseason.
With the shutdown has come boredom. Nationals beat writer Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post reported last Wednesday that Strasburg, five days after his last start, was "antsy":
Strasburg made his final start of the season five days ago, but already he has become antsy with no more starts to look forward to. During the Nationals’ series in
New York, Strasburg has shagged batting practice in center field, mostly standing by himself.
"He’s been pestering [pitching coach Steve McCatty] about what he can do," Johnson said. "Can I keep throwing off the mound? No. Can I play catch in the outfield? Yes. It’s pretty bad now, but it’s going to get worse. Because he’s going to be champing."
Davey Johnson is considering one option to keep Strasburg from climbing the walls: using him as a pinch hitter over the Nationals' final 17 games. From Kilgore's story:
"I check on him," Johnson said. "I told him yesterday, to give him something to think about, I said, ‘Keep taking batting practice. I might need your bat. If I can’t use your arm, I’ll use your bat.’ "
In the past, Johnson said he would not use Strasburg as a pinch-hitter, even if Strasburg’s ability – his slash line currently sits at .277/.333/.426 in 53 plate appearances – made it tempting. But Johnson insisted he was not joking about the possibility of Strasburg batting.
"I’m serious, yeah," he said.
Good for Johnson. He should use the next 17 games to try Strasburg as a pinch hitter. If it works, Johnson should seriously consider adding Strasburg to the postseason roster as a pinch hitter off the bench.
You see Strasburg's batting line. That translates to a 104 OPS+, as calculated by Baseball-Reference, and a 107 wRC+ as calculated by FanGraphs, meaning that Strasburg was a more productive offensive player this season than the average National League hitter. Okay. That's all well and good. But the Nationals don't want just slightly-better-than-average hitters on the postseason roster, if there are better options.
Assuming Michael Morse is healthy (he's been nursing a contusion on his right hand), the Nationals' starting lineup in their National League Division Series is likely to look like this:
1 Jayson Werth, RF
2 Bryce Harper, CF
3 Ryan Zimmerman, 3B
4 Adam LaRoche, 1B
5 Michael Morse, LF
6 Ian Desmond, SS
7 Danny Espinosa, 2B
8 Kurt Suzuki, C
I'm assuming the Nationals will carry twelve pitchers for the best-of-five series (four starters and eight relievers; sorry John Lannan). If so, that leaves five players for the bench. Jesus Flores will be the backup catcher, leaving four spots. Steve Lombardozzi will be there as the extra middle infielder. Roger Bernadina will be on the bench. He's the fourth outfielder who can cover center field, moving Bryce Harper to either left or right, if need be. Chad Tracy will be on the bench. He's the backup corner infielder, who's batted .286/.364/.494 in 88 plate appearances, good for a 124 wRC+. That includes ten hits and five walks in 42 pinch-hit plate appearances this season.
The final roster spot likely comes down to Tyler Moore or Strasburg. In his first season in the majors, Moore's batting .279/.340/.529, good for a 137 wRC+. Defensively, he's spent most of his time at first base, but can also play the outfield in a pinch. But with Bernadina and Tracy on the roster, it's unlikely Moore would be needed on defense, barring several in-game injuries. Moore has six hits and one walk in 27 pinch-hit plate appearances. Strasburg hasn't been used at all as a pinch hitter this season.
Purely from a hitting perspective, why take Strasburg over Moore?
Both players have a strikeout rate around 25 percent. Strasburg swings at only 29 percent of pitches outside the strike zone. For Moore, that number is 34 percent. Strasburg is more selective in the zone as well, swinging 65 percent of the time, compared to 75 percent for Moore. Their overall contact rates are nearly identical: 75 percent for Strasburg and 74 percent for Moore. Strasburg hasn't grounded into a double play all season. Moore's done so twice.
The numbers are pretty close; amazingly so, considering Strasburg is a pitcher. Moore has more power potential, which tips the balance in his favor.
But Strasburg is Strasburg. And he's sitting on the sidelines while his teammates march toward and into October. With all the hand-wringing over the innings limit and the shutdown, not enough attention has been paid to how the decision is affecting Strasburg personally. We've heard he's unhappy about the decision and has said he's not sure he'll ever be able to accept it. But there's also a sense of isolation, as he watches his teammates prepare for the postseason.
Why not? Why not include Strasburg on the NLDS roster? Well, there's the possibility of injury, which is the factor motivating the shutdown in the first place. There's the possibility he'll be needed in a crucial late-game situation and fail to get the job done. But there is also the possibility that Strasburg could contribute, even in a small way, to the Nationals' postseason run.
And that would really be something.