In the Washington Nationals' Wednesday night matchup against the Chicago White Sox, Jordan Zimmermann gave up a run in the first inning but was otherwise extremely sharp. He was able to keep his pitches down in the zone after the first inning, he didn't walk anyone, and he averaged just one hit per inning. As he finished the seventh inning getting Tyler Flowers to pop up to Ian Desmond near the left field line, Zimmermann had just thrown his 90th pitch with great location on a warm day.
Nonetheless, Davey Johnson pulled his starter in favor of Drew Storen for the eighth inning and Rafael Soriano in the ninth. They're the guys he's comfortable with in the late innings, and Storen and Soriano both looked very good closing out the win for the Nationals.
Similarly, on Opening Day, Stephen Strasburg was cruising through seven innings. He was even more efficient than Zimmermann was on Wednesday, throwing just 80 pitches. The temperature was much cooler, and it was the first game of the season, so Johnson pulled Strasburg in favor of Tyler Clippard and Soriano. It was the first game of the season, Johnson said, so he didn't want to overwork his starter that early in the season.
I understood why Johnson pulled Strasburg on Opening Day, until he didn't pull him in the 114 pitch outing against Cincinnati on April 7, just six days after he didn't want to send him back out for the eigth inning with 80 pitches. Strasburg was at 92 pitches through five innings in Cincinnati. In the sixth inning, he came out and threw 22 pitches to record just one out.
These are just a few examples of concerns I have about how the starting pitching has been dealt with early in the season. What's more, I'm also concerned about overuse in the bullpen. Now, let me add my usual "it's early, and things can change" disclaimer here. The Nats are 6-2, and they certainly won't maintain a .750 winning percentage on the season, which means the back end of the bullpen should get a few more days off as the season rolls along. However, Rafael Soriano has thrown five innings in eight games and Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard have each thrown four innings already.
If you recall, as the 2012 season ended and the postseason began, the Nationals bullpen became less effective. It's reasonable to believe that arm fatigue was a factor, largely because no Nats starter broke 200 innings pitched during the regular season. Starters were removed early in games, sometimes out of necessity, but sometimes because Davey likes certain relievers in certain roles.
Unfortunately, if you're with a team that hopes to win 95-100 games this season, you can't possibly have your seventh, eighth, and ninth inning guys finish every single one of those games. Clippard threw 91 and 88.1 innings in 2010 and 2011, respectively, and I thought his arm might literally fall off. Besides that, neither Soriano, Storen, nor Clippard have thrown more than 75.1 innings in a season in the last three years, and they shouldn't have to. They're all on pace to break that mark early this season.
I don't pretend to know more about baseball than Davey Johnson, who might end up a Hall of Fame manager and is one of the smartest guys in the game. He was using advanced stats before sabermetrics became a widely accepted way to evaluate players, and he's forgotten more about baseball than I will ever know.
Still, I worry that decisions like ones to remove Strasburg on Opening Day and to pull Zimmermann on Wednesday will hurt the team over the course of the season, especially when, in the example of Strasburg's two starts this season, there didn't seem to be much consistency in the decisions, even though I'm sure there was a good reason to Davey. Innings pitched from the bullpen in April take just as much toll on the body as they do in August, just like wins in April matter just as much as wins in August. It's a fine line, and I hope Davey ends up on the right side of it.