Stephen Strasburg's Inning Limit
It seems as though we can’t get away from this story. Every time I turn on ESPN the pundits are analyzing the Washington Nationals’ decision to shut down their ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg. The Nationals GM, Mike Rizzo, has claimed since the season started that the team, in order to protect their prized arm, would not let Strasburg continue to pitch after he was in the 160-180 inning range for the season. That decision was made after Strasburg’s start against the Miami Marlins last Friday in an outing in which he only lasted 3 innings. His final stat line for the season was: 15-6 record, 3.16 ERA, 197 SO, 136 hits, and 159 1/3 innings pitched.
What strikes me as amazing about this story is that it shows the complete and utter lack of understanding by the baseball people in the Nationals’ organization with regards to baseball arm injuries. The approach the Nationals took is a common one that shows they believe that at the end of the day there are a limited number of pitches in each pitchers arm before they will break down and that the only way to save a pitcher is to slow down the pace in which a pitcher reaches this “break down” number of pitches thrown. This lack of understanding is amplified because they are traveling down this route despite the impact it could have on their playoff run.
I wrote a blog a few months back that discussed my view of pitch counts in little league baseball, in which I stated my opposition for across the board pitch count limits due to the fact that players are prepared differently to pitch—for some pitchers 50 pitches would be too many for their under prepared bodies to handle while others would be prepared to handle more than 75 pitches. In Strasburg’s case, this problem is still present, despite it being an innings pitched limit and not pitch count, because the limitation is not specifically tailored for him, but instead is simply a pre-established program the Nationals are following.
The Nationals have used this same type of program before with Jordan Zimmerman, another pitcher who had returned from Tommy John surgery the year before. The Nationals, even with their concern for the best pitcher in the organization, can’t help but use a “cookie-cutter” type program for him. True, this program might be only for young major leaguers with serious talent who are returning from Tommy John surgery, but it is still a one sized fits all type approach.
You would have thought by now that a major league organization would know that what is best for one pitcher is not always the best for another. There are numerous variables between athletes that should be taken into account: strength, flexibility, arm action, and even the pitcher’s mental state. Moreover, after-the-fact assessments should be considered to try and understand when a pitcher has reached his saturation point: command, velocity, sharpness of his pitches, recovery time, soreness, any aches and pains, etc. Instead of looking at these factors, Mike Rizzo told the world during spring training that Strasburg would be finished somewhere between 160-180 innings. I mean Strasburg could have re-injured himself by then.
Another important flaw of the pre-ordained inning limit that the Nationals are relying on is the fact that not all innings are created equal. What do I mean by that? Well what pitcher do you think has put a tougher load on his arm: Pitcher 1 goes out and dominates the other team throwing 7 innings and ends up with a pitch count at 75 pitches. Pitcher 2 struggles and only throws 3 innings but they are very long innings that averaged 25 pitches per inning for a total of 75 pitches. Now, according to the Nationals inning tracker plan, Pitcher 1 is 4 innings closer to the shut down zone than pitcher 2 despite having breezed through his outing and put a lot less stress on his arm. Long innings with lots of pitches is one of the hardest things on a pitcher’s arm, but this is not taken into account at all with the Nationals system.
Let’s compare two of Strasburg actual starts to demonstrate that this type of thing occurs in reality and not just in my hypothetical situation. In Strasburg’s first start this season on April 5 he threw 82 pitches in 7 innings in a win over the Chicago Cubs. Compare that with his outing on June 8 in a win over the Red Sox where he threw only 6 innings but logged 119 pitches. One inning less, but 37 more pitches over those fewer innings. You can bet that his arm felt more stress during that June 8th outing that it did on his season opening start, but this was ignored by the Nationals.
Now I am not sure if the Nationals claim to have some support for their seemingly arbitrary 160-180 inning mark, but from my experience with professional baseball, I would bet serious money that they pulled these numbers out of thin air. They probably know that the 200 inning mark in professional baseball is considered a lot of innings (guys who go over this number are considered “work horses”) so in all likelihood they simply thought of a range that was south of this. Establishing a range of innings pitched for your now healthy ace based on anything other than acute awareness of the specific circumstances surrounding the individual pitcher is absurd. And we know this did not occur as the Nationals have used the range before.
In fact, I would venture to say that Strasburg is probably in better throwing shape now than he has been in years (if not ever). Pitchers coming off of Tommy John spend so much time doing rehab exercises that they usually come back stronger than before. The reason for this is due to the fact that most pitchers don’t spend enough time doing “prehab” type activities and will only do them in a “rehab” situation after they are injured. Regardless, I would guess that Strasburg is better prepared to throw a full big league season now than he has ever been – and if he doesn’t continue with his rehab exercises into the future to keep from getting hurt again – he will probably be in better shape this year than he will be at any point in the future.
In my next blog I want to discuss how the Nationals have failed to realize the most crucial point in this entire ordeal: that Strasburg was injured not because he threw too many innings, but because of the inefficiencies in his arm action.
Until next time,