Strasburg’s injury sure to spark debate

After processing the gloomy bulletin from Washington — Stephen Strasburg, elbow surgery, likely gone for a year — I have three salient thoughts on the matter.

1. It’s unfair to make the following statement: Strasburg’s mechanics remind me of Mark Prior, ergo he is destined for years of pain and unfulfilled promise.

2. If you want to criticize the Nationals, do so for their failure to scan Strasburg’s elbow, along with his shoulder, after he was scratched from a start last month.

3. We must accept the reality that throwing a baseball at upwards of 100 miles per hour is inherently dangerous behavior for even the most rigorously trained athletes.

Our instinct, in sports and society at large, is to assess blame quickly and follow with the proper amount of ridicule. But this inquiry has just begun. Divining exactly why Strasburg will go under the knife is akin to formulating a clear explanation for the Cubs’ 102-year drought. It’s a two-beer talk, followed by an extended stare at the empties.

Clearly, something went wrong, because a reputed once-in-a-generation pitcher will be out of commission for 12 months or more. The question is whether the error was avoidable.

And it’s incumbent on all of us — reporters, scouts, executives, agents, not to mention Strasburg himself — to find out.

Seeing as how Strasburg won’t throw a pitch until after next year’s All-Star break, we have plenty of time to reason our way through this.

First, let’s discard the hypothesis that Strasburg has been doomed for years by his own delivery — or that he’s a doppelganger for Prior at all.

In case you’ve already forgotten, Prior is the former Cubs pitching sensation who arrived in the majors amid acclaim for his supposedly flawless mechanics. But he was felled by a series of shoulder injuries and didn’t pitch in the majors past the age of 25. Prior is currently a member of the independent Orange County Flyers.

Some have compared Strasburg to Prior, because they are first-round picks with similar body types. However, Don Baylor, Prior’s first manager in the big leagues, said Friday that the pitching mechanics of the two aren’t similar at all.

In fact, Baylor said, it is Strasburg who has the more stressful delivery of the two.

“When I saw him, his slider was so violent, his fastball was so violent — everything was hard, hard, hard,” Baylor told contributor Tracy Ringolsby. “Everything was stress. It wasn’t that way with Prior. He was smooth and easy with everything he did. There wasn’t stress.”

The Nationals, for their part, don’t think that Strasburg’s throwing mechanics caused the ligament tear.

“We don’t have any reason to believe that,” team president Stan Kasten told me Friday. “There have been hundreds of pitchers who came down with this. All different ages. All different stages of their careers. All different mechanics.”

But it should come as no surprise that there are varying opinions on the Strasburg-Prior question.

One American League scouting director acknowledged Friday that there are indeed some similarities between the two deliveries.

A National League counterpart sees it differently.

“I would agree with the statement that Prior’s mechanics lead to a high potential for injury; I would not agree with that statement for Strasburg,” the NL executive said. “In my opinion, (Strasburg’s) mechanics are very solid.

“The issue is that pitchers that throw as hard as he does have a higher chance of something going wrong due to the increased stresses. But it is not due to his mechanics.”

No two arms are exactly alike. So, no two deliveries are exactly alike. That is why it’s impossible to run pitchers through diagnostic tests and conclude, with 100 percent accuracy, whether they will break down or not.

Pitchers are not machines. Computers, no matter how advanced, are unable to tell us what a man will do when 40,000 people are screaming at him.

And maybe that is the answer here.

A scout told me Friday that he had noticed a slight variation in Strasburg’s delivery in his last several starts.

In other words, Strasburg’s true mechanics weren’t the problem. It was that he had started deviating from them.

That could explain the 5.12 ERA since July 21.

So what, exactly, was the issue?

“The position of his arm,” the scout explained, in reference to the position of his forearm at the release point. “His arm stroke wasn’t as high as it was when I first saw him.

“It could mean his body was moving too fast. It could have meant he was tired. It could have meant a lot of things.”

It could have meant a lot of things.

Were there warning signs? If so, did the Nationals miss them? The questions may haunt the Nationals over the next year, when their stadium isn’t nearly as full as it should have been every fifth day.

I don’t believe the Nationals had a bad plan while Strasburg was in the minor leagues. His rest was regimented. His workload was controlled. But I do wonder if Strasburg was communicating effectively with club officials — and vice versa — once he made his sparkling debut on that memorable June night.

When Strasburg was scratched from that start last month because of a stiff shoulder, why didn’t the Nationals check out his elbow, too? Were they negligent? Or did Strasburg, adhering to baseball’s tough-guy code, exacerbate the problem by saying that everything was fine?

The irony here is that Strasburg can safely pitch at 100 mph. He demonstrated that in college, in the Arizona Fall League, in the Eastern League, in the International League. But not yet in the big leagues, where the circumstances are undeniably different.

Maybe the expectations were so high, the pressure so great, that the 22-year-old started wrenching that elbow … just … a … little … bit … on his follow-through.

Sometimes, that’s all it takes.

Perhaps Strasburg was making the same infinitesimal mistake on every pitch. At 80 miles per hour, no problem. At 100, it might be enough to tear a ligament.

Did the Nationals err in not sufficiently scrutinizing how their star pitcher was throwing?

Or should Strasburg have been more forthcoming about every little twinge he felt?

Or was this a simple case of one pitch, one ligament, one crying shame?

It’s too early to point fingers. That time may never come. But this should re-open the discussion on the inexact science of how to care for young pitchers, particularly Strasburg’s first-round, big-money brethren.

The line between reasonable caution and preventative zealotry is a murky one. That’s the thing about sports. It’s hard to be tough and smart. The process takes years. Unfortunately, Stephen Strasburg will spend the next one in neutral.