Stephen Strasburg’s father moved to northern Virginia to be closer to his son. Three weeks after Strasburg got a stress-reaction diagnosis, his father died. The son, an only child, cleaned the father’s apartment out last fall and discovered the old man kept a library of newspapers and magazines chroncling his baseball career.
There it was. From Strasburg’s days as San Diego State’s most-hyped major league draft prospect to his early Nationals splash, all the way to his triumph winning the 2019 World Series’ Most Valuable Player award. And all the injury-addled points around and in between following his early-career Tommy John surgery.
“Time has gone so, so fast,” he told Washington Post writer Jesse Dougherty. “A lot of guys that you played with have moved on and they’re in the next chapter of their lives. It’s crazy to think about how short baseball careers can be.” Crazy and, in Strasburg’s case, sobering and saddening.
A month after that Series triumph, Strasburg got his fondest wish. In essence, and I said as much at the time, he clicked his spiked heels three times and pleaded, “There’s no place like home! There’s no place like home!” He got his wish, a seven-year, $245 million contract extension making him a Nat for life. It’s what he didn’t wish for that has Strasburg at a sad crossroads now.
He didn’t wish not to pitch on. But since undergoing thoracic outlet syndrome surgery, Strasburg has pitched only once, last June, before hitting the injured list again, Dougherty observed, with a stress reaction in two ribs. That was well enough after Strasburg underwent carpal tunnel syndrome surgery—and learned the hard way that that was a mere pilot fish for TOS.
If you look at Strasburg now, even at age 34, he still looks as though he could go out and give you seven innings. But he only looks that way. Underneath, his arm and shoulder remain a mess. There’s the very real chance that all the surgery on earth won’t let Strasburg return to the mound again. Ever.
And it’s not for lack of trying. Dougherty has recorded Strasburg’s efforts to rehabilitate, all the way down to limiting his workouts to his lower body only to discover those, too, strain his upper body because of nerve damage. Last fall, Strasburg still hoped to get well enough to pitch again. By now he may be hoping just to accept it if his body finally tells him pitching again isn’t an option.
The Nats have had little beyond trouble since that stupefying World Series triumph. Now they’ve got a bigger pile of it above and beyond their 25-33 record this year and their sitting at the bottom of the National League East heap. Strasburg’s been shut down entirely since late April with severe nerve damage. This may be the prelude to shutting down his pitching career entirely.
The Nats are on the hook for the rest of Strasburg’s contract after they couldn’t insure it. Dougherty reports that sources close to the Nats say they might not have spent atop Strasburg’s extension to insure the deal if they could have found an insurer willing to work with Strasburg’s injury history. Naturally, the jerk brigades can be expected to say Strasburg went from World Series hero to common thief.
You can’t convince them, try though you might, that even a young man whose pitching career has been marked as much by injuries as by triumphs on the mound doesn’t sign a nine-figure deal expecting to make only eight major league appearances in the time since he signed. Injuries may come with the territory of professional sports, but you can’t name one professional athlete who goes to the park thinking he’d really love to turn his arm and shoulder into a science experiment.
Strasburg’s had enough trouble in his career, whether his injuries or whether misperceptions about him as a man. For the longest time his stoic public demeanor caused people to mistake him for being a jackass. Behind it, he had to learn how to pitch with his mind when his body eroded his fastball somewhat. He took the misperceptions head on in 2019, letting his teammates loosen him up, loosening himself up more with the writers who covered the team.
TOS happens when blood vessels and/or nerves between your collarbone and your first rib compress, causing shoulder and neck pain and finger numbness. The surgery for it cuts somewhat invasively into the shoulder and the back. The surgeon removes a cervical rib and a pair of small scalene muscles.
Can pitchers return from it successfully? The known results are a mixed bag. When now-retired former Mets pitching star Matt Harvey underwent the procedure in 2016, FanGraphs writer Craig Edwards took a deep dive. For every Bill Singer or Kenny Rogers or Aaron Cook who can pitch a long enough time after the surgery, there’s a Harvey, a Josh Beckett, a Chris Carpenter, a Phil Hughes, a Noah Lowry who can’t.
“Counting on a pitcher who has been through this injury is a terrifying proposition . . . until we have a better track record of pitchers returning from thoracic outlet syndrome, it will keep its reputation as one of the worst arm injuries that a pitcher could suffer,” wrote Beyond the Box Score‘s Nick Lampe a year before Harvey’s surgery. Post-TOS pitchers might or might not lose velocity on their pitches but they’re very likely to lose pitch command.
If they signed delicious contract extensions before turning up with the condition, they’re going to be targeted as thieves by witless fans and careless writers who prefer gorging on the red meat of a fat contract going upside down to digging deep and seeing whether something physical might be the real cause. As if injuries somehow equal moral turpitude or mortal sin.
Don’t let the injuries or the jerks obscure that, when he could pitch, Strasburg was often remarkable, often enough great, and deadly in the postseason: he has a lifetime 1.06 postseason ERA and a 2.07 postseason fielding-independent pitching rate. His bold pitching in Game Six of the ’19 World Series made possible the Nats’ survival to the seventh game they won surrealistically.
When he stood tallest as the 2019 Series MVP, Strasburg spoke soberly in the midst of the Nats’ celebrations, even as he’d finally learned to loosen up enough to let his teammates hug him and make him show his joy. “When you have the ups and downs, I think you can learn just as much from the downs as you can the up,” he began.
I’ve learned that I’m a perfectionist. I’ve learned that I’m a control freak. And in this game it’s very hard to be perfect. It’s very hard to control things. But the one thing that you can control is your approach and how you handle your business off the field. And when you go out there and compete, it’s just about execution. And you put in all the work in the offseason, in between starts, to go out there and try and be the best version of yourself. And that’s something you can control every time.
Until or unless your body says not so fast, Buster. Yet again. This time, his body may be telling Strasburg it’s time to think about the rest of his life, as a husband, a father, a man. There shouldn’t be a juror on earth—in Washington or elsewhere—who’d vote against him if he does.