‘Strasburg Shouldn’t Be Shut Down,’ Says Bad ESPN Logic

This ESPN Stats & Info blog post (“a must-read for everyone at ESPN”!) is too much to bear, so off we go, Fire Joe Morgan-style …

In all likelihood, 24-year-old Stephen Strasburg’s season will end within weeks with the Washington Nationals likely in a fierce pennant race.

If the Nationals were to reverse course and allow Strasburg to pitch, would the workload hurt his performance? History suggests it wouldn’t.

No one is asking or even wondering this, because the question isn’t if Strasburg would struggle in September-October; the question is if he’ll eventually suffer another major injury from throwing too much too soon.

What the Numbers Say

Since 2001, 20 pitchers fit the profile of a young arm with a considerable workload. The criteria:

• The pitcher needed to be 23 years old or younger.

• It was the pitcher’s first season throwing 150 innings.

• The pitcher had not previously thrown 150 innings in his pro career.

There’s kind of an important bullet point missing here. Can’t quite put my finger on it, though. Something to do with elbow ligaments.

Did their performance from the beginning of the season until the end of July differ from their performance from August until the end of the season?

In general, the answer was no. In four of the five categories analyzed (ERA, strike percentage, miss percentage and WHIP), the median performance change was no more than five percent, a modest change at best.

If there is any trend, they improved their strikeout-to-walk ratio by more than 30 percent. Otherwise, their statistics lack a clear pattern, despite the polarizing nature of the innings-limit debate.

Again, no one’s asking this. What’s in question is the best course of action to increase the chances that Strasburg pitches like Strasburg for many seasons to come.

Even the following season, there was no defined trend — only two of the 20 pitchers missed significant time (Brian Matusz last year, Michael Pineda this year). This provides evidence that the “risk of injury” argument is somewhat unfounded. One-quarter of these pitchers have won the Cy Young Award, and 16 of them are still active major leaguers.

In short, there appears to be little risk to letting Strasburg finish the season from a statistical perspective.

Unless, maybe, Strasburg is less than two years removed from a major surgery that has somehow remained unmentioned.

The Tommy John Effect

Eight years before Strasburg underwent the noted surgical procedure, then-Marlins pitcher A.J. Burnett had Tommy John surgery.

After missing the first two months of the season, Burnett returned on June 4, 2004, and threw 120 innings. Until the end of July, Burnett was 2-5 with a 4.40 ERA.

However, in his final seven starts, he was 5-1 with a 2.74 ERA. That stretch also saw improvements in his command, suggesting that it took Burnett a few weeks to get his “feel” back.

The good news is we’re finally talking about Tommy John. The bad news is we’re talking about one case, and it’s a case where the guy threw 120 innings in his first full-ish season back. Strasburg has already thrown 127.

A more recent case is Washington Nationals pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, who had the surgery in August 2009. Upon his return, his numbers were alarming — fewer than 4.5 innings per start and a 4.94 ERA in his seven 2010 starts.

Last year, much like Burnett in 2004, Zimmermann started off rusty, going 2-6 with a 3.88 ERA through May. From June 1 until he was shut down at the end of August, Zimmermann went 6-5 with a 2.75 ERA.

This year ZNN is one of the best starters in baseball, and the Nats seem to be handling Strasburg in similar fashion. Meaning, I’m not sure this strengthens the ESPN Stats & Info blog’s argument.

These cases suggest that pitchers coming off Tommy John surgery tend to get better with time. The fact that Strasburg pitched with such dominance indicates that he got his “feel” back sooner than most.

One cannot expect him to improve this late in the season like Burnett and Zimmermann did, but one cannot predict a decline either.

NO ONE IS PREDICTING THIS.

(Thanks to Rich Tandler and Holden Kushner for bringing this up.)

10 thoughts on “‘Strasburg Shouldn’t Be Shut Down,’ Says Bad ESPN Logic”

  1. I think they should do a better job of finding similar profiles. How many 22 year olds pitch less then 130 innings, have TJ then in their first full year back pitch 180+ innings? I’m guessing there are very few, if any. This whole argument is stupid. Shut him down!

  2. The Nats are doing the right thing with SS. Look at the big picture, they have enough pitching to make a nice run in the playoffs.

  3. The Nats better shut him down! I want to win this year, but this isn’t a situation where we’ve lucked into this record. This rotation is what people were predicting all offseason. We have a great rotation and we’re set up to be contenders for a long time. I don’t want to risk SS getting injured again next year just because we got greedy today. I mean, I’m fine with JZ taking over at the number 1 spot and putting in Lannan into the rotation. I mean, look at the year that Zimm is having. That’s the perfect example of how to handle Straus. I don’t even know why this is a question.

  4. In the storyline debate, for me:
    Stras pinch hitting in Sept. >>>>> Stras getting shut down

    ZNN is the blueprint and I trust Rizzo’s stubbornness to follow through in what he’s been saying he’ll do all along.

  5. You would think that ESPN stats and info could get more and better stats than this article exhibits. Maybe stats and info can’t because there are not sufficient stats in which to base an opinion. If so, then the article should just not be written.

    I whole-heartedly believe Stras should be shut down for the future of Stras. It is not the end of the Nationals season because ZNN, Gio, EJax is an above average rotation for the post-season and ZNN, Gio, EJax, Ross, Lannan is a good enough rotation to get us there. BTW, you really only need three starting pitchers for the post-season for anyone wondering where I am coming from. A serviceable fourth starter is all that is needed and Detwiler is certainly better than that.

  6. “What the Numbers Say

    Since 2001, 20 pitchers fit the profile of a young arm with a considerable workload. The criteria:

    • The pitcher needed to be 23 years old or younger.

    • It was the pitcher’s first season throwing 150 innings.

    • The pitcher had not previously thrown 150 innings in his pro career.”

    I like how both the second and third bullet points are the exact same thing.

  7. It’s also a bit strange that the 1st bullet rules out Strasburg’s actual age (24). But, that’s minor compared to all the other horrible logic used throughout. Terrible article!

  8. TL;DR

    All I needed to see was “Bad ESPN Logic”

    If it was on Mike and Mike then its a safe bet Greenberg was the one defendng the assinine logic to the end.

  9. also, shouldn’t there be a mention of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior in this discussion? weren’t they baseball’s next can’t miss pitchers who returned to do too much too soon after receiving Tommy John surgergy?

    Wasn’t their heavy workload the number one reason why they went from being the Cubs’ world series future to the disaster that Cubs are today?

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