Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Strasburg’

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.

Yes, children—minus Strasburg, this Nats rotation DOES have good postseason chances

Let’s try this again.

Assume the Washington Nationals will stick to the script and implement, some time in September, the exclamation point of the Strasburg Plan. Period dot period. Assume, too, that there’ll be enough blue murder screaming over the Nats torpedoing their own postseason chances. Maybe even some conspiracy theorists demanding a formal investigation, perhaps into whether someone isn’t buying the Nats off bigtime to tank. (Would the conspiracy theorists surprise you, really?)

Now, shove all that to one side and look at the Nats’ rotation without Stephen Strasburg.

Zimmermann—Without the Stras, he won’t be leading a rotation of pushovers . . .

Jordan Zimmermann—At this writing, Jordan Zimmermann leads the team with a 2.63 earned run average. If wins and losses are still your thing exclusively, dismiss him if you must as barely above a .500 pitcher, since he’s 9-8 through right now. Want to know how many no-decisions Zimmermann has on his jacket through today? Nine. If you define pitching well enough to win as surrendering three runs or fewer, he pitched seven of those nine games well enough to win, and in five of those seven the Nats did go on to win. So if you still look at wins and losses first and last, Zimmermann should have a 15-8 won-lost record through today.

What do you know. That would give him as many wins as Strasburg has and a mere two losses more. But Zimmermann’s quality stats include a 1.13 walks/hits per inning pitched rate (team lead), a 3.72 strikeout-to-walk ratio (second only to Strasburg’s 4.23), a 1.8 walks per nine rate, and a 0.8 home run rate. He also has 2.9 wins above a replacement level pitcher. I’m not exactly convinced the Nats would be in terrible postseason shape with Zimmermann at the top of the rotation.

Gio Gonzalez—He’d probably win the Cy Young Award if it were going to the most congenially quotable pitcher in the league. He has the second best winning percentage (.696) to Strasburg (.714) as of today. He’s also third among the rotation in ERA—with a nifty 3.28. He only has three no-decisions, and in only one did he pitch well enough to win, according to the above definition. So, instead of his current 16-7 won-lost record, he’d be 17-7, since the Nats went on to win that one game. If you want to cut him a break and say four earned runs or less is good enough to win, Gonzalez could—since the Nats went on to win all three of his no-decisions thus far—have a 19-7 record.

He’s got a 1.16 WHIP through today; he has a 2.80 K/BB rate, he has a 9.5 K/9 rate, and he has a 0.5 home run rate, if that matters to you. He also has 1.6 WAR. In a Strasburg-less postseason rotation, I don’t think you’d be in grave danger with Gonzalez as your number two man.

Edwin Jackson—Start and end with wins and losses and you’d start worrying here. After all, Jackson only has an 8-9 record despite his 3.53 ERA. He also has eight no-decisions, one fewer than Zimmermann. And, by the aforesaid measurement of pitching well enough to win, in six of those games Jackson did pitch well enough to win. The Nats only went on to win one of those games, alas, which would make Jackson a 9-9, but since four of them ended up as one-run games, and you’d like to think a pitcher working well enough to win or better than well enough should have come away with a pitching win. By that, Jackson should be 12-9.

His quality stats are solid for a number three man. He has a 1.17 WHIP and a 2.85 K/BB rate; he has a 1.1 home run per nine rate and a 2.8 BB/9 rate. Look at a Strasburg-less Nats rotation and, so far, you can’t really think of one good reason why this rotation can’t succeed come postseason time. Among Zimmermann, Gonzalez, and Jackson, they average to a 1.15 WHIP rate. Folks, that’s 1965 Los Angeles Dodgers, 1969 New York Mets, or 1971 Baltimore Orioles territory.

Ross Detwiler—The sleeper of the bunch. He’s 8-6 with a better than respectable 3.52 ERA. He has a pile of no-decisions in his own right as a starter (he’s also seen some very effective bullpen duty)—seven, to be exact. Of those seven, he pitched well enough to win six of them, and the Nats went on to win four of those. By that, Detwiler should have a 12-6 won-lost record.

