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September 9, 2013 / Nat Anacostia

The shutdown in retrospect

Saturday marked the anniversary of the shutdown of Stephen Strasburg. Like many Nats fans, I was taken aback at how his impending shutdown seemed to dominate the sports channels during the last weeks of summer last year; how broadcasters and sportswriters seemed to think that if they kept arguing with enough vehemence, Mike Rizzo would recognize the errors of his ways and reverse course.

Of course, the shutdown went forward as had been planned for many months, and the Nats went on to lose the division championship series. Now that some time has passed, how do the arguments stand up?

There’s a sense in which both sides have won.

It’s impossible, of course, to demonstrate that the shutdown may have saved Strasburg’s arm. If anything, he’s pitching more poorly this season. Nevertheless, the Nats’ decision to limit the innings of a young pitcher coming off Tommy John surgery continues to be the norm in baseball. If Rizzo had ignored the norm and allowed Strasburg to pitch more innings, and Strasburg were subsequently injured, the outcry would have been deafening. Rizzo, rather than pushing the envelope, was merely reflecting the current consensus on handling recovery from Tommy John surgery.

Furthermore, as Nats fans have frequently pointed out, the shutdown had no effect on the NLDS outcome. Absent the shutdown, Strasburg would have pitched one game, and Ross Detwiler would not have started. Detwiler pitched brilliantly in his one game and the Nats won. Absent some creative fiction, it’s hard to argue that Strasburg’s absence from the rotation had any impact on the outcome of the series. Of course, one shouldn’t evaluate decisions made in uncertainty based on the actual outcomes, but the actual outcome does illustrate analysis that suggested that any single player was unlikely to change the outcome of a short series.

The last year has also demonstrated that the critics of the shutdown were right about one really big issue—you can’t take post-season opportunities for granted. A year ago, most Nats fans were convinced that the team had become a dynasty and would have many post-season opportunities. At this point, we see that teams that look good on paper at the beginning of the season don’t always deliver. A team shouldn’t let it’s post-season chances go to waste.

This leads to another argument that deserves more attention—the Nats shouldn’t have been so inflexible in their planning. There are ways to keep to an innings limit without making a player ineligible for the post-season, but Rizzo was set on his plan and didn’t want to consider any alternatives. Kris Medlen had his Tommy John surgery at almost the same time as Strasburg, but he was able to start the wild card game for the Braves because he spent the first half of the season as a reliever. My own favorite alternative approach would have been to have Strasburg start once a week—an approach that was later endorsed by sabermetrician Tangotiger.  Someday I expect to see most outstanding young pitchers who are on innings limits, whether due to surgery or simply to build up arm strength, to be placed on a Saturday-only schedule as suggested by Tango.

Thinking about the shutdown makes me think about how inconsistently the Nationals have been about investing in players’ long term health. The Nats’ other franchise player, Bryce Harper, is a case study. His second season has been seriously derailed because they never fully recognized that he was seriously injured when he crashed into a couple of walls, and have rushed him back into service rather than giving him time to fully recover. There seems to be an incongruity between the protectiveness applied to the team’s franchise pitcher and the seeming nonchalance about serious injuries to their franchise position player.

The team is also guilty of some serious pitcher abuse in the case of Ross Ohlendorf. Asked to start in the second game of a doubleheader against the Mets on July  26, facing Mets ace Matt Harvey, Ohlendorf pitched brilliantly, allowing 6 hits and 1 run over 7 innings. By the seventh inning, however, it was obvious that he was out of gas, but Davey didn’t have anyone warming up in the bullpen and had Ohlendorf work his way out of trouble. He did, and the Nationals went on to win with a ninth inning walk-off homer from Ryan Zimmerman. But Ohlendorf hasn’t been the same pitcher since. He had to go on the 15-day disabled list, and in 5 games since the Mets game, he has a 6.32 ERA in 15-2/3 innings. (In contrast, his ERA in his first 9 games through the Mets game was 1.87 in 33-2/3 innings.)

So while I appreciate the commitment to players’ health demonstrated by last season’s innings limits for Strasburg, I wish the principle were applied more consistently, and flexibly, to all of the players on the team.

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