The Washington Nationals and the Legacy of the Stephen Strasburg Shutdown
The true legacy of the Strasburg shutdown was shutting down an unforgettably beautiful season, leaving a legacy that tastes worse than chewing on dry aspirin. --Dave Zirin
If you have been following the Nationals this season you knew this was coming. As soon as game five was over and the Nationals had failed to advance to the second round it was bound to happen. There had already been echoes during the series when Ken Rosenthal wrote that an unnamed National volunteered to him that if the Nats had Strasburg they would be up 2-0 in the series. With the Nationals then losing the series many got the story they wanted. Some even went so far as to say the true legacy of the Strasburg shutdown was one of failure.
To even make a claim that any legacy exist is missing the point of the Strasburg shutdown. Strasburg wasn't shutdown because the Nats are some arrogant school yard bully trying to prove a point. The Strasburg shutdown plan was put in place the moment it was known he would need Tommy John's surgery. It is the same plan the Nationals used with Jordan Zimmermann, and while it isn't certain that this will prevent any type of injury to Strasburg it limits the risk. This was never a decision for the present it was one for the future.
What I think angered people is the Nationals made a move that weakened them in the present to strengthen themselves in the future. The future is an uncertain thing and even if Strasburg is perfectly healthy there are hundreds of other factors with 25 other guys that could prevent the Nationals from winning, but the Nationals believe that Strasburg and Harper are the stars they will win behind and developing those two as they best see fit is, in their belief, the best path to winning.
The Strasburg shutdown only became a big deal when it became clear that the Nationals weren't just contending, but were one of the best teams in baseball. From there it took on a life of its own and people that had grown up being told to carpe diem were suddenly seeing a team with a chance to win the World Series handicapping themselves for the present in order to capture an uncertain future. The Strasburg shutdown doesn't just go against what we are taught as sports fans, but what we are taught as a society.
Now in all this talk about the present and the legacy of the Strasburg shutdown being tied to the NLDS it is starting to feel like some believe Strasburg was shutdown indefinitely. Strasburg will be back on the mound next season and unless the Nationals make a drastic off-season move then he will be the Opening Day starter. The question then is what can be expected of Strasburg. The case for him being shutdown was unique in and of itself that what comes out the other side will be just as unique. Strasburg has a plus fastball, change-up, and curve. If any one of them is working he is an Ace pitcher and if all of them are working he is un-hittable.
At the age of 23 Strasburg pitched 159 1/3 innings with a K/9 of 11.1, BB/9 of 2.7, K/BB of 4.10, and a 3.16 ERA. Strasburg is a power pitcher with control. That is a dangerous combination and there have been very few pitchers like that in baseball history. The pitcher Strasburg is most often compared to is Justin Verlander who as a 23 year old pitched 186 innings with a K/9 of 6.0, BB/9 of 2.9, K/BB of 2.07, and 3.63 ERA. Verlander had a similar BB/9 at 23 but didn't stikeout as many batters as Strasburg. Verlander had the fastball at that age, but was still developing his secondary pitches. At 23 Strasburg is more polished than Verlander was at the same age.
Strasburg's 11.1 K/9 puts him in some elite company. It is in the top 20 for best K/9 in a single season and ranks Strasburg among the likes of Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, and Pedro Martinez. Of those the one that best compares to Strasburg is Martinez. Martinez had a smaller frame and some doubted his ability to stay healthy as a starter because of it, but like Strasburg, Martinez was also polished at a young age.
Trying to use any other pitcher in history to try and understand what Strasburg will do is foolish as Strasburg is a unique pitcher, but starting at the age of 25 Pedro Martinez was virtually untouchable for seven seasons. His K/9 in that first dominant season was 11.4 and his K/BB ratio 4.55. Not too far off from the numbers Strasburg put up this season, and anyone that watched Strasburg knows that he started to slow in the second half. He would have a great outing and then a not so good outing. Strasburg's K/9 in the first half was 11.6 and K/BB of 4.57. Those numbers dropped to 10.3 and 3.45 in the second half.
Looking at the month to month numbers for Strasburg he hit a wall in July and bounced back in August, but was not sharp in two of his last three outings. A full season of a fresh Strasburg able to put up his first half numbers for an entire season won't just be good it will be historic. Even if Strasburg pitches exactly as he did in 2012, but for 200 innings he will be a 5.4 fWAR pitcher which would have him tied with Gio Gonzalez for the second highest fWAR in the NL.
Strasburg is a young pitcher and some natural improvement should be expected. That might be what people searching for a legacy of the Strasburg shutdown are missing. The best is yet to come and the Nationals would rather limit the risk while Strasburg is in his prime than risk injury before he enters it. the legacy of the Strasburg shutdown is yet to be decided, and while it may never be known if it was a good decision or a poor one, the legacy of Stephen Strasburg will be another matter and it will be one of domination.