<u>General Thinking About Innings Limits</u>
I love the commenters (professional and amateur) that don’t want to acknowledge that the Nationals had a chance to walk through all of their options as well as talk to the Doctors and get the best medical advice possible before making their decision. Given a choice between trusting Dr. James Andrews and Dr. Lewis Yocum (the foremost authorities on the surgery) or trusting Rob Dibble, Mitch Williams and Leo Mazzone (or even Junior Feinstein) … well, it’s not a real leap. Just because there isn't a study that says "X [innings] marks the spot" doesn't mean that NO innings limit is perfectly OK. It means that the Doctors have an idea about general principles but not enough data to be absolutely precise. Still, they know enough to know that limiting the innings as you return from TJ surgery reduces risk - they just don't know enough to say precisely how much that reduction reduces the chance that any one specific pitcher gets hurt. Saying "well, this pitcher or that pitcher did it, and was fine!" is not an effective rebuttal. Problems with that: (1) did that pitcher (I've seen Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver used as examples) ever actually have TJ surgery? (2) How old was the pitcher when they had the injury (younger pitchers tend to be more at risk); and (3) even if you can think of a perfect example, it wouldn't serve as a rebuttal. My Grandmother smoked for and drank 60 years and lived to be a week short of 93. That doesn't make smoking and/or drinking a good idea for longevity. The same is true about piling innnings onto young pitchers, especially those recovering from TJ surgery.
So, some kind of innings limitation is the way to go. And this is not a revolutionary act on the part of the Nationals, either; it's standard industry practice. For example, Kris Medlen (the guy who stuffed the Nats' offense last Wednesday, and who has a remarkable streak of 16 straight starts that the Braves have won) had surgery around the same time that Strasburg did. The Braves have openly limited his innings. But instead of the "pitch until he hits the limit" method, the Braves started the season with Medlen in the bullpen, and didn't move him into the rotation until the end of July. Arguably this whole controversy only exists because the Nationals have been more aggressive with Strasburg then the Braves have been with Medlen, who is nearly three years older than Strasburg.
Limiting innings is the way to go ... unless you decide that 2012 is IT, and therefore you go "all-in" (to use poker terminology). The heck with it, eat the seed corn, light the afterburners, sort out the wreckage when you're done. "The future is now!" as George Allen would say. There are a number of problems with that, of course. Going all-in doesn't guarantee anything either (George Allen never won the Super Bowl, only made it to one, and it took the Redskins years to dig out from the hole he dug). The Redskins have spent much of the past 15 years going "all-in" year after year. They've mostly [sipped]. The Brewers went all-in last year with Fielder and Greinke, didn't make it past the NLCS, and are likely to be lousy for years. And that's the other problem with "the future is now!" Tomorrow always comes and the wreckage can take years to clear. And Nationals fans have already been through the "lousy for years" part.
Look, sometimes it does make sense to go all-in. The Phillies did it last season by picking up Lee and Oswalt and Pence. Of course, they didn't even make it past the NLDS. But it could be argued that doing so made sense for the Phillies - their core players were aging, the team was/is shackled by big money contracts. Add a depleted farm system and their "window" was closing. But except for Jayson Werth, the Nationals' core players are 28 or younger, their payroll growing but manageable, and their farm system good (but not great) - the Nationals have a chance to be good for years. No guarantees, but a solid chance. This is not the profile of a team that should go all-in and burn Strasburg (or other core talented, team controlled players).
<u>How Do You Get the Most (in 2012 and 2013+) From an Innings Limited Strasburg?</u>
Once you decide to limit Strasburg's innings at some point, there are a lot of different ways to do it. The Nationals could have left Strasburg in Viera for a couple of extra months, for example. They could have used some variation of the plan that the Braves are using with Medlen and started Strasburg off in the bullpen. Alternatively, the Nationals could have pulled Strasburg from the rotation and put him in the bullpen (like the Yankees did with Joba Chamberlain). However, all of the “stretch him out” plans have problems. For one thing, they all assume knowledge of what we are much more sure of now – that Strasburg can pitch his way through 25+ starts. Coming into the season, that would have been one huge assumption for a guy with five post-TJ MLB starts. If Strasburg had picked up nagging, unrelated injuries along the way (fielding, running out a HR, etc) this could easily have resulted in the Nats leaving Strasburg innings on the table at the end of the season. Which both affects the standings this year and potentially affects the number of innings that he throws next year (because of the need to monitor workload increases for pitchers <25). Transitions back and forth from the bullpen can be tricky; the Yankees may well have ruined Joba Chamberlain's career by doing it poorly. And timing the phase-in and phase-out stages while still maintaining innings for the playoffs (insert Jim Mora joke here) also increases the chance of leaving Strasburg innings on the table.
And that's the weakness with all of the "stretch him out" plans. Any plan that stretches Strasburg out means unused Strasburg innings that have to be filled by lesser pitchers, which has a direct impact on the standings. Less Strasburg means more John Lannan and Chien-Ming Wang (and Lannan can’t pitch only against the Braves). Breathe that in for a minute. And the huge honking problem is that those games lost in the standings would potentially cost the team their present first place status in the Division. And this year being a Wild Card team sucks because of the one game play-in. For the Nationals, the choice of:
(1) Winning the Division (and possibly home field advantage throughout the playoffs) with a cushion enabling you to rest your players and set up your rotation of Zimmermann, Gonzalez, Jackson and Detwiler however you like it based on matchups; and
(2) Fighting tooth and nail down the stretch to get a “one and done” wild card game before you even get to the NLDS, hindering your ability to get the most Strasburg starts in the playoffs even if he stays healthy.
It’s not irrational to assert the Nationals chances of winning the WS this year are better with Strasburg pitching to the limit in the regular season but not in the playoffs, as that better enables the Nationals to win the Division outright and thus avoid the “coin flip” of a wild card play-in game.
By formula: [WS odds as NL East Championa, no Strasburg in playoffs] > [WS odds as a wild card team, with Stras in playoffs].*
Because even if the Nats approach the wild card game with Strasburg on the mound, the opponent could well match him: Lohse for the Cardinals, Kershaw for the Dodgers, or any of the top 3 of the Giants would essentially make the game a coin flip, so a 50/50 chance in that scenario that the Nationals don’t even make the NLDS. Given that if you take Strasburg’s stats out of the rotation the Nationals still have the best ERA in MLB, that just firms up the argument. Choosing the method of pitching Strasburg (use him on a regular rotation, take him out of games early here and there where you have the chance, but don't sit him or transition him) is the best way of ensuring that you don’t leave any 2012 Strasburg innings on the table. As a final bonus, with this method (pitch until he hits the limit, then shut him down) makes sure that the games that that Strasburg misses are in September, when expanded rosters give the Nationals more flexibility to try to mix & match their way to a win and many of the opposing teams are running out the string and giving their minor league players some experience.
*Even if the Nationals can't hold off the Braves for the NL East title, the above logic holds because leaving Strasburg innings on the table risks not making the playoffs at all. In which case, the team's chance to win the WS is 0.
The more you think it through, the more you realize that the Nats have already thought this through.