Shutting down Strasburg is the right thing to do, for him and for the Nationals. (Image: Evan Habeeb, US Presswire)

Revisiting the arms race: What the Yankees can learn from shutting down Strasburg

The day baseball has waited for all season arrived this weekend: Washington Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg was finally shut down for the remainder of the 2012 season as he makes his way back from Tommy John surgery. There has been much ado around this decision: should the Nationals have waited until May to start him? Should they have skipped more starts? Should they have let him keep pitching? Will this proactive move even work? There isn’t a correct answer to any of these questions, all of which are entirely valid, and raises a lot of questions about the handling of pitchers in general.

There is no greater commodity in baseball than pitching. Serviceable pitching is difficult to find; great pitching is even harder and ridiculously expensive. As a result, the best in the business- CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels- are able to command $100+ million dollar deals, with many teams more than willing to shell out that kind of money for their services. So, if starting pitching is the new market inefficiency, it is in a team’s best interest to protect pitchers at all costs to maximize the chances of winning.  We know all about the controversial usage of the innings-limits for younger, developing pitchers. But with the recent relative decline and questions around veteran pitchers arises: what’s the best way to manage pitchers, in general?

Pitching injuries tend to occur when one pitches past the point of fatigue. To protect younger pitchers, most clubs institute innings limits, increasing the amount of innings pitched building up to a full season of 200 innings. But once a pitcher gets to 200 innings, the care about fatigue seems to stop. Fatigue surely must still exist, right? If nothing else, the accumulation of 200+ innings per year must result in wear on the arm. Pitchers with huge innings totals can see decreased velocities. In 2012, this has been an issue for Sabathia, Roy Halladay, and Tim Lincecum. Logically, a decrease in velocity would increase the ability of opposing offenses to have success off of a pitcher, thereby potentially compromising wins for the team as a whole. Whether it be fatigue or a loss of velocity (the two are not mutually exclusive), there is a concern about the management of pitchers.

For purposes of the New York Yankees, let’s look at Sabathia. Since 2001, CC has pitched over 180 innings pitched per season, logging over 40,377 pitches during that period, the most in MLB. By comparison, over the same span, Mark Buehrle is a distant second with 39,432 pitches. Additionally, since 2007, Sabathia’s fastball velocity has averaged over 93.6 mph, but this year’s velocity has averaged just 92.4 mph, down a full mph. While his WHIP is only slightly elevated to 1.199 in 2012, bear in mind CC is giving up 8.8 H/9 IP. The only time in his career when this number was higher was in 2007 (8.9 H/9 IP). Further, his home run rate, 1.1 HR/9 IP, is the highest in his entire career.

More interesting to the overall picture of the New York Yankees (especially since the team can’t buy a win of late), CC is only worth .7 Wins Above Average (WAA). Except in 2005, in no other year of his career has he been worth less than 1 win better than the average player. In other words, Sabathia is only worth 1 win more than the average player at his position- not good news for the staff ace. Moreover, and perhaps more alarmingly, CC has posted his lowest Runs Above Average (RAA) number in 2012 (7) outside of his ghastly 2005 season (-1). Except for 2005, Sabathia has never maintained a RAA in the single digits. Since 2006, he has never had an RAA below 22. (Note: if you look at the numbers, be careful- the 2008 season is broken into two separate views, from his time with Cleveland and Milwaukee, but collectively, is not below 22.) In other words: CC Sabathia, staff ace, $100+ million dollar man, The Big Guy, is only worth 1 more run than the average player at his position. This certainly does not bode well for the Yankees as they scratch and claw for every single win despite seemingly having locked up the division in late June.

So what is the potential solution to alleviate some of the fatigue that pitchers face (and by extension, helping teams win)? Shutting a pitcher down for a long period of time (barring a long DL stint, in which it’s presumed a serious injury would have already occurred) is almost out of the question, particularly in discussing aces such as Strasburg. Doing so might compromise the ability of the team to win and in tough divisions like the NL East or AL East every game counts.  However, teams do place pitchers on short DL stints during the season for various innocuous ailments- blisters, groins, inflammation, etc. This time, albeit limited, could be used to refresh the arm in-season. The Chicago White Sox did a terrific job this season utilizing such measures with their ace, Chris Sale. Another solution would be a modification of the same innings-limits that are imposed on younger pitchers. Perhaps organizations can skip starters every four to five times through the rotation, keeping innings accumulations down as the season progresses and over careers. While this might compromise a handful of games, this process could also delay the inevitable fatigue associated with the large innings accumulations. Simultaneously, it will help arms recover from the wear and tear of each start.

Is it possible that with better innings management, we’d see less of this from CC Sabathia? (Image: Joy R. Absalon, US Presswire)

As far as the Nationals are concerned, I do not blame the team for the handling of Strasburg. The Nationals could not have foreseen in March that perennial powerhouse Philadelphia would flounder so badly, nor that they’d be able to get (and maintain) a healthy lead on the Braves. If the Nats delayed Strasburg’s season, perhaps they’d be fighting for a Wild Card berth, which brings its own set of problems in the new playoff format. The bottom line is this: Strasburg is a pitcher who is under team control, having not reached the point of free agency. The Nationals are protecting their investment by shutting Strasburg down. A huge innings increase off of such a prolonged period of non-use could cause fatigue, risking even more injury and leaving the Nationals right where they started: with their ace out of commission. As such, the proactive move to shut down Strasburg may actually be less about the health of the player as a person, and more about the health of the player relative to his contributions to the team now and in the future.

As starting pitching becomes a more highly-priced and rare commodity in baseball, it behooves teams to reassess the management not just of the young guns, but of all pitchers.  While this doesn’t mean teams would be getting the most bang for their buck if pitchers aren’t hitting that 200+ IP mark, it does stand to reason that in doing so, teams would be getting the strongest performance out of their pitchers. Theoretically, this would put the team in the best position to win. What the Nationals- and any other team when instituting innings limits, skipped starts, etc.- are doing isn’t just about protecting Strasburg, but about protecting the future ability of the team to win. The two agendas are intertwined. The best interests of the team are enhanced by acting in the best interests of the player- protecting the arm. To that end, I can’t fault the Nationals or any other team for acting in the same vein. It may not work, and we may never know the answers to the “what-ifs”, but I certainly respect the National for acting proactively to protect their asset in an effort to accomplish the bigger team goal: winning a World Series.

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