Stephen Strasburg’s season is over, and let’s just say neither Democratic nor Republican strategists will seek advice from the Nationals about how to diffuse a Washington controversy.
Did the national media get a little overheated about Strasburg’s innings limit? Perhaps. But the overriding truth is the Nationals — with an assist from agent Scott Boras — botched the handling of their young ace.
Here are the facts: The Nationals have the best record in baseball. The franchise is on the verge of reaching the postseason for the first time since 1981, when the team was in Montreal. And yet the overriding tenor of discussion surrounding the organization is negative.
One of the best pitchers in baseball will be unavailable to the Nationals during the most important games of the year. Strasburg finished his 2012 season on a sour note, with a three-inning, five-run clunker against the Miami Marlins. Manager Davey Johnson, according to MLB.com, said Strasburg has had trouble sleeping lately because he is “thinking about letting the guys down.”
It didn’t have to be this way. That is the fault of the Nationals, not the media, even though Johnson pointed the finger squarely at us. “I’m a firm believer that this game is 99 percent mental,” Johnson said, according to MLB.com. “He is only human. I don’t how anybody can be . . . mentally concentrating on the job at hand with the media hype to this thing.”
Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo could have mitigated the controversy by being more flexible in his planning and less strident in his public remarks. Why not start Strasburg’s season in May or June, or back him off at different times during the year, so he could contribute down the stretch? Why not recalibrate the innings limit when it became clear that the Nationals had a legitimate chance to win the World Series sooner than expected?
Instead, Rizzo and the Nationals stuck to a plan rooted in dogma, not hard science. No one knows if capping Strasburg’s season at 159 1/3 innings will save his arm, just as no one knows if the shutdown will affect Strasburg’s confidence or psyche by the time he throws his next meaningful pitch seven months from now.
Johnson said it himself: Baseball is “99 percent mental.” Yet the Nationals are handling Strasburg based on a physical/statistical metric. Seems incongruous, doesn’t it? Did the Nationals calculate the injury risk associated with the mental stress and lack of sleep that we now know resulted from the innings limit?
In addition, the Nationals are denying Strasburg the valuable experience of learning how to pitch in September and October. Yes, it’s best to be prudent with pitchers who have had Tommy John surgery. But for all the high fives the Nationals are giving themselves for their handling of Jordan Zimmermann — the post-op model for Strasburg — Zimmermann has a 5.54 ERA since the beginning of August. Maybe Zimmermann would be pitching better if the Nationals had allowed him to throw more than 161 1/3 innings last year.
The Nationals have unnecessarily cranked up the pressure on themselves and Strasburg. Absent the controversy, the Nationals would have been able to deem this a successful season even if they were eliminated in the division series. After all, look at their stunning progress following an 80-win season in 2011.
Instead, the coming months will be filled with criticism unless the Nationals win the World Series. Rizzo will be second-guessed until the day he wins a World Series. The Nationals are supposedly protecting Strasburg’s future. But do you think Boras is going to give them any discount when Strasburg hits free agency after the 2016 season? Rizzo might be inadvertently protecting Strasburg so he can pitch against the Nationals.
The irony, of course, is that the Nationals might still be the closest thing to a favorite in this year’s National League playoffs. I said as much in a video on this website several days ago. Rizzo has built one of the best, deepest rosters in the game. But that is a discussion for another day. The mood around the franchise right now — from Strasburg’s performance Friday to Johnson’s comments Saturday — shows just how wrong the Nationals are.