There is one question on the mind of every fan of the Washington Nationals right now. Will General Manager Mike Rizzo will keep his word and limit the season innings of ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg to protect his prized, surgically reconstructed right arm?
With his one inning of work at the recent All Star Game, Strasburg reached exactly 100 innings in his first season back from Tommy John surgery. Due to his impressive 135 strikeouts and 2.66 ERA and the team’s position atop the National League East standings, his increasing inning count has grabbed headlines. Additionally numerous sources have reported that Strasburg’s magic number will be 160 innings. Given that the former number one pick in the 2009 MLB draft has averaged about 6 innings per start this year, basic math suggests that Strasburg has roughly 10 starts left while the Nationals fight for a division title.
Earlier this week, Rizzo stated that he alone would make the decision about Strasburg’s future this season. He countered the notion that there is a specific limit on the number of innings his phenom pitches. “There is no magic number. It will be the eye test. Davey (manager Davey Johnson) won’t decide and ownership won’t decide. It will be the general manager, and that’s me,” Rizzo explained.
Last August, fellow Nationals’ starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann was shut down by the team after 161 innings in his first season back from his Tommy John surgery. Rizzo points out that Zimmermann’s experience last year will play a role in his decision with Strasburg. “When it happens, Stephen will not pitch again until spring training (in 2013). We tried something similar with Zimmermann last year and he just could not get going again. We won’t make the same mistake.”
Ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, better known as Tommy John surgery for the famed pitcher who underwent the procedure decades ago, has become almost commonplace in major league baseball. The injury most often occurs from overuse. Too many innings pitched, too many pitches per game or week or season, too many breaking pitches at too young of an age, and pitching with faulty mechanics are all thought to contribute to these season-ending injuries.
Also read: The misperceptions of Tommy John surgery
Fortunately the surgical procedure to create a new ligament, using a tendon from the wrist, has good success rates for getting professional pitchers back to the same level of pitching. But it takes time. It is often 12-14 months before he returns to the mound, and it is often the second season back before he feels as good as before. Teams have learned to move cautiously getting pitchers back to minimize the chance of reinjury.
Earlier this season, in an interview with the Washington Post, Strasburg had indicated that he feels even more confident about his reconstructed right elbow. Any worry about how his arm will respond to the violent pitching motion, which the pitcher calls “that little thing in the back of your head,” has vanished.
When asked about the possibility of a limit being placed on him then, Strasburg relates to the experiences of his teammate. “The one thing I learned from Jordan and what I’m going to try to incorporate is that I don’t expect myself …to go out there and say, ‘Oh, I know they’re going to take me out this inning because I’m only throwing this many innings this year.’ I’m going to go out until they take the ball out of my hand.”
Fast forward to a couple days ago and, not surprisingly, Strasburg seems rather ambivalent. “I have no clue how many innings I’m going to throw this year. I’ve answered that question multiple times, and nobody’s said anything to me. I feel great right now.”
Tommy John injuries: In the Zone segment from Episode 34
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Rizzo’s comments seem to have only heightened speculation and potential second-guessing. If the Washington Nationals are still World Series contenders in September, will they really follow through with the plan of shutting down their ace a month early? Will they truly try to preserve his arm for future pennant chases or try to win now?
“When we signed Stephen I made a promise to him and to his parents that I would take care of him and that’s what we are going to do,” Rizzo told ESPN. “I told them we would always do what’s best for him. This is a kid who has never pitched more than 123 innings in a year. We are looking at not only competing for the playoffs this season, but also in ’13, ’14, ’15 and beyond. Stephen is a big part of those plans and I will not do anything that could potentially harm him down the road.”
Nationals fans, and baseball fans everywhere, must now wait to see when Strasburg’s season will end.
What would you do if you were the Washington Nationals general manager? What if you were Strasburg’s parents? Or Strasburg himself? How would you personally decide if you should shut him down for the year? Let me know your thoughts below!