Taking Strasburg to the Limit

This is all I am going to say about the Strasburg innings limit.

The Nats have a policy–and a remarkably enlightened one, at that–of limiting starting-pitcher workloads to 120% of the innings a pitcher had pitched the previous year, wherever those innings happened (whether as an amateur, the minor leagues, or the majors). For pitchers returning from major injuries, the innings limit seems to be about 120% of the pitcher’s previous single-season career high total innings pitched.

The entire baseball commentariat outside the Beltway seems to think that this policy of limiting innings amounts to nothing more than a bluff on the part of the Nationals. But the Nationals’ recent misfortunes with pitcher injuries offer us a number of opportunities to see the organization’s pitch-limiting policy in action.

Take, for instance, Jordan Zimmermann. He underwent Tommy John surgery to repair his ulnar collateral ligament in August 2009. He spent 2010 in rehabilitation, pitching 5.0 innings in low-A Hagerstown, 13.0 innings in High-A Potomac, 4.2 innings in AA Harrisburg, 17.0 innings in AAA Syracuse, as well as 31.0 innings for the big league club, for a total of 70.2 innings on the year. In 2011, he returned to the starting rotation, and everybody in Nats town knew his innings would be limited. He ended up pitching 161.1 innings.

How did they reach that number? Well, Zimmermann’s previous single-season high for innings pitched was 2008. He hadn’t cracked the major leagues yet, but he pitched 27.1 innings for high-A Potomac and 106.2 innings for AA Harrisburg, for a career-high 134 innings pitched in a single season. Increasing his workload by an additional 20% in accordance with the organization’s inning-limit policy would have meant limiting him to…yes, 161 innings pitched, which is only one out less than what he actually pitched in 2011.

Zimmermann isn’t the only other Bionic Man in the Nats pitching staff, either. Reliever Ryan Mattheus also underwent Tommy John surgery to repair his ulnar collateral ligament in 2009. He spent 2010 in the minors, rehabilitating, pitching a total of 36 innings. He joined the Nats bullpen in 2011 and pitched only 32 innings. His previous career high single-season innings pitched? 2007, when he pitched 158.2 innings for the Rockies’ AA affiliate. In Mattheus’ case, it appears that the move from starter to reliever was enough of an innings limit in itself. But in 2012, three years removed from surgery, Mattheus has already pitched a total of 32.2 innings (29.2 with the big-league club, the balance on minor-league rehab assignments). The limit, it would appear, is gone.

What does this mean for Strasburg? Well, before his surgery, his previous single-season maximum innings pitched was 123.1 innings in 2010: 68.0 IP with the big league club, 33.1 at AAA Syracuse, and 22.0 at AA Harrisburg. If the Nationals apply their stated policy (no increases greater than 20%), Strasburg’s innings limit would be set at 148 innings.

The number generally bandied about, however, is the 160-inning limit that we saw from Jordan Zimmermann. Will the Nats shut down Strasburg sooner than they shut down Zimmermann? Tough to say. Increasing Strasburg’s workload to 125% of his previous single-season innings maximum leaves us at 154 innings. 160 innings would represent still another increase, to 130% of Strasburg’s previous single-season career maximum. For an organization that values its starting pitchers’ health as highly as the Nationals must, a 160-pitch limit must already represent the outer limits of the organization’s risk tolerance.

Think, also, that Jordan Zimmermann in his “rehabilitation” year of 2010 pitched 70.2 innings at all levels in the organization, so his 161.1 inning 2011 represented a year-on-year increase of 228% in workload–that’s a staggering increase in the amount of stress to put on a joint from one year to the next! Strasburg, on the other hand, pitched only 44.1 innings at all levels of the organization during his “rehabilitation” year of 2011. A 228% increase from that workload would leave us with 101 innings–merely two innings more than the total number of innings Strasburg has pitched to date in 2012. To get Strasburg to the 160-inning mark this season would represent an increase in workload of 361% over 2011!

If the organization opts not to try to “rip the ball out of [Strasburg’s] hands,” what would an “unlimited” Strasburg look like? Let’s say the Nats win the pennant. Strasburg’s workload might look a lot like the Rangers’ Derek Holland, who pitched 198 innings in the regular season, and an additional 24.0 innings in the post-season, for a total of 222 innings pitched in 2011. For Strasburg, that would represent an unbelievable increase of 180% from his career single-season maximum innings and an increase of 500% over his workload from last year.

Strasburg is one of the fiercest competitors in baseball today. But even if his will is made of steel, his arm is made of muscle and sinew and surgically-repaired ligaments. Not limiting Strasburg’s innings in 2012 means asking that arm of mortal flesh to bear a load nearly twice as large as the largest it has ever borne, and potentially five times greater than it was expected to bear only a short year ago. I am not an orthopaedic surgeon–but it seems to me that not limiting Strasburg is to ask a very talented, very game young man to risk the total destruction of his only means of winning a livelihood to chase a goal that is, at best, uncertain.

If you’ve read this far and you’re still calling for the Nats to let Strasburg pitch past his “limit,” then you deserve to be called the nincompoop that you are.

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9 thoughts on “Taking Strasburg to the Limit

  1. I don’t thing many have a problem with limiting innings. What we might have a problem with is the lack of creativity by management in addressing the issue.

    I didn’t put any money down, but I did expect a wild card berth this year; I did. Management should have been ready for the upside of that expectation. It almost happened in 2005 with a far worse team.

    There have been plenty of proposals for ways in which Strasburg might be used while limiting his innings so he is available for the post-season and yet the response has always been, “well, that was tried with team X and pitcher X, and it didn’t work.” That is hardly any more scientific than those who argue that Strasburg should just pitch until his arm falls off. W

    ithout Strasburg, this staff is talented enough to win it all.