Detwiler’s quality stats are just about even with Jackson’s. He has a 1.17 WHIP and a 2.31 K/BB rate; he has a 2.4 BB/9 rate and a 0.6 HR/9 rate. As a number four man in a Strasburg-less postseason rotation, it doesn’t exactly look as though Detwiler’s the weak link. It doesn’t even look as though the Nat rotation without Strasburg is a weak link.

The entire Nats pitching staff through this writing is worth 17.4 WAR. With Strasburg, the rotation is good for 13.5; without him, they lose a mere 2.6. Believe it or not, Zimmerman leads the rotation with his 4.0. Are you trying to tell me a rotation configured to equal 10.9 WAR would go into a postseason with a gaping handicap?

Of course there’s no way the Nats are where they are without Strasburg. Assuming they hold those levels the rest of the stretch, nobody else going to the postseason in the National League should assume the Nats rotation minus Strasburg would be pushovers. Whoops! you say—whaddabout postseason experience? Gotcha! There’s Edwin Jackson, and there’s all the rest, and shouldn’t the Nats bring every damn last weapon to bear they can bring including Strasburg?

Well, now. Let’s take a look at a few rotations that went into a postseason with little to no such experience to carry into it and see what they did:

A tale of two Hall of Famers—little did Kid Palmer know . . .

1966 Baltimore Orioles—The only pitcher on the entire staff with postseason experience was reliever Stu Miller (1962 San Francisco Giants). Who also led the team in ERA. Except for oft-injured lefthander Steve Barber, the Oriole starters were kids: Jim Palmer was all of 20, Wally Bunker 21, Dave McNally 23, and John Miller 25. You’d have given a staff like that three chances in a World Series against the last of the great Dodger teams of the middle 1960s. Those Dodgers still brandished Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, plus Claude Osteen as the number three rotation man and Phil (The Vulture) Regan having his career year out of the bullpen. The Orioles swept the Dodgers in four straight, though they did get a little help from Willie Davis’s fatal inning in a Game Two in which Koufax otherwise looked like his usual self until then. Maybe they had some incentive not to get another turn against Koufax, but whatever works, works.

Koosman, doing what even a Hall of Famer couldn’t, beating the Orioles twice in the ’69 Miracle . . .

1969 New York Mets—Not a damn one of them, not even veteran Don Cardwell, had postseason experience to speak of entering that postseason. The Mets had one bona-fide Hall of Famer in the rotation (Tom Seaver) and one bona-fide Hall of Famer (Nolan Ryan) as a spot starter and relief option, and about the only postseason experience either had was watching on the tube or in the stands. The Mets steamrolled the Atlanta Braves to win the first National League Championship Series, then won four straight—with Jerry Koosman, not Seaver, winning twice—after losing Game One of the World Series to a Baltimore Orioles team that, on paper, was supposed to make three squares a day out of those Mets.

1970 Cincinnati Reds—The first of the teams to be known as the Big Red Machine had one pitcher (Jim Merritt, a 20-game winner) who’d been to a World Series in 1965 (with the Minnesota Twins) but pitched only 3.1 innings in two relief appearances. Not exactly a well-seasoned veteran of the wars. After burying the Pittsburgh Pirates in three straight in the NLCS, they went down in five to the Orioles in the Serious.

1971 Oakland Athletics—These A’s featured a rotation topped by Vida Blue (having his career year) and Catfish Hunter (future Hall of Famer) and nobody with postseason experience. They got overwhelmed by the Orioles and their four 20-game winners in the League Championship Series, alas. Call it a dress rehearsal for what was to come—namely, three straight World Series rings.

1979 Pittsburgh Pirates—The Fam-I-Lee had one starter, Bert Blyleven, with any postseason experience, and that was a mere two-inning relief gig with the 1970 Twins whom the Orioles blew away in three straight. It may have been one of the classic full-team efforts—no Pirate pitcher was all that dominant in the World Series, other than Blyleven and closer Kent Tekulve—but the Pirates did win it in a seven-game thriller.

“One Tough Dominican . . .”

