The Shutdown


            The Nasty Nationals have been quite a force this season.  With their enviable balance, coupling solid pitching with timely hitting and young stars with reliable veterans, Washington has emerged as the class of the MLB.  A few short years ago they were little more than a laughing stock in our nation's capitol: the 2010 Nationals finished just 69-93.  But this season, the pieces have come together and the script has flipped.  Currently, they stand at 93-60.  They own the best record in baseball.  They have already clinched a playoff spot.  Their run differential is +142, which is 24 runs better than the next closest (Texas Rangers).  If they finish the season strong, they could win 100 games; a feat that most would have thought impossible when they were the perennial doormat of the NL East.  And, perhaps, the Nationals have picked a perfect season to emerge as a contender, as no team has solidified itself as a World Series favorite.  Washington's balance may make it the default favorite, as most people seem to think the other legit contenders are flawed in some way.  The Rangers, the Reds, the Yankees, and the Giants are all excellent teams with records that reflect their excellence...but none of those teams have any obvious edge over the Nats.  Washington's strength is pitching (lowest team ERA in the NL), but they back that up with hitting (6th most runs scored in the NL) and fielding (4th fewest errors).  And for all these reasons and more, with a world championship a very real possibility, it seems strange that the Nationals have decided to go the rest of the way without their best player.

            By best player, I obviously mean Stephen Strasburg, the 24-year old pitching powerhouse from San Diego State.  Strasburg has anchored Washington's strong starting rotation, racking up a record of 15-6, a 3.16 ERA, and finishing a few notches from 200 strikeouts.  Gio Gonzalez has had an incredible season (the MLB's only 20-game winner) and Jordan Zimmermann is right behind him (2.90 ERA), but Strasburg is still the ace of the Washington staff; he's that hard-throwing, fearless juggernaut type that scares the shit out of opposing lineups.  His repertoire seems custom fit for dominating in the playoffs.  Unfortunately, injury problems that have stunted the early portion of Strasburg's big-league career.  He started only 5 games in 2011, after undergoing Tommy John surgery to repair a torn ligament in his pitching elbow.  And in an effort to avoid a reoccurrence of that injury, Washington has opted to cut Strasburg's season short, presumably thinking that the long-term benefits of having a healthy Strasburg outweigh the potential risks of pushing his weary elbow through the rest of the season and (what could be) a lengthy postseason.

            There are valid arguments for and against Washington's decision.  Possibly justifying the move, it's true that pushing Strasburg's untested, restructured elbow any further could have disastrous results.  And it's important to remember that Strasburg is not just a young superstar with incredible talent: he's the face of the franchise.  Perhaps the most-hyped baseball prospect of the information era, the Nationals have placed upon Strasburg the entirety of their belief in a promising future.  To Washington, it must not seem worth it to risk ten glorious years of potential success for a hypothetical World Series push that may never materialize.

            But this same reasoning could be turned around to justify the risk of extending Strasburg's season, regardless of the potential injury hazards.  Washington has a chance THIS season.  At the very least, they are guaranteed a playoff spot, which leaves them just 11 wins from a World Series.  There are no guarantees for the seasons yet to come; for all we know, Washington may not make the playoffs again until Strasburg is bald, 45 years old, and retired.  One would think that the Nationals, of all teams (with little to no history of success), would be stretching every edge they've got to take advantage of the opportunity staring them in the face.  In this light, shutting down their best pitcher seems absurd.  Professional sports are highly cyclical: you HAVE to go for it all when you have the chance.  The Nationals should be willing to do whatever it takes to go after their first World Series...a world championship is that important.  Even if it means risking the entirety of Strasburg's career.

            But as it turns out, this wasn't really a baseball decision.  It was a medical decision.  Apparently, based on information provided by Strasburg's rehabilitation team, a number of innings was agreed upon and once Strasburg reached that number of innings, his season was over.  It isn't clear what that amount was, but Strasburg got to 159 before they shut him down.  And he won't be coming back for the playoffs, either; his 2012 season is over.

