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Sunday, September 9, 2012

Strasburg - shut down

The Washington Nationals have shut down Stephen Strasburg for the season.  Strasburg is one of the rare talents in Major League baseball - being able to make the best hitters look foolish with regularity.   When Strasburg reached the majors, he was unique in being able to throw in the high '90's as well has have preternatural control.  The 'book' on Strasburg was that his control was too good - he'd be around the strike zone too much and actually had to concentrate on being more wild.  This runs counter to every other rocket armed young pitcher.

Strasburg, in his first season, had to have Tommy John surgery on his elbow.  The Nationals franchise has kept him on an innings limit for his entire career.  This is done to protect his health and the franchise's investment in him.  This is common practice nowadays - as seen with Joba Chamberlain of the Yankees.  As of yesterday, after 159 innings, Strasburg's regular season is over.  The rationale is to protect his health for the long term.

The question I have regards this strategy's effectiveness.  In trying to protect the longevity of a young pitcher's arm, are they becoming too fragile?  Is the coddling of the arm limiting arm strength?  As a 19 year old, Bob Feller threw 271 innings.  That was his third season in the majors.  Catfish Hunter threw 176 innings as a 20 year old - his 2nd season in the majors.  Bert Blyleven threw 278 innings as a 20 year old - his second season in the majors.  Jim Palmer tossed 208 innings as a 20 year old.  Dwight Gooden - 218 innings as a 19 year old.  Tom Seaver threw 210 innings in the minors, as a 21 year old and after a storied career at USC.

All of the above pitchers were at worst, all stars.  I don't think this is an unfair comparison.  Strasburg has hall of fame stuff.  He was the first pick over all.  He was drafted to lead the franchise to the promised land, not to be a journeyman 15 game winner, like this guy, who threw 162 innings, as a 19 year old, in the minors.  I can understand, to a point, the argument that no one wants to repeat the careers of Rex Barney, Joba Chamberlain, Kerry Wood, Karl SpoonerBrandon Webb or Mark Prior.  However, with the exception of Barney, who had severe control problems, the aforementioned pitchers blew up as soon as they were given a standard MLB starting pitcher's innings load.  I think it is the lack of arm strength throughout a young pitcher's career that causes issues like these.  What are the Nationals supposed to do?  Give Strasburg 33 starts next year and have him pitch 225 innings?  Why will be be magically ready next season?  Perhaps the current strategy does more harm than good.  I remember reading in the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract that a reporter saw Sandy Koufax's arm wrapped in ice, his elbow the size of a grapefruit.  The Dodgers didn't need him for 155 innings - they wanted to see if he could go 9 innings and strike out 12 - as he'd always done.   In the end, it cost Koufax his career, but not after 6 seasons of what constitutes some of the best pitching ever seen.  Even Koufax, with his sore arm, pitched over 300 innings when he was healthy.  This was not abnormal - it was routine for pitchers up until the early 1980's.

Maybe it's time to stop coddling pitchers.  Build up arm strength at an early age.  We should look at the treatment of pitchers in little league and see if they're throwing enough.  The current trend seems to be hurting young pitchers, not helping them.


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