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Gary Armida's Blog
Mike Rizzo's ResolvePosted on September 10, 2012 at 05:23 AM.
Davey Johnson may have forced a decision a start too soon, but in the context of what was going to happen, Johnson’s desire to end the Strasburg countdown and controversy was the correct one. With more and more media circling with each passing inning, it was apparent that the story became bigger than the Nationals anticipated. It may seem ridiculous to suggest that the Nationals underestimated the reaction to their decision, but all indications seem as such. The Nationals players were kept in the dark, which added some media fuel with different answers from various players. The number or plan was kept as somewhat of a mystery as Nationals’ management continually gave cryptic answers. It looked like Stephen Strasburg was even getting frustrated to the point where his mound performance was suffering.
The last point may be the most important. All of this is about protecting Stephen Strasburg, a once in a lifetime pitching prospect who actually seems to be able to live up to our collective hype. The narrative has been written many times before: before Strasburg there was Mark Prior. But, this isn’t even about Prior, a once great pitching phenom who couldn’t stay healthy. This is about an industry that is still guessing by every sense of the word. Nobody knows whether or not shutting down Stephen Strasburg will keep him any healthier. Nobody really knows that he would be fine if he kept on pitching.
The problem is that as much as we advance with our baseball knowledge, we still tend to hold onto bizarre old school beliefs. We talk about pitchers being babied or players being softer than years past. This is the kind of talk that gets players hurt and keeps Major League Baseball and most of the other major sports in the 18th century in terms of injury care and prevention. The idea of a pitcher just pitching no matter how much the workload is archaic, outdated, and in this age, ignorant.
The game is different. Athletes are differents. Pitchers like Tom Seaver and Bob Gibson were both rare and were in a much different game when they pitched. Nolan Ryan can opine all he wants about pitch counts, but he was a complete freak of nature and a freak with perfect pitching mechanics. Ryan can talk about pitchers in his day and how they were tougher, but most of their careers were short and either ended in injury or a dramatic loss of stuff. Sandy Koufax was brilliant for five years. And then he was done. He couldn’t even lift up his arm. The best pitcher in the game lasted five seasons and retired at the age of 30(after taking parts of six years to finally find his dominance).
Baseball players weren’t tougher back then. They were simply products of a system that didn’t invest money in them and simply found someone else once they outlived their usefulness.
Today’s money is greater, which makes teams more cautious. It sometimes makes teams overly cautious. With the pressure from the fan base, ownership, and the media, a General Manager’s job is often a no-win situation, unless he wins the World Series. Then, that buys him a little time.
Mike Rizzo has been in a no-win situation since he drafted Stephen Strasburg with the first pick in the 2009 draft. His every move has been scrutinized since. The Nationals handled Strasburg as carefully as any prospect has ever been handled. Why? Because pitchers like him are rare and are assets. Pitchers like Strasburg usually make the difference between being a playoff contender and being a World Series contender.
That’s what complicates this whole decision. The Nationals have arrived a year earlier than expected. Optimistic prognosticators mentioned Wild Card for the young Nationals. Few predicted that everything would go right for the Nationals this season. The Phillies have been in last place for most of the season. The Marlins new uniforms and surroundings did nothing for their win total. The Mets started hot, but have faded. It has been the ideal division for the Nationals as only the Braves are playoff contenders.
All of Rizzo’s offseason acquisitions have paid off. Gio Gonzalez has flourished in the National League and is a legitimate number one starter. Jordan Zimmermann is terrific in his second season since having Tommy John Surgery. Edwin Jackson has found consistency and Ross Detwiler has been outstanding as the fifth man. And, of course, Strasburg has led the way for most of the season. That has added up to a 5.5 game lead over the Braves. In a National League with few real dominant teams, the Nationals have an excellent chance at a World Series berth.
But, Mike Rizzo stated all along that Strasburg would be shut down before the end of the season. He maintained that where the Nationals finish wouldn’t be a factor. He has stayed true to his word. While his team still has enough pitching to still get to the World Series, Rizzo has taken away his best weapon in the name of protecting his asset’s long term health.
Now that it is official, the reaction has been strong. Many believe that Rizzo is harpooning his team’s chance at a World Series. Many believe that this is just another sign that today’s athletes are babied. The only real valid criticism is that it does send a bad message to the fan base that pays big money to attend games. With their team finally on the cusp, management pulls the plug on their best pitcher. That message shouldn’t fly with Nationals fans.
But, all of the other arguments are baseless. The idea of not shutting Strasburg down and just letting him pitch is absurd because doctors who performed the surgery advised the Rizzo to do this. This wasn’t something that Rizzo just made up. And, while Strasburg’s overall statistics look great, he hasn’t been the same pitcher during his second half. During his first 14 starts, Strasburg posted a 2.46 ERA in 84 innings, while allowing just 65 hits, 22 walks, and striking out 111 batters. He held batters to a slash line of .214/.272/.313. His last 14 starts have seen him post and ERA of 3.94 in 75.1 innings, while allowing 71 hits, 26 walks, along with 84 strikeouts. Batters hit .247/.308/.408, which is still solid, but quite different from his first 14 starts. Also, he allowed five runs in two of his last three starts. Perhaps, the talk of a shutdown impacted him like Davey Johnson said. Or, perhaps, he was tiring a bit during his first full season post surgery.
While little is known about pitching injuries, there are three main causes: fatigue, poor conditioning, and overuse. Conditioning isn’t an issue, but fatigue could be. Overuse won’t be this season. Fatigue causes pitchers to alter their mechanics. That alteration could result in an arm being late at foot contact, which causes stress on the shoulder and elbow. Strasburg has been less dominant of late. Perhaps fatigue is an issue. It wouldn’t be surprising in year one post surgery.
Perhaps the Nationals could have skipped some starts during the season to save a shutdown. That would’ve been more fan and media friendly, but other teams have tried that without success. The Yankees had the infamous “Joba Rules” in order to protect their future ace. He is just back from surgery. The only method proven to reduce injuries is the use of biomechanics. Yet, few teams invest in it.
There is something to admire about a man who stands by his convictions even when the rest of the world thinks he is wrong. Mike Rizzo has done that. He did it last season with Jordan Zimmermann, but nobody bothered to notice since the Nationals were struggling. But, Strasburg is more than that. He is a pitcher that we’ve watched dominate since college. He is supposed to be this generation’s Clemens or Koufax.
But, Mike Rizzo is sticking with his plan because the alternatives didn’t make much sense to him. Risking a player just because of pride or to appease fans gets General Managers fired. Risking a player because the player doesn’t want to stop pitching also gets them fired. General Managers have to balance the now with the long term business of a team. The long term, according to Rizzo, means more. If his medical team’s data is correct, he is making a wise choice despite the criticism.
The problem is--once again--nobody knows. Unless Strasburg has a biomechanical analysis to see potential delivery flaws, he is always at risk for injury. Everything else is guesswork. Mike Rizzo is essentially guessing too. But, he is guessing in order to protect an asset. He may not be correct, but he has stood firm. In today’s media world, decisions like this can result in vicious reactions. Yet, Rizzo is doing what he believes is right for the Washington Nationals. We won’t know for quite some time, Rizzo has his choice. Doing the unpopular shutdown is an enormous risk for the GM.
Mike Rizzo has stuck with his original decision. Nobody likes it, but he’s stood firm. That is, at the very least, admirable. Whether or not Stephen Strasburg will be any healthier for it is a much different question.
BORN: April 17, 1975 (38)
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