Why the Nationals Are Right to Shut Down Stephen Strasburg

Washington's decision to bench their best pitcher right before the playoffs is unprecedented, unpopular—and very, very smart.

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Reuters

Barring catastrophe, playoff baseball is weeks from returning to Washington D.C. for the first time since 1933. But the front office of the Washington Nationals is poised to make a personnel decision on their most marketable player that has ignited a fierce debate among area baseball diehards.

The Nationals, an afterthought since the franchise moved from Montreal in 2005, have the best record in baseball thanks to their elite pitching staff, led by wunderkind Stephen Strasburg. Armed with Justin Verlander's fastball, Barry Zito's breaking ball and R.A. Dickey's ability to strike people out, Strasburg is the kind of pitcher every team wants to start a deciding game in the playoffs.

Only Strasburg won't be pitching this postseason. Come October, he will be part of an unprecedented situation in American team sports: a playoff team voluntarily benching one of its key players.

The 24-year-old ace is roughly two years removed from a reconstructive elbow procedure known as Tommy John surgery, named after the Hall of Fame pitcher who in 1974 was the first person to have the procedure. Though the technical rehab time for Tommy John surgery is 12 to 18 months, recovering pitchers are often put on an innings or pitch limit in their first year back on the mound.

The Nationals announced in spring training that Strasburg was on a tentative 160 innings limit for 2012 and have since said they will shut him down after somewhere between 160 and 180 innings. Despite the team's unexpected ascension to World Series contender, general manager Mike Rizzo has not budged from the plan. And at the advice of team doctors, manager Davey Johnson has not given Strasburg extra rest between starts for fear that it would jeopardize his recovery.

Strasburg is already at 145 innings for the season, and at his current rate of six innings per start, he will reach 160 innings by Sept. 7 and cross the 180-inning threshold on Sept. 24 (the playoffs start in the first week of October). After that, he's done. No matter how far the Nationals go in the playoffs, even if they reach Game 7 of the World Series, Strasburg will remain a spectator.

The team took a similar route with starter Jordan Zimmermann last season, limiting him to 161.1 innings in his second year removed from Tommy John surgery. This season, a fully recovered Zimmermann is second in the National League with a 2.54 earned run average and will be a critical part of the Nationals' playoff rotation. Rizzo has repeatedly referenced Zimmermann's success this year as a parallel to Strasburg's long-term recovery.

Nonetheless, the planned shutdown has prompted angry reactions throughout the D.C. area, starting with the Nationals' dugout. Teammates such as bench player Mark DeRosa voiced their disappointment with the front office's decision to stick to the plan even after it became apparent that the Nationals were possible World Series contenders.

You take the best pitchers off any team that has a chance to make it to the postseason and it's devastating. At the same time, we knew it going in. You kind of hoped the better we played the more the decision changed to the opposite.

Longtime Atlanta Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone called the Nationals' plan "pathetic" on his radio show last week, launching into a diatribe against Rizzo and the organization:

I think it's absolutely ridiculous. I think that it's been 79 years since Washington's gone to a postseason. [...] These guys have a shot, they have a legitimate shot -- with the best rotation in baseball with Strasburg in it -- to go to the World Series. And to shut this down like this is absolutely ridiculous.

A similar sentiment reigns on online fan message boards. "You have to win now," reads a recent comment at a Let'sRun.com message board. "For all we know, the managager [sic], GM, Strasburg, or other key guys will be gone next year, and the Nationals are going to forego a run to the World Series to save his arm? For what? Totally antithetical to ALL professional sports decisions."

A poll on the Nationals' Fan Forum site has roughly 68 percent of voters agreeing with Rizzo's plan to shut Strasburg down. But a look at the comments section shows the frustration of the vocal minority that disagrees. "He's paid to pitch," fumes expos1994 (a reference to the franchise's last good year in Montreal, cut short by a players' strike). "If he's healthy he should pitch the whole season... even it means into the playoffs. He's not made out of glass. [...] He helped get us here... let him finish it."

The fans' annoyance is understandable, especially given the monumental hype that has surrounded Strasburg since the Nationals made him the first overall pick of the 2009 MLB draft. When Strasburg made his first major league start for Washington on June 9, 2010, he was already expected to save baseball in the nation's capital. I said as much in a June 2010 column anointing him Washington's sports savior, and the Washington Post had a daily "Strasburg Watch" in spring training of that year.

When Strasburg struck out a franchise-record 14 batters in seven innings of two-run ball in his debut, his status as Washington's baseball Messiah seemed secure. Now, two years removed from the elbow surgery that devastated a fan base, the Nationals are readying for the city's first postseason berth since bread was seven cents a loaf. At least three generations of sports fans in the city are gearing up for playoff baseball in Washington. To have Strasburg sit out a playoff run when the Nationals' long-term success in no certainty is galling for every season-ticket holder, armchair manager, and baseball diehard in the D.C. metro area.