1982 St. Louis Cardinals—None of this rotation had postseason experience going in, and they didn’t exactly go in looking like a particularly threatening rotation. (Their best starter: Joaquin Andujar, whose 1.09 WHIP was the only one on the staff below 1.25.) The only pitcher on the whole staff with postseason experience was Jim Kaat, by then working as a relief pitcher who only started two on the season. The Cardinals ground out a seven-game Series win over the Brewers, but you couldn’t really say that either team threw a deadly rotation up there. (The Brewers, in fairness, had a rotation slightly worse than the Cardinals’ and two pitchers—Hall of Famers Rollie Fingers and Don Sutton—on staff, but Sutton was a mid-to-late season pickup and Fingers, of course, was the closer.)

1986 New York Mets—They had no 20-game winners, three starters with ERAs under 3, and nobody with postseason experience. After they steamrolled the National League in the regular season, they had to win the pennant the hard way against a feisty collection of Houston Astros, then win the World Series the hard way against a star-crossed collection of Boston Red Sox. If you looked at the rotation’s WHIP overall, it compares pretty favourably to that of this year’s Nats thus far.

1990 Cincinnati Reds—The stars of this show, arguably, were the Nasty Boys bullpen, among whom only Randy Myers (1988 Mets) had any postseason experience. In the rotation, only Danny Jackson (1985 Kansas City Royals) had been there, done that; in the non-Nasty bullpen contingent, only veteran Rick Mahler (who had sixteen spot starts during the season) had gone to any postseason, and there he’d pitched less than two innings for the 1982 Atlanta Braves. These Reds ended up stunning the A’s with a Series sweep after needing six to beat the Pirates for the pennant.

Young, loud, and snotty . . .

2003 Florida Marlins—No postseason experience ever among the rotation, including young, loud, and snotty (You lost! Go home!) Josh Beckett. Beat the Yankees in six in the World Series, after shoving the Giants out of the way in the division series but winning an arduous League Championship Series against the Chicago Cubs.

2007 Colorado Rockies—Had six starters on the year, none of whom took postseason experience into these rounds. These Rockies swept the Philadelphia Phillies out of the division series and the Arizona Diamondbacks out of the League Championship Series—only to be swept out of the World Series, in turn, by the Red Sox.

2008 Tampa Bay Rays—No rotation postseason experience. Not quite as good as this year’s Nats with or without Strasburg. And they got rolled in five by the Phillies in the World Series, after taking the Chicago White Sox in four in the division series and wrestling to a seven-game LCS win over the Red Sox.

Lincecum—no experience necessary . . .

2010 San Francisco Giants—They made themselves into a no-experience-whatsoever postseason rotation. The only member of the 2010 Giants with any postseason experience of which to speak was Barry Zito (when he was with the early-2000s A’s)—and he’d pitched so horrifically in 2010 the Giants didn’t dare include him on the postseason roster. This took the Giants to a World Series against a Texas Rangers staff that had two postseason-experienced starters. (Cliff Lee and Rich Harden.) The “inexperienced” Giants rode that pitching and some very timely and half unexpected hitting to a five-game Series conquest.

Covering twelve teams since 1966 who took little-to-no postseason-tested pitching into any postseason, it shakes out like this: eight of those rotations proved World Series winners. One of those rotations, moreover, beat a rotation loaded with two much-experienced Hall of Famers including maybe the greatest peak-value lefthanded pitcher of the post-World War II era at least and possibly all-time at most.

An 8-4 World Series-winning record among the inexperienced over a 46-year span isn’t exactly a great reason to be alarmed that the “inexperienced” Washington Nationals rotation—with or without Stephen Strasburg—is going to be guaranteed dead meat going into this year’s postseason. If the Nats stick to the Strasburg Plan on behalf of keeping their man’s arm from breaking off long-range, it is not going to kill them going in if they go without him.

That doesn’t guarantee the Nats’ survival, of course. But it does suggest that the alarmists bleating about whether they’re shooting themselves in the feet or “cheating” their fans out of the best possible chances to win are bleating through their derrieres.

