Monday, August 23, 2010

The Strasburg Situation

Edit 8/27/2010: This was originally posted four days before it was announced that Stephen Strasburg has a torn ligament in his throwing elbow and will likely need Tommy John surgery. First off, I'm surprised that this type of injury happened so soon. Second, I'm disappointed that I won't get to see Strasburg pitch again for a while. In my view, he was the most exciting young player in the game.

I also want to clarify something. In re-reading this post, it might come across as though I were frustrated with the Nationals. My main beef was/is really with the "conventional wisdom" expressed by many fans and talking heads that prized pitchers need to be babied to the point that if they have a sore elbow in August they should be shut down for the season.

At the end of the day, baseball has lost one if its rising stars for a while. My hope is that the medical team working with Strasburg can get him back on track for the big leagues... and for the long haul.

Back in June I posted about Stephen Strasburg right before he got called up to the bigs. I went on record saying that I thought he was a good bet to develop into a consistent All-Star pitcher at the MLB level. And here's what I wrote at the end:
I've also had a chance to observe him as an in-studio guest on ESPN's Baseball Tonight. Strasburg's stats and demeanor are very impressive. 
I think the signicance of seeing Strasburg talk on TV was that it gave me a window into his mind. He came across as highly intelligent. And let's face it, that's a big advantage for any athlete, especially a pitcher. But there was something else that the ESPN crew asked Strasburg about: His supposedly awkward pitching mechanics. More specifically, the dreaded "inverted W."

Here's a college photo of Strasburg that perfectly illustrates the inverted W. The supposed problem here is that his throwing arm's elbow rises above his shoulder, causing extreme arm stress. I don't know about you, but from where I come from an inverted W is an M. 

When asked by ESPN about the inverted W this past spring, Strasburg got a bit defensive. And while I couldn't blame him for not liking the question, he gave a perfectly reasonable answer, saying that he's always pitched that way and never had a problem.

I've been rooting for Strasburg. He's an amazing talent who's fun to watch, so why not hope for him to reach the stars? Part of the fun of sports is to see if someone can come along and dominate like no one else before. And Strasburg seemed to have that type of potential. 

Ever since Strasburg was signed, the media has praised the Washington Nationals for how they've handled him. Experts said it was good for Strasburg to go down to Double-A first, dominate there, then work up to Triple-A. The Nationals did everything by the textbook with how they babied Strasburg along. When they finally brought him up to the bigs in June, they did a good job of keeping him on pitch counts--only occasionally going slightly over when he had something special going. Again, the Nationals were widely praised for handling the future of their franchise with care.

And yes, I was among the people who thought the Nationals were doing the right things. Sending Strasburg down to Double-A first was a good way to help build his confidence, or at the very least not cause him to lose it right away. And from there they could gradually ramp up his level of competition and let him take a running start in the majors. That made sense to me.

As far as pitch counts go, I'm not necessarily a believer in them. My best guess is that each pitcher's body is different and responds differently to pitch counts. Maybe one guy benefits from working on a 100-pitch limit, whereas another guy could go out and throw 140 pitches every start without a problem. It probably depends on mechanics, conditioning, and genetics. (Note: If you have scientific evidence showing that most pitchers' bodies start to break down faster if they average more than 100 pitches per start, please send it my way. I'll be glad to update my thoughts.)

That being said, I don't see any harm in keeping a guy like Strasburg on a tight pitch count his first year in the bigs. The Nationals were following conventional wisdom, so who can blame them for that?

Unfortunately, last month Strasburg landed on the DL with shoulder inflammation. And now he's back on the DL with what looks like a strained tendon in his forearm. If you listen to the pundits, they all seem to be saying that the prudent thing is to be safe and shut down Strasburg for the year.

Okay, this is starting to get crazy. Let's go back to Strasburg's previous start. He's pitching well against the Phillies, then after one particular pitch he grimaces and shakes his arm in pain. The coaches and training staff run to the mound to see what's the matter. He tells them he's fine and can keep pitching. They say no, we're taking you out because we can't take any chances. But he insists on staying in the game. And then they insist on taking him out. Ultimately, the manager has the final say, so Strasburg comes out of the game.

And so what happens now to Strasburg, the guy who says he can pitch? The Nationals drag him in for an MRI. By the way, Strasburg had to get an MRI when he signed. And he got another MRI when he went on the DL last month. Now that he has a little pain in his arm, he's getting another MRI. And this MRI came back inconclusive today, so they'll be injecting him with special dye and taking at least his fourth MRI for the team, his third in a month. The Nationals might eventually figure out what's wrong with Strasburg's arm, but I'm afraid that in the process they'll give him cancer.

I do think a pitcher can be babied too much, especially if it's done at the expense of preventing him from getting into a routine. When your franchise pitcher grimaces in pain and shakes his arm after a pitch, yeah it's scary. But when you go to the mound and that pitcher insists that he can keep pitching -- and that he once pitched through the same type of pain in college -- I say you take him at his word and let him keep pitching.

I remember back in the mid-90's, Dave Wannstedt drafted Todd Sauerbrun, a punter, in the 2nd round for the Bears. The media panned the pick, but Wannstedt insisted that Sauerbrun was a special punter and worthy of a 2nd round pick. I was willing to take a wait-and-see approach. However, it didn't take me long to see how foolish the Bears had been. As soon as Sauerbrun showed up to training camp, they started working with him to change his mechanics. You draft a punter in the second round, a guy who you say is special, and then you try to change him?

And that's really where we're at with Strasburg. What's the harm in letting him pitch if he says he can? Hypothetically, let's say the MRI shows some type of preliminary damage, and the doctor says, "Oh, good thing we caught this early. Just rest it up and come back next season. Try changing your mechanics to put less stress on your arm." What then? Can Strasburg change his mechanics and still be Strasburg?

I've heard it said that if someone comes up to you and says, "Gee, you look sick. Are you OK?" You'll look at them weird. But if a second person comes up five minutes later and asks the same thing, you'll start to feel weird. And if a third person asks you if you're sick, sure enough, you'll be sick. It's mental.

One of the worst things the Nationals can do is mess with Strasburg's mind and routine. Part of pitching in the big leagues is pitching through pain. If the Nationals have put Strasburg on an appropriate conditioning program and a steady pitch count, from there all they can do is let him go and see if he's got the goods -- or not.


lisa :) said...

I don't know about you, but from where I come from an inverted W is an M.

hee hee... I guess inverted W just sounds cooler.

And as for the scientific and genetic studies behind pitch counts, I'd be happy to do them for you. Just get me samples of DNA from Strasburg and all your other fave pitchers and I'll work on cloning them for the Cubs.... I mean... I'll try to find some correlation between pitch counts and talent.

Greg said...

Haha. Lisa, if you can clone enough of them, we wouldn't have to worry about injuries, either. Just bring in the next guy!

Greg said...

Also, for anyone curious, I found an interesting analysis of Strasburg's mechanics here.