Tommy John himself referenced the "win now" argument and fan disappointment when he went on record disagreeing with Rizzo's plan.

You've got a chance to win now. Now, I don't say you trash the kid, but you pitch him. And maybe somewhere down the road you skip his turn, you give his arm a little rest. But if I were a fan of the Nationals, I would be SO upset. That I've got a chance to be in the playoffs, maybe be in the World Series, and you're taking that away from me?

The calls for Strasburg to keep pitching are understandable - when a city hasn't won a World Series in 88 years, every chance at a title becomes magnified. But the preeminent sports doctor in the country believes many fans would have a different opinion if they understood the career-threatening risk of letting Strasburg blow past his innings limit.

"The fans need to understand that there's a real risk in pushing this," said Dr. James Andrews. "[Strasburg] is exactly right with what he's doing."

Andrews, who runs a sports medicine and orthopedic center in Birmingham, Alabama, has performed thousands of Tommy John surgeries in his career, many on major league pitchers. A sports doctor for nearly four decades, Andrews has treated a long list of sports luminaries that includes Michael Jordan, Jack Nicklaus, Roger Clemens, and Charles Barkley, and he serves as teamdoctor for the NFL's Washington Redskins and multiple college football teams.Though he could not discuss the specifics of Strasburg's case because he is not Strasburg's doctor, Andrews emphasized that the second year of a pitcher's recovery from Tommy John surgery - the first year the pitcher returns to game action - is the most important period for the long-term health of the elbow.

"The re-injury rate is highest in the second year," Andrews said. "So standard procedure is to watch the fatigue factor the first year back [pitching]."

The Tommy John procedure is designed to reconstruct the all-important ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow that connects bones in the upper and lower arm. Pieces of a tendon are taken from elsewhere in the body and inserted into holes drilled in the ulna and humerus bones, in effect re-creating the damaged ligament.

But the tissue of the inserted tendon is extremely weak for the first 12 to 24 months as it regenerates and gets a new blood supply, Andrews said. As a result, a pitcher's first year back can put an extreme strain on the tendon, putting it at risk for another tear.

Despite all the recent advances in sports medicine, there is no quantifiable innings benchmark for a pitcher in his first year back from Tommy John, Andrews said. But if a pitcher does re-injure the reconstructed ligament, the statistics are grim. Andrews' Tommy John patients have an 85 to 90 percent recovery rate from the surgery, but for those unlucky few that have to redo the procedure, the success rate drops to 25 to 35 percent.

"A redo is a career-threatening operation," Andrews said. "You're dealing with the existing scar issue, and you have to re-drill holes into already weakened bones. The scar tissue bleeds more, so the infection rate is higher. You don't wish that on anybody."

Baseball history is littered with pitchers who flamed out at a young age because they either were overworked in their early 20s or rushed back from a career-threatening injury too early. For every unbreakable workhorse like C.C. Sabathia or Greg Maddux, there's a Steve Avery or Mark Prior, pitchers who had several great years to start their careers before permanently breaking down in their late 20s.

Some sports pundits have proposed middle grounds for Strasburg: shut him down now until the playoffs start, or only start him every other turn in the rotation. But Andrews said that a stilted throwing schedule would likely increase the chance of re-injuring the elbow.

"If you shut someone down for a month and crank them back up to a high level, a playoff level, there's some worry there might be a higher rate for re-injury," he said. "You don't just all of the sudden go to a playoff level after you've been shut down for a period of time. There's rust there."

Strasburg has the makings of an all-time great pitcher, Nolan Ryan with a breaking ball and better command. More to the point, he's a human being, not a cog in a championship-winning baseball machine. Strasburg's absence could very well prevent Washington from finally bringing a World Series title back to the nation's capital. But an organization cannot in good conscience start a player when its own doctors - bound by the Hippocratic oath to "never do harm to anyone" - recommend that the player be sat to preserve his long-term health.

"You can't just think about the team for that one year," said Andrews, who consults for several major league clubs. "If you make that judgment as a medical doctor, it's often the wrong decision. We love to wear those World Series rings around, too, but you have to do what's best for the player."

Losing Strasburg for this postseason will be a bitter pill for long-suffering Washington fans to swallow. But when they are presented with the medical details, most fans will accept the ultimate truth: A World Series title that comes at the willful expense of a player's health is a title not worth having.

Even armed with the medical details, many Nationals fans remain unconvinced that shutting Strasburg down is the right thing to do. A common refrain among posters on the Nats fan forum is, as commenter PowerBoater69 puts it, "doctors always err on the side of caution, they don't know crap." But the overall sentiment, even among the most loyal Washington fans, seems to favor long-term success and the health of the team's most valuable asset over a short-sighted push for a championship that could conceivably end Strasburg's career.

"I have suffered longer than most with bad baseball in Washington, and I still say the team should do as they plan, and as they have been advised by doctors," a poster named Welch wrote on the Nationals fan forum. "Shut him down."

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Jake Simpson is a New York-based writer.

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