Do You Really Think These Nats are Strasburg Alone?

The guts-‘n’-glory crowd arguing against the looming Stephen Strasburg shutdown has a powerful, or at least influential ally now. And, customarily, when Chipper Jones speaks even the opposition listens.

“If I were him,” the Atlanta Braves’ Hall of Fame-in-waiting third baseman says, to Yahoo! Sports columnist Les Carpenter, “I’d be throwing a fit.”

Jones must surely be aware that if it were up to Strasburg alone, he’d be pitching until a) the Washington Nationals actually take the ball out of his hand; or, b) until his arm vapourises. That isn’t exactly a secret, in Washington or elsewhere. He’s on record as saying as much.

“I know some of those guys over there,” he said, referring to the Nats, whom the Braves were preparing to stop from sweeping them Wednesday afternoon. “They are trying to toe the party line. I know they aren’t happy their No. 1 pitcher isn’t going to be out there.” In October, that is.

Jones doesn’t think the Strasburg Plan makes sense . . .

Unless the rest of the baseball watching world thinks the Nats’ story thus far is little more than a Pixar fantasy, Jones isn’t the only one who knows they won’t necessarily be thrilled Strasburg won’t be on the postseason roster. And he isn’t the only one who thinks playing wait ’till next year, before letting Strasburg go the distance, the better to prevent his Tommy John surgically-repaired elbow from breaking, in what surgeon Lewis Yocum believes would be the prime time for a breakage following an immediately over-stressing season right after the recuperation period, is just plain wrong and more plainly shortsighted.

“Next year what if [Jordan] Zimmermann gets hurt again?” Jones said. “What if Gio Gonzalez goes down? There is a certain set of circumstances. Sometimes things aren’t the same. As those [pitchers] get older they will lose a little bit of speed on their fastballs. They will be a little more hittable. You have to strike while the iron’s hot.”

This comes from a man who won a World Series ring as a rookie, then spent just about the rest of his career chasing a second one that never came, though his Braves gave themselves more chances than most to get it. Did I mention Jones’s rookie season was put off by a year thanks to a torn ACL in spring training 1994?

Was Jones unaware that Zimmermann, too, went on a planned innings limit last year, following his own Tommy John recuperation and rehab, but Zimmermann hasn’t broken down yet in the year after?

You’d think, with Jones and others of like mind, that the only thing putting the Nats in position to just about waltz into the postseason unmolested is Stephen Strasburg, that without him in any way, shape, or form come October, the Nats are going to be dead ducks walking. The career doesn’t mean a damn thing; go for the guts and glory when you’ve got it waiting for you; screw the future, assuming there’ll be one.

Carpenter himself aids and abets his immediate subject, when not dropping a slightly veiled insult. After Jones speculated on Zimmermann and Gonzalez, “the player who expected a mountain of championships that never came, stood up. Soon he would head to the field to begin yet another workout routine in a brilliant career that came a few World Series short of unforgettable.”

That’ll be Jones standing in Cooperstown in a few years hoisting a plaque that tells you how forgettable his career’s been, including this rather remarkable finale he’s coming down the stretch of playing.

At one point, Carpenter inadvertently leaves room for Jones to sound like the fool he isn’t. Carpenter asked: Suppose the Nats bow to all the guts-‘n’-glory pressure and let Strasburg go the distance, after all; then, what happens if Strasburg blows his arm in his first postseason start? “I don’t think anybody would be angry about it,” Jones is quoted as replying. “How do you think the fans would feel? Do you think they would weigh a World Series championship against a Strasburg injury?”

Let’s put that into Jones’s own earlier what-if pile. How would real fans feel if they got one World Series conquest this year, but a) Strasburg’s fresh injury takes him own indefinitely, and b) meanwhile, back in the jungle, Zimmermann and Gonzalez get hurt, not to mention c) they age practically overnight, as you’d think they stand to do if you take Jones’s earlier quote literally, and they have only that one conquest to show?

