Then-68-year-old skipper Davey Johnson had been the Washington Nationals' manager for all of two weeks when he spoke to the press before the 2011 All-Star Break about right-hander Jordan Zimmermann being shut down later that season when he reached the prescribed innings limit he was on in his first full-year back from Tommy John surgery in 2009. The '07 2nd Round pick had returned to the mound late in the 2010 campaign to make 10 starts and throw 39.2 innings in the Nats' system and 31.0 innings at the major league level to give himself a base of innings on his arm to build upon when he was back on the mound in 2011.
At the break last year, Zimmermann had thrown 115 of the 160.0 or so innings the Nationals told him he would throw as part of the recovery process for his reconstructed elbow. Johnson, who'd taken over in an emergency situation when Jim Riggleman abruptly resigned, explained that he simply hadn't discussed the situation with the Nationals at length and planned to clarify the team's plans over the break.
"[Pitching coach Steve] McCatty's got a plan for [Zimmermann]," the Nats' manager told reporters, "... to kind of stretch him out that will be good for him, and not as bad for the team, trying to get him at least to where we can expand the roster."
"I've heard the plan and I'm not that comfortable with it," Johnson continued, "so we'll have the break to discuss that formula. I'm not quite set on how that goes down. I'll probably need some medical opinions and all this other stuff..."
The plan, as reports at the time explained, was to cap Zimmermann's innings at 160.0. Johnson told MLB.com's Bill Ladson going into the break that, "... RHP Jordan Zimmermann will become the fifth starter in the rotation after the All-Star break." In his 15 seasons on the bench in the majors leagues as a manager Johnson had seen and dealt with it all, but the questions he had weren't about whether or not Zimmermann would be shut down, but about the best way to get to his limit. Best for the pitcher and best for the team.
"I don't know if this is a medical decision," Johnson said, "That he needs extra rest, or if we're going to shut him down at 160.0 innings, is it better to be regular and then shut [down]? So, there's all kinds of things, thought processes that [go] into it. It's probably made above me by smart doctors, but from a baseball standpoint, I want to win. I'm thinking of winning." The Nationals tried giving the right-hander extra rest after the break. The then-25-year-old starter had nine days off before his first post-ASG start and six before his second. He gave up a combined 15 hits and 12 ER and struggled with his control in both outings, after which Davey Johnson told reporters he thought Zimmermann would be better off once he was back on a regular schedule. The right-hander remained on regular rest throughout the remainder of the season and was shut down after 161.1 IP.
After the season, Zimmermann admitted that it was frustrating to stop throwing when the team kept playing, and said that, "Of course I wanted to pitch the whole season, and maybe skipping a start here and there during the season I could've been able to pitch a whole season, but we tried that a couple times, and it seemed like every time I either skipped a start or had a longer rest I didn't pitch very well, so I think they wanted to keep me on a five-day rotation, and when I was able to pitch every fifth day I seemed to do a lot better."
When the talk turned to what the team would do with Stephen Strasburg late in the year as he went through the same process Zimmermann just had, Davey Johnson seemed on board, or at least on message with the plan the team had in place for the the Nats' 09 no.1 overall pick. Strasburg had surgery in 2010, returned in late 2011 to get a base of innings (44.1 + simulated games, etc.) on his arm and like Zimmermann he'd be able to pitch like any other starter in 2012 until they shut him down. "I'm going with the medical experts," the 68-year-old said when asked about potentially having to finish the season without his right-handed ace, "Whatever they think is the best thing to do."
"He's over the special treatment," Johnson said referring to the strict pitch counts Strasburg worked under as he rehabbed, "Now I would handle him just like any other pitcher on my staff and when we feel like the arm has had enough we'll shut him down, just like with [Zimmermann]."
"If we're lucky enough and improved enough to be playing meaningful games in September ," Rizzo said in an MLB Network Radio interview with hosts Kevin Kennedy and Jim Duquette in September 2011, "... and [Strasburg's] pitch limits are up, just like Jordan Zimmermann this year, he will be done. We'll sit with our plan and we'll stick to it."