    Nevertheless, even if it only amounts to the threat of bringing Strasburg off the bench in the post-season for relief work, why show the opposition all the arrows in your quiver? Management may be playing this close to the vest for this very reason. We can only hope so.

  2. I’m going to answer your comment at length because I’ve been thinking about this a lot.

    The “arrows in the quiver” or “cards in the hand” argument is a bit bogus to me. The opposition already knows how the organization deals with young pitchers recovering from UCL reconstruction (Tommy John) surgery. To me, the surprise would be if they treated Strasburg differently.

    I’m not entirely sure how much more “creative” the management can get as far as preserving Strasburg’s arm for the post-season. Some have suggested that Strasburg should be inactivated with a “phantom injury,” only to be reactivated for the play-offs. Others have suggested skipping his starts, or moving to a six-man rotation.

    Shelving Strasburg, and then expecting him to ramp up again does not make any sense to me. The goal of the rehabilitation is to put progressively more strain on the arm, in a controlled manner. The medical advice seems to be that the strain of a sudden ramp-up after a prolonged period of rest would be counter-productive.

    Spacing Strasburg’s starts, or moving to a six-man rotation are functionally equivalent. It means burning one or both of Craig Stammen or Tom Gorzelanny at least once a week to artificially extend Strasburg’s season by a handful of starts. This is not what the bullpen is currently set up to do. As it is, the ‘pen seems to have been taxed enough lately, with Stammen and Gorzelanny making appearances in relief of shaky outings from Gio Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler, and (gulp) Stephen Strasburg.

    There’s another problem, here, too. The “Creative” solutions all seem to assume that the Nationals will have a commanding lead atop the N.L. East. As I respond to your comment, the Nats are only four games ahead of the Atlanta Braves in the N.L. East, with 32 games remaining against divisional opponents. The “phantom injury” scenario would leave Strasburg unavailable for several key games against divisional opponents. A six-man rotation would compel the Nats to trot out Gorzo or Stammen (neither of whom is as good as any of their present starters) more often–and increase the entire bullpen’s workload considerably, as neither “long” man seems (currently) prepared to pitch more than 5 innings.

    Either of the “creative” solutions, in other words, jeopardize the Nationals’ chances of winning the division. And, given the new play-off format, losing the division will render any vain attempt at saving Strasburg moot. Remember, this year, the two “wild card” teams will begin with a single-game play-off to decide who faces the winner of the division. If the Nationals do not win the division, they will have to take their chances in a single game against the other wild card team.

    Now, anything can happen in any single game of baseball. The Nationals could win easily. Or they could choke magnificently, as we saw on July 20 against Atlanta. The difference between winning and losing there is largely up to chance.

    But if the Nats win the division, they will have the luxury of a multi-game series. Random chance will still loom large (see 2011 Cardinals), but that’s mitigated by the number of games played. I like the Nats’ chances (even without Strasburg) in a multiple-game series better than a single-game playoff.

    So, the task for the Nats is to win the division now. The way to do that is to let Strasburg pitch–but then to shut him down, lest they ruin his arm for future runs at the division title.

  3. I don’t think there is any disagreement there. It is a good response that the team might not be 3 1/2 up now, if Strasburg had sat out until the middle of May. I may be a bit of a homer in that I honestly don’t think that Atlanta is in the same class as the Nationals this year and I am a bit surprised to see them hanging in, but some of that may be due to the other three teams suddenly becoming altogether dispirited to an extent no one would have predicted a couple of months ago when all five teams in the NL East had winning records.

    One thing that many people are overlooking about the new format is that, while it is an avenue for a late hot team to get into the play-offs, it is basically a killer to a wild card team’s chances of winning the World Series, which to me is a good thing. Stats guys can play around with it, but basically, up to now, an excellent wild card team had almost as good a chance to make the World Series as a division winner, as Boston and St. Louis have proven. Those odds will now drop dramatically, even below the mere halving of the last spot. First, these teams will have an extra game, involving travel for one, and key pitchers for both.

    Second, we can expect to see the weaker of the two wild card teams win this game about half the time. If the 82-game winning 1973 Mets could beat the 99-game-winning Reds in 5 and then take the defending World Champ A’s to 7 games in the World Series, we should rarely, if ever, be surprised by the outcome of any single game, regardless of the pitchers. This is all to the good. The strange thing is that many people are arguing that the one game mini-round demeans the regular season. The truth is, it is a step back in the right direction to how it used to be when it mattered whether an excellent team won its division or not.

    Getting back to the Nats, more pitching is always better than less, but given the limited number of post-season games, things are more likely to come down to how we swing the bats. With the exception of the Phillies, it is hard to think of too many other teams that have recently had four starting pitchers in the post-season as good as Zimmerman, Gonzalez, Jackson and Det.

  4. Talk about re-evaluation of your interesting initial point. Stras did not look good last night. It is not so much that he gave up runs; that is going to happen once in a while to any pitcher. What was disturbing was that he seemed to really lose his cool out there, both visibly and also in the sense of appearing not to even be bothering to hold on runners. This followed a very similar effort by the other ace, Gonzalez, in which he too seemed to visibly become upset during the game, perhaps with more reason, but I am not sure you want anything but poker faces out there on the mound.

    Ultimately, there are few guarantees in a short series. Remember 1966 when the Orioles took four straight from the Dodgers, with three of the wins coming against Hall of Famers’s, Don Drysdale, and Sandy Koufax, who had had his best season, with the O’s trouncing Koufax and L.A. 6-0 in game two. The O’s had a decent staff, with a 20 year old Jim Palmer winning game two, but no one expected them to give up only four runs the entire series, with a .5 era.

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