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How Stephen Strasburg and the Washington Nationals Changed Baseball Forever

Nearly five years ago, Washington shut down its star pitcher a few weeks before the playoffs began

(Sam Taylor Illustration)
(Sam Taylor Illustration)

This week, The Ringer is taking time to travel all the way back to … last year. Or a few months ago. We’re diving into the not-so-distant past to check up on what happened to that one lady, or to track the rise of an online social movement. Welcome to Recent History Week, where we’ll explore events you may have forgotten about and remind you why they still matter.

Some watershed moments don’t come out and bite you when they’re happening. The Battle of Lexington, for example, or the storming of the Bastille, or something Nationals GM Mike Rizzo said on February 20, 2012.

“We’re going to run him out there until his innings are gone and then stop him from pitching,” Rizzo said.

“Him” was Stephen Strasburg, whom Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post reported had about 160 innings to spend in 2012. Baseball has never quite been the same since.

Limiting Strasburg to 160 innings wasn’t an unreasonable position at the time. Over the previous decade, the baseball world at various levels had started to grapple with the idea that throwing a lot of pitches is bad. Then–Cubs manager Dusty Baker came under fire for overworking his two young, hard-throwing aces, Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, down the stretch in 2003. Shoulder injuries ended Prior’s career in 2006, and while Wood hung around for a decade as a reliever, he never made 30 starts in a season after 2003. In 2004, Alan Schwarz of ESPN polled MLB executives about minor league pitch counts — long enough ago that the word “Montreal” appeared in the story. The existence of the article proved the debate was raging at the time, but the results were inconclusive. In 2007, Little League Baseball, in the face of mounting evidence that its prepubescent players were suffering injuries later in life from overuse, switched from an innings-based usage limit to a stricter, pitch-based limit. In 2009, a University of Texas reliever named Austin Wood embarked on a 13-inning, 169-pitch relief outing in an NCAA tournament game one day after throwing 30 pitches. It was either a legendary or infamous moment for college baseball, depending on whom you ask.

By 2012, the connection between pitcher overuse and serious arm injuries was well established, but it was unusual for teams to go out of their way to limit a young major leaguer’s workload. Félix Hernández threw 191 innings in his first full season in 2006, Clayton Kershaw 171 in 2009, Jeremy Hellickson 189 in 2011. The Joba Rules, governing mandatory rest for the Yankees’ star pitching prospect, were the exception.

Even so, Strasburg was different. He was the most hyped college pitching prospect since Prior, and when he was drafted first overall in 2009, Strasburg broke Prior’s record for most guaranteed money for a draft pick by $4.6 million. Baseball America said he had the best fastball, command, and secondary pitch of any college pitcher in the draft class. “Never before has an amateur been so well-known among even casual fans before being selected,” wrote Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus.

Strasburg, with his triple-digit fastball and knockout curve, was so great and so rare a talent that he had to be protected, particularly when a torn UCL in 2010 cut short his rookie season after just 12 starts. The Nationals had bet heavily on Strasburg, and Rizzo’s floating an innings limit in February didn’t seem particularly odd. Sometimes, a team will go to a six-man rotation to limit pitcher fatigue, or send a pitcher they don’t want to overwork to the bullpen or even the minor leagues for a couple of weeks to cut down on innings, but Rizzo planned to send Strasburg out every fifth game until his 160 innings were up.

Washington had done the same with Jordan Zimmermann the year before without ruffling too many feathers, and a year later, the possibility of a playoff run didn’t play a big role in the debate early on.

The Nats had finished last six times in eight seasons since moving south from Montreal, and in 2011 had missed out on the division title by 21.5 games. The 2012 season was supposed to be a developmental year not only for Strasburg, but the young core of Zimmermann, Bryce Harper, Wilson Ramos, Ian Desmond, and Drew Storen that was starting to coalesce around him. If Strasburg missed a few starts in September 2012, no matter; Washington would be better prepared to compete in 2013.

By August, the innings limit was a full-blown media circus, a ticking clock on Washington’s season, and the most controversial nontransactional front-office decision of the 21st century.

First, Strasburg came back from Tommy John with a vengeance — he finished the season with a 30.2 percent strikeout rate, which would’ve led MLB starters if he’d thrown enough innings to qualify, and a 126 ERA+, which would’ve tied Jake Peavy and Matt Cain for 15th. Second, the Nationals were suddenly in contention: When Strasburg made his last start, they were 85–53, 6.5 games up in the division, and bound for their first playoff appearance since 1981, all but guaranteed at least one short series in which a pitcher of Strasburg’s quality could have turned the tide.

But most shockingly, Rizzo followed through on his plan. Strasburg took his turn every time through the order until he ended a start on September 7 with 159.1 innings pitched. Then the team put him in street clothes for the rest of the year, including the playoffs.

For as much consternation as the Strasburg innings limit caused at the time, it quickly became the norm for top pitching prospects, particularly those who, like Strasburg, are recently removed from Tommy John surgery. Baseball culture was already tipping toward greater protections for pitchers anyway, but the Strasburg limit was a tipping point.

