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Stephen Strasburg’s Innings Limit and The Nationals’ Post-Season Hopes

From the measured tones of John Paul Morosi to the outraged outcry of Howard Bryant, the sentiment has been the same. The Washington Nationals will be doing themselves and their fans a disservice by shutting down Stephen Strasburg at some point this season. While the algorithm the Nationals are using to determine Strasburg’s innings limit is unknown that limit is believed to be anywhere between 160 and 180 innings. If that is cut down the middle and the 170 is used, then Strasburg would reach that limit at some point in early September and miss roughly six starts.

Strasburg is averaging 5.9 innings a start which over 170 innings gives him around 28 starts on the season. That means in just about 15 more starts it will be time for Strasburg to be shutdown. The first and most important thing to understand about Strasburg’s innings limit is it is not a message that the Nationals don’t want to win. It is, in fact, quite the opposite. It is a message that not only do the Nationals hope to win this season, but they also plan on winning for seasons to come.

It is also important to get out of the way that those starts Strasburg is going to miss in September somehow matter more than the starts he is going to make now. Skipping a Strasburg start because of off days now means an additional start for the fifth starter, and whether that is Chien-Ming Wang or Ross Detwiler neither of them give the Nationals as good a chance to win as Strasburg. Additional starts for a bottom of the rotation type are just that, and it doesn’t matter if they happen now or in September. Every win over the course of a baseball season counts the same.

With the stat of WAR (Wins Above Replacement), it is almost possible to calculate how many wins the Nationals will be losing by not pitching Strasburg over those last 20-40 innings of the season. So far in 2012 Strasburg has been worth 2.7 WAR over 77 innings pitched meaning he is worth around 0.035 wins per inning pitched or that shutting Strasburg down will cost the Nationals between 0.7 and 1.4 wins. And that is if the Nationals use a pitcher on the level of an Aaron Harang who accumulated 0.6 WAR over 170 IP in 2011.

The likely candidates to take Strasburg’s place in September are Detwiler, John Lannan, Zach Duke, or Danny Rosenbaum. Both Lannan and Duke have pitched above replacement level at times in their careers, and Detwiler was off to a good start this season before being moved to the ‘pen in favor of Wang. The Nationals could also pitch Gio Gonzalez or Edwin Jackson on short rest in order to cover some of those innings and give themselves a better opportunity to win in those games. It is more important to figure out a way to cover those 20-40 innings when they do come than to try and get creative with them.

One idea that has been kicked around is that the Nationals employ a six man rotation. That idea is bad for a variety of reasons, but the two main ones are that Wang is a sinkerball pitcher and history has shown that those types of pitchers do not do well with an extra day of rest, and more importantly it would throw off the rhythm and routine of the other starting pitchers and could cause an injury to Gio, Jackson, or Jordan Zimmermann. Losing any one of those three for significant time would be far more costly than losing Strasburg for 20-40 innings at the end of the season.

None of this has even mentioned the playoffs which are starting to look like a real possibility as the Nationals are currently 15 games over .500 and have a five game lead over both the New York Mets and the Atlanta Braves for the NL East crown. It is only June and a lot can happen between now and October. In 2005 the Nationals also had a healthy lead on the division in June only to collapse down the stretch and finish in last place. This goes back to the point that a win is a win and getting them when a team can is more important than hoping to get them later on in the season.

The biggest misconception about baseball’s post-season is that the best team wins. More often than not the team that wins in the post-season isn’t the best team, but the hottest team. Last season, the 90-72 St. Louis Cardinals snuck their way into the playoffs on the last day of the season and ended up winning the World Series. Over the course of a 162-game season, they were not only not the best team in baseball but they were also not the best team in their own division. Looking back over the last ten seasons, it can be seen that the team with the best record in baseball rarely wins the World Series. Below is a table of the teams with the best records in baseball and their records next to the eventual World Series winners and their records.

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*Best record in AL

In the last ten seasons, only twice has the team with the best record in baseball gone on to win the World Series, and three times has a team with the best record in their league won the World Series. Over the last ten seasons, the team with the best record in baseball has won at least 100 games seven times and of those only one has won the World Series. The baseball post-season is a crap shoot. It isn’t about who the best team is but what team can have the best 19 game stretch.

To put the month of October in perspective imagine it as a different month. In May of 2012, the 32-31 Miami Marlins went 21-8. In the month of April, they were 8-14 and so far in June they are 3-9. If the Marlins make it to October and have the same type of run they had in May, then they are World Series champions and Giancarlo Stanton is the World Series MVP.

When thinking about Strasburg’s innings limit, remember that in baseball the best team rarely wins the post-season, and it is far more important to make it there than anything else. Strasburg is a great pitcher, but his presence alone doesn’t guarantee that the Nationals make it to October, or if they do, that they succeed in October.

The more important issue for the Washington Nationals is that they become frequent visitors to baseball’s post-season. Four times in the last ten seasons the New York Yankees had the best record in baseball, and they won the World Series once in that span. Winning it all isn’t an easy thing to do and being the best team in baseball isn’t even enough to guarantee it happens, but making it to the post-season year after year should eventually lead to a World Series title. As it sets up right now, the Nationals not only have Strasburg through 2016 they also have Gio Gonzalez over that same time frame and Jordan Zimmermann through 2015

Not having Strasburg for the late season push to the playoffs and possibly for the playoffs themselves is a tough thing to swallow, but it would be far tougher to stomach the thought of losing Strasburg for the 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016 seasons. It isn’t like Stephen Strasburg is the only good pitcher on the Nationals staff. He didn’t put up that 8.6 K/9 all by himself. And speaking of that 8.6 K/9, it would be the second-best in history behind only the 2003 Cubs K/9 of 8.7. That Cubs staff was led by a pair of promising young starters, Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. Those names alone should be a reminder of not just the oddities of the post-season (See: Steve Bartman), but also how important it is to keep a team’s best starting pitchers healthy.

David Huzzard is a guest columnist for The Nats Blog. Read more of his work at Blown Save, Win and follow him on Twitter @DavidHuzzard.

Joe Drugan

About Joe Drugan

Joe is the Managing Editor of The Nats Blog and host of the Nats Talk On The Go podcast. He's been blogging about the Nationals since 2010 and with The Nats Blog since 2011.

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