Stay the Course with the Strasburg Plan

“It’s funny,” Stephen Strasburg told reporters Tuesday night, after he waxed the Atlanta Braves with six one-run innings, not even letting a rain delay affect him. “Nobody talks to me personally about it. Obviously, I can either scour the Internet or watch all the stuff being said on TV or I can just keep pitching and watch the Golf Channel, I guess.”

If Strasburg did any Internet scouting over last weekend, he might have seen the innings limit—the talk of which has dominated just about everything when it comes to the National League East and, really, most everywhere else in the Show—has now achieved what some might think the ultimate affirmation.

A writer for Rant Sports, Michael Collins, suggests the pending Strasburg Shutdown is really a well-constructed smokescreen the aim of which is to lull the competition asleep and then, bing! wheel out Strasburg once the postseason, into which the Washington Nationals seem to have a locked-down berth, practically, opens. And Mr. Collins all but blames the conspiracy on, what do you know, Strasburg’s agent.

Strasburg’s agent is the venomous Scott Boras, and it wouldn’t be beyond the scope of possibility that Boras, Rizzo, and all other parties involved have hatched a little scheme to catch other clubs asleep at the wheel.

Boras has made passive aggressive legal threats in public regarding the Strasburg situation, saying that there could be “legal ramifications” if the Nationals don’t follow the advice of physicians and shut him down.  But has anyone really seen a doctor’s note, or heard directly from any qualified physicians who have examined Strasburg and recommended this action?  There’s just a lot of fluff being thrown around the whole situation.

Strasburg—The Plan proceeds, and not without controversy still . . .

You want a doctor’s note? How about commentary from the surgeon who performed Strasburg’s Tommy John surgery? The Nats came up with the Strasburg Plan based on the counsel of Lewis Yocum. “It is Yocum’s belief,” wrote Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post, who has been absolutely on board with the Plan from the outset, “that pitchers who break down from premature returns from elbow surgery—sometimes ruining their shoulders, and their whole careers, rather than their new elbows—don’t usually do so during the first big stress year but rather the following season. That would be 2013 in Strasburg’s case.”

If you believe Tyler Kepner of the New York Times, Boras isn’t exactly talking like a man looking to snooker the competition on the field. He’ll play the hardest game of hardball at the negotiating table when it comes to his players’ paydays, but ponder what he tells Kepner regarding the Nats’ following—read carefully, Mr. Collins, wherever you are—doctors’ recommendations, if not doctors’ orders.

“A lot of people have come to me,” Boras says, “and said, ‘What about the fans?’ You’ve got to remember, the fans of Washington are benefiting from this program. The Nationals wouldn’t be where they are without [Jordan] Zimmermann being part of that staff. Zimmerman followed the same protocol, and that’s why he’s about to pitch 200 innings and pitch in postseason games—because he’s healthy.”

Collins seems blissfully enough unaware that Zimmermann (who isn’t a Boras client) underwent Tommy John a year before Strasburg did and, while Strasburg sat it out for 2011 after having his procedure, Zimmermann worked 161.1 innings and was shut down 28 August. It was the heaviest workload Zimmermann had had to that point, too.

Oho, you can hear Collins fuming to himself, but where did the Nats end up last year? Is he aware that, this year, unless there’s a Boston-type breakdown due in September that we’re not aware of, the Nats have run roughshod enough over the NL East in very considerable part because Zimmermann is working with, at this writing, the second-lowest earned run average in the league? Is Collins willing to argue that the Nats finished third last year because they shut Zimmermann down when they did?

Nobody else is, so far as I know.

And nobody else seems quite so ignorant of the point that, thus far, the Nats’ three-way brain trust—owner Ted Lerner, general manager Mike Rizzo, manager Davey Johnson—takes doctors’ recommendations/orders seriously.

Rizzo has been the point man on the Strasburg Plan, of course, and he’s never been silent about his thinking regarding this. In the proverbial nutshell, the easiest thing on earth would have been to push for the Promised Land like now. (Want to know the last time a Washington team won a World Series? How does a month before Americans elected Calvin Coolidge to the White House in his own right strike you?) The harder but more prudent thing on earth would be exactly what Rizzo has said: taking the future of this pitcher and this team into full account.

“One reason the Nats have come so far, and so fast,” Boswell wrote almost a fortnight ago, “is the same reason they will shut down Strasburg when Rizzo decides the day. The Nats do things their way—or, rather, Rizzo, Johnson and Lerner’s way. They act in line with their best baseball, medical and philosophical judgment. Then, they don’t care what anybody thinks—as they’ve proved time and again in recent years, though few notice.”

