Mike Rizzo came out the other day and said flat out that there is no number on Strasburg's innings limit and when it is time to make the call on when to shut down the Nationals Ace that call will be on him. Everyone took that to mean that the Nats were backing off of the innings limit and were going to use Strasburg as long as possible, but there is another possibility.
Over Strasburg's last five starts he is 1-3 with a 4.10 ERA. There are greater concerns than the stats that indicate Strasburg is not himself. On the season Strasburg has average just over 5 2/3 innings a start while in his last five starts he has average just over 5 innings. It is a small drop off and some of it is caused by only lasting three innings due to heat exhaustion in Atlanta, but the drop off in innings pitched isn't the only trouble.
In his last five starts batters have an OPS of .805 against Strasburg compared to .643 on the season, and Strasburg's K/BB ratio has dropped from 4.38 to 3.00. These are all troubling signs, but this has happened before to Strasburg this season. After an extremely impressive April Strasburg suffered a bit of a setback in May. Nowhere near as big of a setback as this has been, but after one great month Strasburg then had a disappointing month before having another very good month in June. July has not gotten off to the best of starts for Strasburg, and there are signs that the season might be wearing on him.
Perhaps this is all the normal ups and downs that come with the territory of returning from Tommy John's surgery. In 2011 Jordan Zimmermann suffered the same type of spike in opponent OPS. For the season Zimmermann held opponents to an OPS of .671, but that increased to .758 and .805 in July and August. Strasburg isn't the same person as Jordan Zimmermann and there is the chance that Strasburg doesn't even make it to 160 innings, and this could explain why the Nationals are pushing hard for Ryan Dempster and have even expressed interest in Kevin Millwood.
If Strasburg is showing the signs of being finished for the season and his arm slot is dropping into the danger zone then the Nationals are going to shut him down. That doesn't matter if it is next week or never. As soon as the signs start to show then Strasburg is finished, and there are hints that those signs may be showing themselves now, and if that is the case then the Nationals need an additional started more than many suspect. It is one thing to get a fill in for four Strasburg starts at the end of September, but if Strasburg is done sooner than that then the Nationals need to find someone to take those innings.
All of this could be nonsense though. Good starting pitchers go through rough patches, and even Strasburg's rough patches aren't that bad. There is no good logical explanation for how the Nationals lost their game last night. It should have been a night where the lead was comfortable enough for the risks that Johnson took with leaving Strasburg in for the sixth and bringing Storen in for the eighth didn't come back to bite, but they did. The Braves managed to steal a game from the Nationals, and it shouldn't be forgotten that Strasburg show true resolve just to make it as deep in the game as he did.
Strasburg could be gearing up for a great finish to the season and there is still the chance that his innings limit never arrives. That his arm slot doesn't drop to the danger zone and whatever hints Rizzo is looking for never manifest, but over his last five starts Strasburg has looked more human than Strasborg, and if the shutdown is coming sooner rather than later it helps to explain some of the rumors that are circulating about the Nats at the deadline.