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January 10, 2012 / Nat Anacostia

Managing Strasburg’s 2012 innings limit: Bring back the “Sunday pitcher”

With their trade for Gio Gonzalez and continuing rumors of an effort to sign Prince Fielder, the Nats appear to be aiming for the post-season in 2012. This places them, however, in an unusual situation. Stephen Strasburg, clearly the Nats’ best pitcher, will be facing a projected innings limit of about 160 to 170 innings as part of his recovery from Tommy John surgery. If his workload is managed the same way as Jordan Zimmermann‘s, who was at the same point in his own recovery in 2011, Strasburg would be pulled from the rotation in mid-to-late August and would not be available for the post-season.

Most Nats observers are convinced that the Nats are resigned to losing Strasburg in September and (possibly) October. Pete Kerzel of MASN writes:

One thing you won’t see is Strasburg pitching deep into September – or, if things break just right, in the playoffs. Rizzo and Johnson want to win, but they’re big-picture guys and realize that the promise of another dominating decade or so from Strasburg is much more enticing than the immediate gratification of seeing him in a pennant drive or the postseason now.

A few observers have suggested delaying his first start until mid-May, or possibly shutting him down for a few weeks in mid-summer. But starting Strasburg in May would mean he’d lose the benefits of spring training and have to prepare for the season in instructional league or the minors. Furthermore, without their ace early in the season, the Nats risk losing momentum and slipping behind in the race.

I’d like to suggest another approach that harks back to baseball of the 1930s and 40s—assign Strasburg to pitch just once a week on six days rest. Seventy years ago a few teams used “Sunday pitchers” with great success. The premier example was Hall-of-Famer Ted Lyons. From 1939–42 (ages 38 to 41), Lyons made 61 of his 85 starts on Sundays, producing a 52–30 record and a 2.96 ERA. Other prominent pitchers who were used as Sunday pitchers included Red Ruffing and Tommy Bridges. This type of usage was mostly reserved for older pitchers.

Why do I think that a once-a-week pattern would work for Strasburg? First, that’s the usage pattern in college baseball, so it’s a frequency that Strasburg is accustomed to. Japanese baseball also uses a pattern of weekly starts with considerable success. The Book by Tango, Lichtman, and Dolphin finds that five days rest is optimal, so six days rest is a bit longer than the optimum, but it does have the advantage of stretching Strasburg’s work throughout the entire season. Pitching once a week would give Strasburg 26 starts, the same number of games that Zimmermann started last season.

Another advantage of starting Strasburg on a weekly schedule is that it would boost ticket sales, by making it easier for casual fans who want to see Strasburg pitch to plan their ticket purchases.

Now I’ll mention that I wouldn’t actually recommend starting Strasburg on Sundays. The reason that Lyons and others pitched on Sundays is because there were many Sunday doubleheaders scheduled in the 1930s and 40s, a reason that is now irrelevant. A disadvantage of Sundays is that they are mostly day games, and the afternoon sun in Washington in July and August can be brutal. Since the purpose of the innings limit is to avoid placing stress on Strasburg, I’d rather not add the stress of lots of day games. Furthermore, I remember some research by Bill James in one of his Baseball Abstracts that found that power pitchers did better at night.*  Instead of Sundays, I’ll suggest scheduling most of Strasburg’s starts on Fridays. Most Friday games are played at night and it’s the start of the weekend, when I think there would be an especially significant impact on ticket sales.

*I wonder if anyone has ever tried replicating James’s study on power pitchers in night games with more recent and comprehensive data. 

The objection to my argument is going to be, wouldn’t such a plan play havoc with the rest of the rotation? How can the other pitchers’ schedules work when one of their battery mates is not rotating at the same rate? I think these problems could be worked around by bringing in a sixth pitcher as a spot starter or “swing man”—a role that used to be common in most pitching staffs until teams adopted strict rotations in the 1960s. Fortunately, the Nats have a natural candidate for this position in Ross Detwiler, who will probably be used to fill in for Strasburg’s missing starts regardless of when they occur. Furthermore, since he’s out of options, he should be available to fill this role throughout the year, and also would be available for long relief when he isn’t needed to start. Basically what I’m proposing could be thought of as a “5-and-a-half man rotation,” where Detwiler would play the role of half starter/half reliever.

Let me illustrate how such a rotation might work, looking at the schedule for April 2012. For each week, I’ll list the scheduled games by day of the week, starter(“St”=Strasburg, “Go”=Gonzalez, “Zi”=Zimmermann, “La”=John Lannan, “Wa”=Chien-Ming Wang, and “De”=Detwiler), and number of days rest for that starter. The season is scheduled to open with a game on Thursday April 5, followed by an off day on Friday.

Week of April 1:

Th-St;  Sa-Go

Week of April 8:

Su-Zi; M-La; Tu-Wa; W-De; Th-Go(4); F-St(7); Sa-Zi(5)

Week of April 15:

Su-La(5); M-Wa(5); Tu-De(5); W-Go(5); Th-Zi(4); F-St(6); Sa-La(5)

Week of April 22:

Su-Wa(5); Tu-Go(5); W-Zi(5); Th-La(4); F-St(6); Sa-Wa(5)

Week of April 29:

Su-Go(4); Tu-Zi(5); W-La(5); Th-Wa(4); F-St(6); Sa-Go(5)

You can see that the four regular starters other than Strasburg all pitch on four or five days rest, and their schedule is quite similar to a traditional five-man rotation. Detwiler, as the swing man, would pitch only twice during the first month, and would move to the bullpen when he isn’t scheduled to pitch.

During the season, I’d also try to conserve Strasburg’s innings by pulling him out early in low leverage situations. For example, after five innings, if the Nats are ahead by three or more runs (or behind by two or more), I’d recommend pulling him early even if he hasn’t reached his full pitch count. That way, I’d save a few innings and allow him to pitch into the post-season if the Nats make it. If the Nats are careful with Strasburg’s innings during his 25 or 26 regular season starts, he should be have enough innings saved to make at least two or three post-season starts.

If the Nats remain in the race in September, I’d start modifying his schedule to line him up to pitch in the most important single game of the post-season—the new wild card game (assuming the Nats reach the post-season as a wild card team). Since this will be a one-game series, it will be critical for the Nats to arrange for their best pitcher to pitch this game.    He would then be in position, if the Nats win, to pitch game five of the divisional series, and potentially even a game or two in the league championship series or the World Series.

If the Nats are really serious about going for it all this year, I encourage them to consider a plan like this that would protect Strasburg’s arm while still making him available for the full season and post-season.

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