Now, let’s take a closer look at these Nats while removing Strasburg from the equation. Suppose there were no Stephen Strasburg? Do you know that, through this writing, the Nats are in the top ten in every team hitting category except for triples? Do you know that they’re number one in the league in earned run average, shutouts, and saves? Do you know that they’re second in fielding average and in the top ten in turning double plays? By the way, the Nats have outscored their opposition by 108 runs.

There’s yes-yes in his heart; for his career’s sake there should be no-no in his eyes, and his (and his team’s) brains . . .

Strasburg himself has 3.3 wins above a replacement-level player thus far; Zimmermann has 3.1, Gonzalez, 2.8. The rear end of the rotation has 4.0—Edwin Jackson has 2.1, Ross Detwiler, 1.9. The rotation ERA with Strasburg is 3.11; without him, it would be 3.17. Do you really think that differential is the differential standing between the Nats and disaster?

Without Strasburg, the Nats’ run differential would be 58 more runs scored than the opposition, as opposed to 108. I’m not entirely convinced the Nats would be absolute dead ducks without Strasburg in the postseason this time around.

We wouldn’t even be having these conversations if the Nats hadn’t shocked everyone by jumping into and dominating the National League East race, never mind piling up (through this writing) maybe the best record in baseball. If the Nats were heading for a finish similar to 2011’s, when they ended 21.5 back of the first place Phillies, they could shut down Strasburg without having to answer to every scribe, pundit, future Hall of Fame third baseman, and armchair harrumpher on the circuit.

From the beginning of the season the Nats’ brain trust insisted they were building for the long term. And, that they were going to obey medical soundness, and nothing else, in determining when to close Strasburg’s season. They may have felt they had a team to compete over the next several years; they may have been caught by surprise, even allowing manager Davey Johnson’s early season confidence, when the Nats jumped out in front, stayed, and put (through this writing) six games between themselves and the second-place Braves.

But they don’t have to, and they shouldn’t, listen to anyone but their own sense now. Dearly though I’ve loved watching and listening to him over the years, Chipper Jones can rant his head off about striking when the iron’s hot and damn the consequences. Les Carpenter can rant his head off about how wrong this is, the Nats “willingly let[ting] this one great chance get away.” It shouldn’t mean two pins to the Nats, or even to Strasburg. He’s only human enough that there’s yes-yes in his heart; he’s got to be sensible enough to know he, and his team, are far better off keeping no-no in their eyes and their brains. With both trained squarely, and unapologetically, on that long term.

Especially because this year’s Nats aren’t exactly a gang of cream puffs without him. And they’d like as much insurance, to the extent that you can have it, that they’ll be absolute creamers with him, for seasons enough to come.

Endangered Species: The Arms That Lost the Races

While we’re on the subject of the Strasburg Plan, it might be wise to hark back to past young guns whose careers—or, more accurately, the lack thereof, for most—may or may not have factored into the Washington Nationals’ thinking. (Manager Davey Johnson, who’s absolutely on board with the Strasburg Plan, happens to know about at least one of those guns directly.) They didn’t all have fractured comebacks from Tommy John surgery (though a few of them could have used it, if the procedure had been around), but they did have work use or other physical  issues in one or another way that turned them from brilliant or burgeoning youth to gone, or at least nothing near what they first seemed they’d be, before they should have been in prime.

Shutdown time looms for Strasburg . . .

The complete list may be longer than I’m presenting here. But what follows is a roll of pitchers I can recall who started young enough, fast enough, or at least furious enough, and with baseball just about at their mercy, or close enough to it. I’ve written about a few of these cases before, perhaps recently, but it’s hard not to think about them with Strasburg’s pre-planned closure on the horizon. The Nats are being smart to do it; they planned it from the season’s outset. If they’ve been bitten in the rear at all by it, it’s because, well, almost everyone figured the Nats would have a respectable 2012 but almost nobody figured they’d own the National League East and steam toward the postseason.

These pitchers should prove a powerful lesson even now. But to teams without the thinking depth the Nats have shown, they probably won’t. For every Stephen Strasburg who’s being handled wisely following major elbow trouble and reconstructive surgery, there have been, and there will always be, dozens more who won’t be handled that way—whether it’s by playing when ailing (hello, Johan Santana), pitching an unconscionable workload even by the standards of the ancients, an unexpected injury that fouls up just about everything else, a little too much of the spotlight causing a little too much more disorientation, or other troubles.

