The Power of Hindsight and Strasburg's Innings
This is again a test of our memories. A journey back to what we thought and what was expected of the Washington Nationals. It is August 19 and the Nationals stand just 12 wins away from matching the win total most predicted they would end up with at season's end. In order for the Nationals to finish with that win total and no better they would have to play .285 baseball in their remaining 42 games. With the way the Nationals have played all season long that seems unlikely.
Instead of thinking all the way back to the beginning of the season instead think of April. Think about how the Nationals couldn't score runs, and kept winning games on odd plays like wild pitches, or how in April four of the five Nationals starters had ERA's under 2.00. If that low scoring great pitching month did anything it confirmed the thoughts that the Nationals were no better than an 86 win team. That the Nationals were a team built with a 90 win pitching staff and a 70 win offense. Things have changed a bit since then. The pitching staff has fallen off a bit, but still is pitching at a level of excellence while the offense has risen to being one of the better ones in baseball.
Imagine April again, but this time the Nationals don't have their best starting pitcher. They don't have Stephen Strasburg on the mound on Opening Day. It should be remember that on Opening Day the Nationals were only able to win because Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol decided to blow the game for Ryan Dempster. Strasburg only allowed one run, but that didn't stop the Cubs from entering the late innings with a lead. Over 32 innings in April Stephen Strasburg allowed a grand total of five runs. That is it. Five runs, and the Nationals still managed to lose a game in which he pitched seven inning and allowed only one run, because in April the Nationals couldn't score runs.
Over the past couple days more than one person has told me that the Nationals shouldn't have used Strasburg in April or they should have limited his innings in May, June, or July. In April no one knew that in August the Nationals would have the best record in baseball. No one knew that the offense would go on the type of tear it has since the All-Star Break. There are a lot of things about August that people don't know in April, but in order to reach August one has to get through April. Imagine if the Nationals instead of getting off to a 14-4 start instead start the season 10-8. Still a respectable start, but it isn't 14-4. It isn't the blazing hot start that they had that helped them to get to first place in the NL East.
That is one scenario if Strasburg isn't with the Nationals in April. The other is messing around with his routine and skipping him throughout the earlier months of the season. Before we go any further in this one thing should be made perfectly clear. Even with the Nationals at 74-46 with a 4.0 game lead over Atlanta in the NL East the post-season is no guarantee. The Nationals need to continue to run their best out there day after day in order to win enough games to make it. The Nationals have a sizeable lead for the second Wild Card spot, but even that can disappear. So, then what sense would it have made for the Nationals to start assuming the playoffs in May or June . Without Strasburg in the first half of the season there may not even be a pennant race in the second half.
Don't get me wrong here the Nationals are a very good team with or without Strasburg, but take his 4.0 WAR away from the team and they are currently tied with the Braves for the NL East and the Cardinals are a lot closer for that second Wild Card. The risk of not pitching Strasburg in April, May, or June is greater than not pitching him in October. That may sound strange to many, but consider that Jeff Weaver and Jeff Suppan once helped lead a team to a World Series ring. Now when thinking about limiting Strasburg's innings in creative ways think about Joba Chamberlain, and also consider that there are four other starters in the rotation on a routine of rest and work. Add to that the fact that one of those pitchers is only a year further removed from Tommy John's surgery than Strasburg and pitched a career high of 160 innings a year ago, and another pitcher in that rotation has never pitched greater than 75 innings in his major league career.
The decision to get creative in the early months with Strasburg would make the Nationals look both arrogant and foolish. For one they would be assuming an October and secondly they would be asking their other pitchers to carry a heavier workload. Losing Gio Gonzalez or Jordan Zimmermann would be just as devastating to the Nationals playoff hopes as losing Strasburg. The Nationals are doing what they think is best, and they are committed to this idea. Nothing can or should have been done, and it is the same type of decision the Oakland A's made in 2002 when they traded Carlos Pena in order to get Scott Hatteberg more playing time.