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April 5, 2013 / Nat Anacostia

The Nats will never admit it, but Strasburg still has an innings limit

 Strasburg has been adamant that he wants to be become a workhorse, throwing perhaps 110 pitches per game. Davey Johnson says that this season Stephen Strasburg will be allowed to throw as many pitches  as needed and has “got the shackles off.”  I don’t believe him – I believe that Strasburg’s innings will still be limited this season.

I don’t have a pipeline to the the deliberations of the Nationals’ front office, but there are certainly a number of signals that Strasburg will not be allowed to throw the 215+ innings or 3400+ pitches that are thrown by the top workhorses in baseball.

I’ll start with a column written by Tom Boswell last summer, just as the pitch-limit controversy was starting to heat up. Now Boswell has his pluses and minuses as a columnist, but from my nearly 30 years in Washington I’ve learned some things about how journalists work. High profile columnists like Boswell cultivate influential “inside” sources, and often are allowed to pick up information “off the record” or on “background,” which they agree not to directly quote. This arrangement works two ways – it often provides the journalist with information that allow them to write articles that “scoop” their competitors. In exchange, the journalist is sometimes used by the organization to get its version of the story out in a manner that appears like an objective, outside story. Boswell’s column on Strasburg last July had all the earmarks of such a story – it expresses Boswell’s opinions, but I believe that much of the information in the story was fed to him by the Nationals management.

Boswell wrote, “If you jump the number [of innings] by more than 20 percent from one year to the next, bad things tend to happen.” I strongly suspect that rather than a number that Boswell came up with, it actually represents Mike Rizzo‘s thinking. Is there any evidence? Look at how the Nationals handled Jordan Zimmermann, who—as was often noted last year—preceded Strasburg in Tommy John surgery by almost exactly a year and faced essentially the same innings limit in 2011 that Strasburg faced in 2012. The next season, 2012, Zimmermann’s innings increased 24% (including the post-season), from 161-1/3 to 199-2/3.  His total pitches increased from 2464 to 3164, or 28%. That’s a little more than the 20% cited by Boswell, but the Nationals clearly weren’t going to let Zimmermann become one of the league leaders in innings pitched or pitches thrown.

I think they’ll do it in a way that’s subtle and doesn’t get people talking, but based on what we saw with Zimmermann, I’d expect Strasburg’s innings to be limited to about 190 in the regular season, allowing for another three or four starts in the post-season. Last season he averaged 93 pitches per start; this season, I think it might edge up to maybe 96, but it’s not going to be allowed to increase dramatically. And you know what? I’m fine with that. Johnson’s mentor, Earl Weaver, had great success with young pitchers by not overworking them. I think that the attitude of Johnson and Rizzo is that young pitchers should be protected. And a lot of researchers agree.

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