Six years ago, Justin Verlander was Stephen Strasburg.
He was 23. He was an ace-in-training. He was in his first full major-league season. He was pitching for an underdog that created championship expectations with a fast start.
All of that is true for Strasburg and the 2012 Washington Nationals.
Jim Leyland, in his first season as the Detroit manager, vowed to take good care of the Tigers’ prized arm. While Verlander wasn’t coming off a surgery, as Strasburg is now, he didn’t pitch after Aug. 2 the previous year because of minor posterior capsular inflammation in his right shoulder.
So, the Tigers trimmed innings from Verlander’s workload when they could — pushing back his first start after the All-Star break, skipping him once in August, scratching his final regular-season start once a postseason berth had been clinched. The idea was to keep him fresh for October — when he made four starts, including Games 1 and 5 of the 2006 World Series. He threw 207 2/3 innings in all.
Recently, I asked Verlander what his reaction would have been if, roundabout Sept. 15 of that year, Leyland had told him he was finished.
Sorry. You’ve hit your innings limit. I know you’re our best pitcher, but the numbers say we have to shut you down. Thanks for all your contributions, but you’re done.
“I couldn’t fathom that,” Verlander told me.
I couldn’t, either.
But it might happen with Strasburg.
Strasburg, who next pitches Saturday at Dodger Stadium, ranks third in the majors with a 1.08 ERA through four starts. He has fanned 25 batters in 25 innings, looking perhaps even more dominant than in his sensational debut summer of 2010.
But Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Davey Johnson indicated in spring training that Strasburg will have an innings cap in his first full season after undergoing Tommy John elbow surgery. They haven’t said what the limit will be, nor have they divulged the algorithm used to arrive at the number. But it appears Strasburg will start every fifth game until the hourglass runs out. The team says restricting Strasburg’s 2012 workload is in the best interest of the player and organization.
Stephen Strasburg should decide what is best for Stephen Strasburg.
If his body tells him that he’s through after 160 or 170 or 180 innings, then Nationals officials, players and fans must accept it. But why script September right now? Why not be proactive — take him out an inning early, push him back a day — so he has the best chance of helping the organization win a title?
That’s the goal, isn’t it?
It would be different if the Nationals still were rebuilding. (They own the best record in the National League at 14-4.)
It would be different if Strasburg underwent the surgery last year. (He had the surgery on Sept. 3, 2010.)
It would be different if the franchise had built up capital with its fan base through years of winning. (The Nationals haven’t finished over .500 since moving to Washington in 2005.)
It would be different if crowds already were cramming into Nationals Park. (The Nationals entered Wednesday with the NL’s second-lowest average home attendance.)
Whatever the internal projections were, the Nationals have a championship-caliber team now, particularly given the Philadelphia Phillies’ ongoing injury woes. The NL East flag is theirs for the capturing. Would the team really turn a public-relations bonanza into a public-relations catastrophe by ruling out a perfectly healthy, All-Star-caliber pitcher when everything is at stake in September?
“What’s the reaction of the city?” Verlander asked, as he pondered the scenario. “What’s the reaction of the fans? I don’t know. There’s no guarantee you’re going to get back.”
The Texas Rangers understand how precious each October is. As good as they are, and as young as they are, they don’t know if Game 6 in St. Louis was their last, best chance at a title.
So when I suggested to Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler that the Nationals might curtail Strasburg’s season, you can imagine his reaction.
“There’s no way it could happen,” Kinsler said. “There’s no way if DC is in the race that they would shut down Strasburg. I don’t think a team would react well to that.
“What are you telling your team? It’s just not a good message. But that’s not my decision.”
Texas closer Joe Nathan has been to the postseason four times without winning a title. He also underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010. He understands what it’s like to go through the yearlong rehabilitation, how there are odd days when your elbow feels great but your shoulder is stiff. Nathan said “it could be a smart thing” for the Nationals to put a limit on Strasburg.
And yet …
“To be honest with you, I don’t think it was something they needed to announce,” Nathan said. “If they continue to be as good as they are, and they’re in a playoff race, do you think they’re shutting him down?”
There isn’t a consensus among executives with other teams about what the Nationals’ best course of action would be. One general manager said he tries to avoid an innings increase of more than 20 percent for any pitcher; that isn’t feasible in the case of Strasburg, who had only 92 innings in the majors before this year. Others executives said it’s more important to ease Strasburg’s workload in April, while he’s still regaining a foothold in the majors, rather than September.
Personally, I’m partial to what one NL team official told me about the Strasburg Plan: “I think it’s a good idea, but it’s also getting extreme with being overprotective. I think we focus too much on volume and not enough on stress in innings. Not all innings are the same.”
In other words: By all means, take reasonable steps to prevent injuries. Skip his turn a few times during the regular season. But be prepared to call an audible if your eyes tell you the player can handle the job. Every injury is different. Every delivery is different. Every pitcher is different.
Again, consider the Verlander example.
As a rookie in 2006, Verlander had an average fastball of 95.1 miles per hour — the second-hardest in baseball, according to FanGraphs.com. This year, Strasburg has the hardest: 95.4.
Verlander admits to wearing down in the second half of that season. (“I felt horrible,” he said.) But that served a purpose. He spoke with the team’s athletic trainers and doctors at length, ensuring that he wasn’t putting himself at increased risk of injury. They examined him frequently and assured him he was experiencing soreness and fatigue, not something more serious.
Asked about that experience the other day, Verlander said, “I don’t think I would be where I am now if it weren’t for that, having gone through that.” He was referring to the way 2006 helped him understand how to prepare his body for the rigors of a six- or seven-month season. Verlander adopted a regimen of shoulder exercises after that season, and they have helped him become perhaps the best pitcher in baseball.
The Nationals should allow Strasburg the same type of freedom in September. They may win a championship in the process.