Though Rizzo's refused to put a concrete number of innings out there, he's stuck by what he's said about the plan for his right-hander as explained in an April interview with MLB Network Radio hosts Jim Bowden and Jim Duquette. "Davey [Johnson] is going to monitor it. We're going to monitor each and every start. We're going to monitor how we utilize him, but Davey's under no instructions of a pitch count, a pitch limit, an innings-limit per-game. Like [I] said, we're going to utilize [Strasburg] and when we feel that he's reached his limit and he's had enough, we're going to shut him down."
On Tuesday, at his first career All-Star Game, Strasburg generated some headlines when he was asked by the former Nats' GM and current MLB Network and ESPN analyst, Mr. Bowden, if he'd be pitching game one when and if the Nationals were to make it to the World Series this year. "Well, they’re gonna have to rip the ball out of my hands," Strasburg responded, "That’s all I can say."
Earlier this week, however, in an interview on 106.7 the FAN in D.C. with Holden Kushner and Danny Rouhier, Strasburg told the hosts that though neither the Nats' GM or the Nationals' manager had directly addressed the idea of an innings limit with him, he knew the decision the team made would be made with his own best interest in mind.
"Obviously you hear about it in the media," Strasburg explained, "but they don’t really want me worrying about it in the clubhouse. I’m pretty good at fielding all the questions about it but when it comes to game time they just want me to go out there and pitch and throw as many innings as I can."
"All I can do is keep pitching and keep helping this team win as many games as we can. When they think it's time for us to shut it down, then it's going to be their call. I know that they're only doing it because, obviously, a lot of medical studies have shown that it's the right thing to do."
While the quote at the All-Star Game made for better headlines, the Nats' right-hander seemed aware of what the future holds later this season. D.C. GM Mike Rizzo has stated as explicitly as possible what the plan is for Strasburg, and explained repeatedly that it's being done in the interest of having him on the mound in the nation's capital for years to come. With the All-Star break over, the right-hander admitted in an ESPN980 interview with Thom Loverro and Kevin Sheehan that he understands that it's going to be a topic of conversation for the rest of the year.
"Everybody's going to read into and everybody's going to have their opinion," Strasburg said, "But I know that [the Nationals] have my best interest at heart. And, obviously, you ask [Mike] Rizzo, you ask anybody in the organization, we're not playing for one year. So, obviously we've got a lot of guys that are very capable of getting the job done, but at the same time, we're trying to build a dynasty and I think everything's going in the right direction, so I'm just very thankful that they see me being a big part of it."
Does he want to be on the mound if/when the Nationals make their first postseason appearance? Of course. Does he understand that the team is making the decision because any player would say and want the same? Seems like it.
The Nationals have been clear about their plans from the start. All Strasburg has to do is look to Jordan Zimmermann as an example of how the plan they have in place has produced good results. Anyone still wondering why the Nationals have approached the situation like they have, rather than skipping starts, saving innings, starting him late in the year to ensure he's around or shutting him down to save some innings for a potential playoff run, hasn't been paying attention.
• Related Articles:
• "It’s time to lay the Stephen Strasburg inning-limit non-issue to rest. There is no debate here, no “two sides,” about the Nationals’ intention to shut down Strasburg’s season at 160 to 170 innings..." - "Nationals should take no chances with Stephen Strasburg’s innings limit" - Thomas Boswell, The Washington Post
• "If the Nats had given this a little more forethought, they could have avoided the need to give Strasburg a midseason break by delaying the start of his season in the first place." - "Why the Nats Shouldn’t Put an Innings Limit on Stephen Strasburg" - Brett Haber, Washingtonian
• "If they [the Nationals] actually do that, I'll actually have more respect for them, because that's going to take some serious guts," said the All-Star, chuckling at what could be the most discussed and dissected decision in the second half of the season." - "How Washington Nationals will use Stephen Strasburg tops second-half storylines" - Buster Olney, ESPN