Stephen Strasburg, the Long Haul, and the Short Thinkers

The easiest thing on earth to understand is that Stephen Strasburg isn’t thrilled with his shutdown. The hardest thing on earth to understand, for an awful lot of people still, is why the Washington Nationals stuck to the plan with the postseason dead in their sights and the World Series a distinct possibility. Somewhere in between is a point too often bypassed, whether you favoured or objected to the Strasburg Plan.

Former major leaguer Doug Glanville, now an ESPN writer, doesn’t bypass the point. “[W]hat is of greater concern for the Nationals is how they went so far to protect Strasburg and, in doing so, may have placed doubt where it wasn’t before for him,” Glanville writes this morning. “He now is worried about letting his team down; he now knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that he can be emotionally unavailable and distracted on the mound, a place where he used to be comfortable. He knows he can be shaken to his core.”

“It’s not just about one player. I want to be here for the long haul, for many years to come,” says Strasburg, even if he doesn’t really want to be shut down . . .

Strasburg wasn’t exactly quiet or timid expressing fears of letting the team down prior to Friday night, when his rough outing against Miami—he barely lasted three innings and got strafed for five runs and two home runs, in a game the Marlins hung on to win after the Nats got him off the loss hook—prompted manager Davey Johnson to impose the shutdown perhaps a few innings before actually planned or decided. He just never expressed them in verbiage quite as strong as he deployed the morning after.

“I don’t know if I’m ever going to accept it,” Strasburg mourned. Then, referring to the near-incessant writing and analysing that’s accompanied the Strasburg Plan, he said, “When that’s all you hear, it’s hard for it not to bother you. It is what it is. It sucks.”

Yet Strasburg also seems to know just what Glanville means, even if he’s not in Glanville’s seat in the observation tower. “I’ve got to move forward and be here for this team,” he continued. “It’s not just about one player. I want to be here for the long haul, for many years to come.”

The righthander who’s just finished his first full season following the Tommy John surgery, recuperation, and rehab has already been shaken to his core. He admitted to Johnson that he’d had trouble sleeping and been haunted by fears of letting his mates down. By Saturday morning, Strasburg had the highest ERA on the Nats’ starting rotation based over the group’s last ten starts each. And he had not been his full-powered self in recent outings overall.

“[L]eaving little room,” writes Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post, one of the Strasburg Plan’s stubborn defenders, “for critics of the Nats’ conservative medical protocol to continue braying.”

Not that that’s stopping them. It’s one thing to critique how the Nats have played the Plan publicly. “Had [general manager Mike] Rizzo had a general idea of a limit and kept it to himself during spring training, he could have imposed it now, citing Strasburg’s stuff flattening out,” writes Anthony Witrado of The Sporting News. “It still would have been a major story with several points of view, but it wouldn’t have been a distraction for an entire season and wouldn’t have worn down Strasburg’s psyche, as Johnson claimed it did.”

But it’s something else entirely to dredge up the shooting-themselves-in-the-foot argument against shutting Strasburg down with the Nats knocking on heaven’s door, so to say. Strasburg’s a competitor. No questions asked. But if you really think the Nats can’t get there or stay there for most if not all the postseason haul, you haven’t really been watching this team play.

Don’t dismiss the possibility that the hype surrounding the Strasburg Plan didn’t creep into the psyches of the rest of the pitching staff now and then. They, like many non-pitching Nats, have said at various times they’d rather be with than without Strasburg. But they’ve also said, and this is the part lots of people bypass, too, they’d rather have a healthy than a hindered Strasburg as well. No matter who among these Nats feels strongest about a Strasburg-less postseason this year, you’d be hard pressed to find any Nat who doesn’t appreciate that they’re being built for the long term, and that a single postseason appearance is not in their thinking.

Maybe now that the issue’s resolved, more or less, those Nat pitchers—dearly though they’ll miss having Strasburg taking his regular turns—are made of stuff hardy enough. The brawl the Chicago Cubs instigated Thursday night smothered Jordan Zimmermann’s own recovery from a horrible previous start, and Zimmermann’s outing is just one example.

And the whole team? With Strasburg, the Nats pending Sunday’s outcome have a .619 winning percentage and, by the way, the best record in baseball. They’ve also got a .604 winning percentage in the games Strasburg didn’t start before the shutdown was announced. Would you like to know how many World Series winners have gotten there with a regular season winning percentage around .604? Let’s look at just the last ten Series winners:

2011—St. Louis Cardinals, .556.
2010—San Francisco Giants, .568.
2009—New York Yankees, .636.
2008—Philadelphia Phillies, .568.
2007—Boston Red Sox, .593.
2006—St. Louis Cardinals, .516.
2005—Chicago White Sox, .611.
2004—Boston Red Sox, .605.
2003—Florida Marlins, .562.
2002—Anaheim Angels, .611.

I see four teams with .604+ winning percentages winning among the last ten World Series, including a couple of wild card winners. (2002 Angels, 2004 Red Sox.) I see one team (2007 Red Sox) not all that far away from .604. Six of the last ten World Series winners did no better than a .568 regular-season winning percentage, and one (the 2006 Cardinals) barely got past .510. You’re going to argue that the Nats, with a .604 winning percentage without Stephen Strasburg thus far, are killing their World Series possibilities?

Now watch some of the brayers fume that those who think as I just expressed are trying to say, “Nice going—you’ve just said the Nats can win without him as well as win with him.” You can look at it that way if you like. And you’d be wrong. This year’s Nats can win without him, but don’t pretend they’d like to or that it wouldn’t be harder. Of course it would. But how much harder would it be to make their long-term stand if they lose him due to imprudence? And if you think these Nats haven’t had bigger challenges than the Strasburg Plan, you haven’t followed their season unless Strasburg’s on the mound.

They’ve already had their intangibles tested, including and especially playing around their injuries. And these lab Nats still have the best record in baseball pending Sunday’s outcome.

They may have misplayed the Strasburg Plan when dealing with it publicly. Some of the brass’s comments have bordered on laughable. Johnson, Rizzo, and others can’t hang it on the press when they’ve been dropping it all on the press at every known availability, practically. They know it. But you’d have to assume, unless there’s undetected evidence otherwise, that a team playing it smart with a young Tommy John recuperant’s long term physical health isn’t going to ignore his parallel psychological health.

Every Nat from the principal owner down to the rawest September callup knows Strasburg’s feelings about being shut down. What they have to remember, and may have to remind him a little more than now and then, is what Strasburg himself said following up.

I’ve got to move forward and be here for this team. It’s not just about one player. I want to be here for the long haul, for many years to come.

Stick tight with that, Stras. Make it your mantra if you must. But hold tight and don’t let it go.

And when you add a few future postseason trips to your resume, you’ll look back on how much this shutdown and its attendant hype sucked. Then, if you’re as mature as you’re showing even now, you’ll probably say, “Thank God they didn’t let me forget I wanted to be here for many years to come.”

If that’s good enough for Strasburg, and good enough for the Nats, it ought to be plenty good enough for everyone else. Ought to be, but probably won’t be.

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