Washington Nationals' manager Davey Johnson said there will be "no restrictions" on right-hander Stephen Strasburg in 2013, but what does "no restrictions" mean exactly? Bob Boone talked to USA Today about that recently, and SI.com's Tom Verducci said Strasburg was at risk of suffering from the "Year-After Effect" this season...
Jordan Zimmermann eventually accepted the Washington Nationals' decision to shut him down early in 2011 when he'd reached his prescribed innings limit in his first full-year back following Tommy John surgery. Though he would have preferred to keep pitching and wanted to be able to help his teammates, Zimmermann said he understood the Nats' decision and was looking forward to going out without any restrictions in 2012.
"I felt great," Zimmermann said a few weeks after his 2011 campaign ended with 161.1 IP on his arm. "I felt strong all year, and I just want to work hard this offseason, and come Spring Training be ready to go and pitch 200-plus innings next year." The 25-going-on-26-year-old Nats' right-hander pitched all the way through September into October and the postseason last year, finishing his fourth major league season at 199.2 IP (195.2 in the regular season and 4.0 IP in the NLDS).
The Nationals followed the same protocol with Stephen Strasburg this past season, "shocking" a baseball world that refused to believe that the Nats' GM Mike Rizzo would do what he said he would all along and end the 24-year-old's first full-year back from Tommy John surgery when he determined that the pitcher had enough based on the right-hander's doctor's recommendations and what the general manager, manager Davey Johnson and pitching coach Steve McCatty saw from the '09 no.1 overall pick. Strasburg ended the season at 159.1 IP, a year after he'd thrown 44.1+ innings while rehabbing and two years after he'd thrown a combined 123.1 innings between the minors and majors before suffering the torn UCL.
When Davey Johnson talked to reporters, including the New York Times' Tyler Kepner, at the Winter Meetings this past December, the Nats' skipper said he thought his ace would be happy to finally be past all the "innings limit" questions and stories he had to endure last summer. "'I think Strasburg is going to be elated that he has no restrictions,'" Johnson said. In a mid-January interview, Nationals' VP of Player Development Bob Boone told USA Today's Stephen Borellli what he thought "no restrictions" really meant:
"'To say there's no restrictions really means, 'Hey, we'd like him to pitch 200 innings,' Boone said. 'But, you're not gonna say no restrictions like you might have on Steve Carlton, who would throw 320 innings. You're not gonna do that. There's always restrictions, but the meaning is, 'We're not gonna shut him down after 160 innings.'"
As D.C. GM Mike Rizzo explained it in two recent interviews, the "rehab" process is over for Strasburg. "Strasburg's rehab was over a long time ago," and he's ready to go for spring training the Nats' GM told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.'s Holden Kushner and Danny Rouhier. Asked if there were any restrictions or innings limits for any of the starters this year, Rizzo told MLB Network Radio host Jim Bowden, "I think that's all behind us. I think everyone's capable of going 200+ innings. The increase of workload, I think the formula fits this year and we feel good that everybody's healthy and raring to go at this point."
For young pitchers, Rizzo told MLB Network Radio hosts Jim Duquette and Kevin Kennedy back in late 2011, "We kind of go by the old rule of thumb of 20% increases," in a pitcher's work load from year to year. A 20% increase would put Strasburg in the 190+ IP area in 2013. That's also in line with 30-inning increases that are part of the "protocols established by Rick Peterson" that SI.com's Tom Verducci referenced this week in putting Strasburg on a list of pitchers who are at risk of suffering from the so-called "Year-After Effect" which he describes as, "a rule of thumb to identify pitchers who may be at risk," of injury or "significant regression", because, "... of a sharp increase in workload," from year-to-year. The red flag for Verducci that lands Strasburg on the list has to do with his 36.0 inning increase between his last full season in 2010 (123.1 IP) and 2012 (159.1).
The Nationals monitored Strasburg closely last season and made the decision to shut him down when they thought he was done, and the 30-inning increase Peterson prescribes for young pitchers would put the Nats' starter in the 190-200 inning range the Nats are talking about for 2013. As SI.com's Mr. Verducci notes at the end of his article, however, "... the search to keep young arms healthy is ongoing and a universal answer is ever elusive." The Nats are doing what they think is best for all of their pitchers. You'll have to wait until Strasburg's career is over to judge if the decisions made along the way were the right ones.