The Strasburg Shutdown Revisited
Whenever Strasburg took the mound last season it was known that the day after would bring a slew of articles about the impending shutdown. Most in the national media believed that the Nationals were foolish and that they were squandering a chance for the World Series. Many, and more now, point to the Nationals Game 5 loss at the hands of Pete Kozma and the Cardinals as proof that they were right. People inside the beltway are quick to point out that if Strasburg had started in the playoffs then Ross Detwiler wouldn't have and Nationals fans may not have this:
There are still a number of misconceptions about the Strasburg shutdown. For one, it was never 160 innings. The fact that it ended up at that point is more coincidence than anything else. The Nationals never shared what their exact plan or reasoning was but it isn't hard to deduce what they were looking at. It is believed that one of the biggest causes for pitcher injury is a change in arm slot caused by fatigue. This can be measured by looking at a pitchers release point during the course of the season. Mike Rizzo could have monitored this from either Pitch/FX data or by asking Steve McCatty and Davey Johnson to watch for a change in arm slot and release point. Either way would get the job done.
There is some evidence in basic stats that Strasburg was suffering from fatigue. His average fastball velocity in August and September dropped from 97.05 in April through July to 96.73. His control also suffered drastically. In April through July Strasburg had an average K/BB ratio of 4.67 that dropped to 2.87 in Strasburg's final seven starts. There is plenty of evidence that Strasburg was starting to get fatigued and it is highly probable that an organization as careful as the Nationals had even more evidence in addition to whatever contact they had with Strasburg's surgeon and their own team doctors.
The final misconception about the Strasburg shutdown is that it was done to prevent future injury. Outside of never allowing Strasburg to throw another pitch, that cannot be done. The reason for the shutdown was to limit the risk of re-injury to Strasburg's surgically repaired elbow. Think of it like a seat-belt or an airbag. Their purpose is to limit the risk of injury when you're in a car accident. If you were to get into a head on collision with a train no seat-belt or airbag will save you, but there are very few people who would point to that as a reason to not wear a seat-belt or own a car with an airbag. Most car accidents are not head on collisions with trains. Limiting and managing risks is part of a GM's job and Mike Rizzo and the Nationals felt that the best way to limit the risk of re-injury to Strasburg's elbow was to shut him down.
Now because of the shutdown questions have started to surface as to how many innings Strasburg will pitch in 2013. Davey Johnson has said he would like Strasburg to be a 200 inning pitcher. That is good, because an Ace starting pitcher should be a 200 inning pitcher. In 2012 there were 31 pitchers that pitched at least 200 innings ranging from the 238 1/3 of Justin Verlander to the right at 200 of CC Sabathia. The closest the Nats came was Gio Gonzalez who finished the year at 199 1/3 innings pitched. Jordan Zimmermann who was similarly shutdown in 2011 managed to clock in at 195 2/3 innings pitched, and in some ways that gives us an idea of how Strasburg will be handled in 2013.
In 2012 Jordan Zimmermann averaged 97 pitches a game and 6.1 innings pitched, both second highest on the team to Gio Gonzalez. Strasburg averaged 93 pitches per game and 5.7 innings pitched. In 2011, the year he was shutdown, Zimmermann averaged 95 pitches per outing and 6.2 innings a start. The Nationals were slightly more careful with Strasburg in his shutdown year than they were with Zimmermann in his, but Strasburg is a completely different body type and it is a good thing to treat them differently, but Zimmermann did see an increase in pitches per outing from 2011 to 2012, and it can be reasoned that Strasburg will see a similar reasonable increase.
The Strasburg shutdown is always going to be one of the first things talked about when the Nats are mentioned. They could win the next ten World Series and some expert somewhere will say that they should have won eleven. The Strasburg shutdown will haunt the Nationals franchise and nothing can be done to get rid of it. Those that thought it a mistake will always think that and those that see the reason and logic behind it will be drowned out by the screaming masses. Even now as the Reds prepare to move forward with Chapman in the rotation and a shutdown of their own, the Nationals cannot escape the voices that say nothing like this has ever happened in the game of baseball.
How many innings Strasburg pitches in 2013 is largely going to be determined by how he pitches, much like it would for any other major league starting pitcher. If Strasburg is at 190 innings with two starts left and the Nats in a tight race with the Braves then he will pitch those last two games. 200 innings isn't a limit, it is a goal, and the only Strasburg shutdown in 2013 will be of the NL.