It didn’t begin with the Strasburg Plan. It sure as hell didn’t begin with last season, when then-manager Jim Riggleman tried a holdup for a contract extension and Rizzo held the door for him as he quit ignominiously. And it didn’t end with Rizzo bucking every last urging from the conventional wisdom and, ignoring then-free agent Mark Buehrle or failing to deal for Zack Greinke, sending the Oakland Athletics four prospects for Gio Gonzalez. Whose 16-6/1.16 WHIP/3.23 ERA/9.5 K-9 is a neat parallel and companion to Strasburg and Zimmermann. And, whose personality has apparently turned the Nats’ rotation as lively off the mound as on it.

Gonzalez is also one of the Nats’ best interviews. Not to mention one of the wisest, as he showed talking to a Washington radio host earlier this month:

“I think that we want what’s best for Stras . . . “

I don’t really try to sit in the office and [say] ‘Hey, Rizz. What are you doing?’ I think he knows what he’s doing and I think that we want the best for Stras. And if that’s the situation, we’re more than happy to back him up. He’s an unbelievable pitcher and he’s been lights out for us all year. He’s key for us so far.

“But at the same time, we want him to be healthy and strong. We don’t want him to be damaged in any shape or form. I feel like we have a great team behind us, great rotation. Guys that can still pick him up whenever they need them. Our bullpen to me is gonna be our key. As long as they’re healthy and strong, they’re gonna definitely clean up a lot of our mess.

The Nats aren’t flying blind here. They know damn well that Strasburg is one of their biggest weapons against teams .500 or better. In fact, after he got through with the Braves Tuesday night he stood at a nifty 7-1 against those teams. Gonzalez is 6-3, but Zimmermann is 2-4. Edwin Jackson is 4-2 but Ross Detwiler is 2-4. But they have a bullpen more than capable of picking up and kicking aside any dicey openings.

But they also know damn well that their chances for going all the way to the World Series, never mind winning it, decrease without Strasburg. And if they’re OK with it, and Nats fans seem more and more to be OK with it, what’s the big deal?

Believe it or not, Tommy John himself thinks it is. The man upon whom the procedure bearing his name was first performed thinks the Nats should just turn Strasburg loose. Why? Because John himself pitched over 200 innings the year after he had the procedure. What he didn’t say was that he’d pitched 1930+ innings before he underwent it. Strasburg pitched a mere 68 innings before his procedure; Zimmermann, 91.1.

“Should we follow the expert medical opinion of a licensed surgeon who performed Tommy John surgery,” Boras asks, “or of the patient who was asleep?”

“Should we follow the expert medical opinion of a licensed surgeon who performed Tommy John surgery, or of the patient who was asleep?”

The Nats also know they’re not the pitching-only club they were reputed to be when the season began. Since the All-Star break, they’ve scored the most runs in the National League. They’ve found ways to win that would have been unthinkable for earlier Washington franchises. Their defence has been showing itself as somewhere between acrobatic and brilliantly timed.

But they also know what those yammering to chuck the Plan and let the kid pitch don’t know. Never mind that Washington hasn’t seen a postseason since Franklin Roosevelt’s first year in office, these Nats weren’t built to win like yesterday, never mind now.

“We know what’s right for us,” Rizzo insisted as early as the Fourth of July. “And we have the guts to stick with it. We’re an organization that prides itself on proper development of players. That’s what we explain to every parent about their son and every agent about a player. What’s changed? What’s different than it was with Zimmermann? Oh, a Washington team is in the race. I guess people are shocked. We’re building a team that we think will be good for a lot longer than one season.”

It beats the living hell out of some near-future prospects getting the idea, based on dumping the Plan and possibly watching Strasburg turn from winger to wreck, that signing with the Nats means you have a great chance at a short career launching with a team that couldn’t build and secure a Tinkertoy tent.

Damn right it’s fun, fun, fun to say “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and way out in first in the National League East.” Damn right it’s going to be fun to watch the Nats in the postseason no matter how far they actually go without their main lancer. But won’t it be even more fun to watch, very possibly, the Nats going back again and again, maybe even picking up a couple of rings, with Strasburg on the mound, and without having to worry about 95 percent of the time whether he’s going to break in half for good along the way?

I guess it won’t be, to enough people. Among them, the kind of people who let a great conspiracy theory—or a pitcher with a whole career ahead of him getting wrecked by overwork before he hits 25—get in the way of plain sense.

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