            And it is the medical aspect of this decision that bothers me.  Granted, none of us know the intimate details of Strasburg's 2011 surgery and recovery like his doctors do, nor are any of us experts in sports medicine, which doesn't afford us any sort of informed opinion on the health risks of Strasburg throwing a certain amount of innings compared to a different amount of innings.  Still, something about the whole thing smells rotten.  There's nothing wrong with taking medical advice, but the blind acceptance with which the Nationals have accepted the doctors' opinion in regard to Strasburg seems hypocritical to the risk/reward nature of sports that makes it such electric human drama.  Fostering a culture of risk aversion, even when based on sound professional advice, undermines the very nature of athletic competition.  I mean, if they were given free reign to instruct the whole sport, doctors might shut down the MLB all together, as there is no medical benefit to standing near a concentrated mass of cork and leather flying ninety miles per hour a foot from your head.  And as far as we've been told, Strasburg is not hurt.  He is fully recovered from his surgery and seems as good as ever (as evidenced by his aforementioned season stats).  True, Strasburg has never pitched a full season, or ever approached 200 innings in his life, but uncertainty doesn't condone cowardice.  This idea goes beyond sports: you don't need to be hesitant or conservative just because you don't know what might happen.  You take the information at hand, make a value judgment, and figure out whether it's worth the risk.  That's the crux of this entire issue: is it worth it to bench Strasburg for the rest of the season?

            We can't say.  We can't say it's worth it to miss out on a great chance to win this season just to have Strasburg healthy in the future.  We also can't say it's worth it to risk Strasburg's arm this season when he might be sacrificing the quality of that future.  Both routes, as with all things in life, lead to uncertain outcomes.  But, there's something to be said for being practical about what's at stake and how legitimate the danger is.  Should the Nationals have resorted to such a drastic move based on opinions and speculation about the probability that he might get hurt?  There are so many qualifiers and half-truths in that question that I feel pretty comfortable saying that a World Series is an urgent enough impetus to stretch the risk margin and roll the dice that Strasburg will be fine.  I have great faith in the resiliency of the human body, but I have even greater faith that Stephen Strasburg knows his own body better than any doctor.  He's been bred since he was a boy to do one thing: throw baseballs.  Thousands of other pitchers have been in his situation and kept on throwing baseballs.  Some ruined their arms.  Some ended up in the Hall of Fame.  I'm not predicting which is more likely for Strasburg, but I tell you one thing: you don't get into the Hall of Fame by shutting it down with a month left in the season when your team is headed towards winning a pennant.

            So let's examine the potential outcomes of Washington's decision.  Best case scenario, Strasburg sits out and the Nationals still win the World Series.  Strasburg would presumably be healthier for the future and the Nats would have secured a world championship.  Another scenario, much more likely it would seem, is that Strasburg sits out and Nationals do not win the World Series.  The Nats wouldn't be crushed by this outcome, as they likely will still believe in the future Strasburg might provide them.  However, there are no guarantees of that future; Washington might never be in the position they are this season.  Neither scenario is all that bad: they could win without Strasburg or try and win with him for the next ten years or so.

            But those outcomes ignore the worst case scenario, which, in my opinion, is the most likely outcome of all: that Stephen Strasburg turns into the big league powerhouse we all know he can be and his arm becomes sturdy enough to last an entire season and he leads his team to a World Series championship, only, that team isn't the Nationals.  Because that's an aspect of this decision that Washington doesn't seem to have taken into consideration.  Sure, they might be extending Strasburg's career, but are they necessarily extending Strasburg's career as a National?  Out of all the bullshit him-hawing speculation in this debate, that might be the point that's most unclear.

            All things considered, I'd rather take the uncertainties of the present than the utter unpredictability of the future.  The National's can win a World Series this year, for fuck's sake; they should probably let Strasburg pitch and go after it.  I mean, it's not like his arm is going to fall off.  Probably not, anyway.