Rex Barney—Teen phenom with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Harnessed his impossible-to-see fastball by 1948 and won fifteen; had a no-hitter on his resume. End of season: leg fracture in two places sliding into base. Following season: 48 walks in 33 innings, pitching, as one sportswriter phrased it, as though the plate were high and outside. Gone at 25.

Ewell, the whipped . . .

Ewell (The Whip) Blackwell—Six-time All-Star for the postwar Cincinnati Reds. Snapping sidearm motion on a 6’6″ pitcher earned Blackwell his nickname and an image, as one writer put it, of “a man falling out of a tree.” Age 24: Led the National League in wins, strikeouts, complete games, strikeouts, and strikeout-to-walk ratio, and almost equaled Johnny Vander Meer’s double no-hit feat. By age 28: Arm trouble, plus kidney removal and appendectomy. By age 30: A spare part on a couple of Yankee pennant winners and, other than an abbreviated comeback with the Kansas City Athletics in 1955, gone at age 32, a shadow of what once terrorised hitters.

Joe Black—1952, as a 28-year-old rookie: Rookie of the Year, finished a league-leading 41 games, first black pitcher to win a World Series. Next season: Told he needed more stuff, including a curve ball his finger tendons made impossible to throw, Black was a wreck. Never won or saved more than six again; done at 33.

Karl Spooner—Turned a 1954 cup of coffee into three squares at 23: back-to-back shutouts toward season’s end, in the first of which he struck out fifteen, for a rookie record that stood until J.R. Richard smashed it. Struck out 27 over the two games. Spring training 1955: Came into a game without a proper warmup and blew his arm out. Struggled through the season, never appeared in the majors again following Game One of the 1955 World Series. “Sooner with Spooner,” the saying Dodger fans came up with over his stupefying 1954 debut, took on a sinister meaning after that.

Herb Score—At 22: Rode bullet fastball to Rookie of the Year honours, 245 strikeouts, and a 9.7 strikeouts-per-nine rate, leading the league. At 23: 20 wins, five shutouts, 268 strikeouts, another league-leading strikeouts-per-nine rate (9.5). At 24: Hit in the face by Gil McDougald’s liner in his fifth start; gone for the year. At 25: Ruptured a tendon in his pitching elbow on a rainy afternoon (he surely could have used Tommy John surgery, had it been invented at the time), tried to adjust his mechanics to compensate, and was never again the pitcher he looked to have been after missing almost two full seasons. By age 29 and a number of faltering comebacks: Finished on the mound, headed for a second career in the broadcast booth.

Steve Dalkowski—Minor league phenom whose heater may have made Score’s seem like a changeup. (What the hey, Ted Williams himself said he couldn’t see it.) Finally harnessed it enough to make the Orioles in 1963 spring training, at age 24 . . . and blew his elbow out pitching to Yankee rookie Phil Linz. Bounced back to the minors; drank himself out of baseball by age 26. Would the Orioles have won their first World Series sooner with a healthy Dalkowski?

Jim Bouton—Age 23: Yankee comer with a hard fastball delivered just as hard. Age 24: Yankee 21-game winner. Age 25: Improving strikeout-to-walk ratio and WHIP while winning 18 for the last of the old-guard Yankee pennant winners. Age 26: Shoulder and arm miseries begin, never again an effective starter. By age 31: Marginal relief pitcher and gone, mostly because he’s lost whatever was left, though the controversy around Ball Four didn’t help. Brief, memorable comeback with the 1978 Atlanta Braves, including a pitcher’s duel with J.R. Richard in which neither got the decision.

Jim Lonborg—At 25, put it together following his first two warmup seasons with a Cy Young award, the league leadership in wins, starts, and strikeouts. 1967 World Series: Wheeled out on two days’ rest for Game Seven and couldn’t hold his own. Offseason: Knee injury in a skiing accident. Next season: Late start, disoriented mechanics, never again anywhere near the pitcher he was in 1967 despite forging a long enough career. Reversed Casey Stengel’s professional path and became a dentist after his baseball career.

