Imagine you are the general manager of the Washington Nationals. You have been in control of the National League East Division all season and are looking towards the playoffs in October. The Nationals have never been to the playoffs before and, since their move to Washington, have only once even posted a .500 record. So with pressure mounting, do you bench your star pitcher, a 24-year-old right-hander with star potential, because he had Tommy John surgery the year before? Do you pull your best pitcher in order to save him for next season or do you hope that he will close out the season with no problems? For Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo the decision was clear: despite the risk to the season Strasburg was too important to lose again.
This is a difficult decision to make for any manager in any sport since if a player seems healthy then you want them to play. But in the case of Strasburg his arm was a ticking time bomb and to Rizzo it was not worth chancing his star pitcher’s future health on a push for the play offs. A run to the World Series could wait till next year but when you have so much hope wrapped up in one young player it is not worth destroying future hope for a couple of extra games.
While it appears that Rizzo made the wise decision in pulling Strasburg it was a decision that attracted a lot of criticism. Rizzo took a gamble because the Nationals have in no way won the division yet despite the fact that they lead the division over the Braves by (on Wednesday afternoon) 7.5 games. The Nationals, it appears, have it all to lose with a lead of that proportion. But things can change rapidly and pulling one of your starting rotation could prove costly by the end of the season given how unpredictable September can be. Strasburg had already pitched in 28 games this season winning 15 of those and losing only 6 (a total of 159.1 innings pitched) with an arm that had just had elbow ligaments replaced. Clearly Strasburg is important to the team and his wins, strikes, and ERA are irreplaceable. However, is this decision one that will destroy the season of the nationals: probably not. Why? Because even though they lost Strasburg they still have a good enough pitching rotation that bringing one person up from the minors will not necessarily destroy what they have so far achieved. Gonzalez, Zimmerman and Jackson are good enough pitchers that they should make the post season and the offense is hardly something to sniff at. So why is this decision so unpopular?
The Nationals have yet to make the playoffs since moving to Washington in 2005 and pulling your best pitcher seems to be a decision based on both rational decision-making and arrogance. To pull one of the best pitchers in the National League takes a lot of guts and that has to come with a lot of arrogance. Plainly Rizzo does not see the Braves launching a late challenge for the division and the Phillies are much too far-gone despite their late rally in hope of a season extension. Pulling Strasburg just reeks of hubris. And the baseball gods are not kind to those who taunt them. The Nationals are gambling with their success and with their fan support by pulling Strasburg in a way that very few teams have a chance to do. In their first year as a possible winner they could throw it all away and lose their fan backing because of one decision that broke the season. But that would require a lot of bad luck (it has happened though, ask any Phillies fan about 1964).
While this is a contentious issue just because of the timing of it all and the prolific strike rate of Strasburg it is also worth noting that this has been Nationals policy even before Strasburg. This happened last season with Zimmerman last season. Jordan Zimmerman got pulled last year because he had had Tommy John Surgery and the Nationals did not want to risk his recovery by overstressing the same ligaments that he had just replaced. It was not an issue last year because the Nationals did not see themselves as a play off team like they do this year. At least the policy is consistent though is all I can say in consolation to the Nationals fans who feel betrayed by their management.
The Nationals have a great chance at reaching the playoffs and this should be a happy moment for their fans, as they will finally get to go to games as the weather begins to chill in October rather than basking in the sun of July. “Yay, cooler weather for baseball” I hear every Nationals fan cheer. Well, that is what they will get if their team doesn’t suddenly turn from the stallion it currently is into a donkey (again). But that only happens in Shrek right? We’ll see in about a month whether Pixar is true in real life, not just our imaginations.