Stephen Strasburg (AP Images)
Stephen Strasburg (AP Images)

There’s a certain irony to the fact that the 160-inning limit wasn’t scientific — it was a round number that came in under the 200 or so regular-season innings Strasburg might have been expected to pitch if he’d made 33 starts. There’s no magic number of pitches or innings that will snap a young pitcher’s UCL. The much-discussed Verducci effect, a hypothesis that increasing a pitcher’s workload year-to-year is a major contributor to injuries, has been disproved. On opening day of the 2016 season, Jeff Passan released The Arm, the most thorough public examination of pitcher injuries to date, and came away with the conclusion that we still don’t know that much about what causes the UCL to tear. Tommy John surgery has never been more routine, and alternative treatments like primary repair are emerging as alternatives, but there’s no hard-and-fast usage pattern to prevent the injury. The overhand pitching motion is naturally destructive to the human arm, and the only certain way to avoid injury is to stop pitching.

Meanwhile, the role of the pitcher has changed markedly, even in the past five years. In 2012, the leaguewide strikeout rate was 19.8 percent and the average fastball velocity was 92.8 mph. In 2017, those numbers are up to 21.6 and 93.6, respectively. The workload is also being spread to more pitchers thanks to the new 10-day DL, and teams are carrying 13 relievers instead of 11 or 12. In 2012, starters accounted for 66.0 percent of major league innings, while through July 24, 2017, that’s down to 62.6 percent. In 2012, 662 pitchers appeared in an MLB game. This year, we’re already up to 652 with a week to go until the trade deadline.

These conditions are so well known to the public that teams can justify sitting down an exciting and effective starter just to keep his odometer from scrolling too far, and since the Nationals did it with Strasburg first, that path is now easy for other teams to follow, even if it doesn’t always work. The Marlins did it in 2013, when José Fernández, en route to finishing third in Cy Young voting as a 20-year-old rookie, capped out after 172.2 innings. He suffered a torn UCL the following May. The Dodgers imposed unprecedented usage restrictions on young lefty Julio Urías, who’s now out until at least late 2018 with a shoulder injury.

Workload limitation remains an inexact science.

While the public innings limit is now routine, pulling Strasburg from a playoff race remains a unique occurrence. Fernández’s Marlins team lost 100 games, and Urias was at best the fourth starter on a Dodgers team that also had Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill, and Kenta Maeda. Plus, Urias pitched twice in the playoffs last year anyway.

Other contenders have imposed Strasburgish innings limits on their young aces, only to back down when they found themselves in contention late in the year. In 2015, the Mets imposed a 180-inning limit on Matt Harvey, who like Strasburg was returning from Tommy John, though they later bent their policy to allow him to pitch in the playoffs. (But like everything involving the Mets and Matt Harvey, there was nothing simple about the process.) So did the Blue Jays a year later with Aaron Sanchez, whose innings limit was abandoned and stretched to 203.2 innings, including two playoff starts.

Since 2012, Strasburg has posted the fourth-highest K% among pitchers with at least 800 innings, trailing only Max Scherzer, Kershaw, and Chris Sale. He’s 11th in ERA+, he’s made three All-Star teams, he led the National League in strikeouts in 2014, and he’s in the first year of a seven-year, $175 million contract. It’s not the Literally the Best Pitcher Ever version of Strasburg that was supposed to come out of San Diego State, but he’s been very good for a very long time now. At age 29, he’s already thrown almost 400 more big league innings than Prior ever did.

However, he has struggled to stay healthy. Strasburg has thrown 200 innings in a season only once, thanks to a litany of injuries to his lat, back, oblique, and, once again, his elbow. Just this weekend, Strasburg left a start with forearm tightness after 51 pitches, though he’s expected to make his next start.

It’s impossible to say how much the absence of Strasburg hurt the Nationals in 2012 — they lost a five-game NLDS to the Cardinals, but the man who started in Strasburg’s place, Ross Detwiler, allowed only a single unearned run in six innings and took a no-decision in a Washington win. Maybe Strasburg would’ve made a second start and pitched better than Gio González (3 ER in 5 IP) did in Game 5, or maybe not, or maybe the bullpen would’ve collapsed in both timelines. It’s impossible to say.

The youth of the 2012 team opened up a defense for shutting down Strasburg: The Nationals would be back. And that’s been the case. Even as Washington lost Storen, Zimmermann, Ramos, and Desmond, and as Ryan Zimmerman got old and bad (then became good again this year), they added Anthony Rendon in 2013, Max Scherzer and Trea Turner in 2015, and Daniel Murphy in 2016, and are headed for their fourth playoff appearance in six seasons.

But the Nationals are yet to win a playoff series, and even if they pull it off this year, the Dodgers, who are on pace for 112 wins, likely await in the NLCS. With Scherzer approaching his mid-30s, Harper just 16 months from free agency, and Strasburg’s own long-term health still far from a given, it’d be foolish to expect the Nationals to continue to get swings at the piñata until they finally break it open.

There’s something audacious about being confronted with a frightening possibility you only partially understand; promising to take a drastic, unprecedented, and unpopular action in a desperate attempt to stave it off; and then following through with it in crunch time.

That Rizzo followed through with his promise remains the most amazing part of this story. On the morning of September 8, 2012, Rizzo explained his decision to the media: “It was a plan that we put in place back on Feb. 1,” he said. “We’ve been true to the plan the whole way, and we haven’t wavered from it one bit. This is just a culmination of that plan. I think I believe in my heart that it’s the right thing to do for the player. The right thing to do for the player is the right thing to do for the franchise.”

Every other GM faced with a similar dilemma has at least partially backed down, but even in an evolving situation, Rizzo dug his heels in, like Harry Randall Truman refusing to leave his home on Mount St. Helens before the eruption. Rizzo trusted research on increasing workloads leading to injury, even in the face of national ridicule. It was an act of defiance that is hard not to admire on some level.

Even if it didn’t work.