McLain—too many innings and too many controversies equal finished at 28 . . .

Denny McLain—Twenty-game winner at 22. Thirty-one-game winner at 24; 24-game winner at 25. Next season: Suspended over gun carrying. Following season: Arm still wrung by too many innings pitched (he averaged 290 innings pitched over the span; pitched over 320 innings in each of 1968 and 1969) and maybe too many complete games (he pitched 51 of them in 1968-69), he lost 22 for the 1970 Senators and had no arm left by age 28. That proved to be the least of his problems as life went on, alas.

Mark (The Bird) Fidrych—At 21: Rookie of the Year with 19 wins, a small truckload of strikeouts, and an unlimited future. The following spring: dinged his knee, came back too soon, shredded his shoulder, and then made the first of numerous premature comebacks from the shoulder miseries. Finished at age 29. Learned only around his finish that he’d had a frayed rotator cuff made worse by all those undiagnosed comebacks. Went back home, farmed and worked on heavy equipment, died in a freak accident.

Randy Jones—After a frightful (22-game losing) start at age 24, went back-to-back 20-game winning at 25-26, including a Cy Young Award. Slop-tossing righthander. He also threw 600 innnings in those two (1975-76) seasons. 1977: His arm committed suicide; he’d hang in until he was 32 but never had a winning season after 27.

John Candelaria—At 23, he was a 6’7″ hulk leading the majors in earned run average and winning 20 in the bargain. Would have only one 15-win season over the next sixteen in which he managed to hang on. What got the Candy Man? The usual verdict was (and may remain) too much fame.

The Candy Man—sweet to sour too soon . . .

Frank Tanana—From ages 20-24, Nolan Ryan’s rotation second. Led the league in ERA and shutouts at 23. Age 25: Arm and shoulder trouble turned his near-Express-like heat into a candle. Forged a journeyman career as a junkballer and finished a .500 pitcher, though his array of offspeed stuff earned him the nickname the Great Tantaliser—a long way from being known as the Top Tanana.

Wayne Garland—At 25, emerged as a 20-game winner with an ERA under 2.70, and landed himself one of the early yummy multi-year free agency contracts. The following spring training: Hellbent on living up to that then-monster deal, Garland blew his rotator cuff, tried pitching through it anyway, and led the league in losses with 19. Hung in for half of the ten-year deal, eventually earned a friendly reputation for pitching with guts, but he stands as the classic example of what pushing too hard can do to the unsuspecting.

Mike Flanagan—Cy Young winner at 27. Didn’t know his own limits; pitched an astouding 157 straight turns, never missing a start, while hurt. Never won as many as 17 the rest of his career; won 15 or 16 only twice more. Eventually joined the Oriole front office; committed suicide in 2011.

J.R. Richard—Took his time to become the National League’s mound terror, and he was still only 29 after he broke the National League record for strikeouts by a righthander. Age 30: Stroke, career dead. Hit rock bottom before going into the ministry.

Steve Stone—Took the steady ride to the top and bagged the 1980 Cy Young Award. The following season, he was gone after fifteen games, at 32. The verdict: His curve ball destroyed him—he threw it too often for his own good and took it to fever pitch in 1980. Became a broadcaster.

Mike Norris—What the curve ball was to Stone, the screwball—plus 24 complete games in his 22-game winning season at age 25, not to mention that he may have been a screwball—proved to Norris. They still debate which went south first and faster, Norris’s arm or his off-field life.

Steve McCatty—Wins and ERA champ done in by too many complete games. Don’t think for one moment that his experience on that ill-fated Oakland rotation of 1981-83 hasn’t had a factor in formulating the Strasburg Plan even if he didn’t have Tommy John surgery: McCatty these days is the Nats’ pitching coach.

Vukovich—guts, glory, gone: Pitching hurt does nobody any favours even if you’re helping to win a pennant.

Pete Vukovich—Another steady rider to the top. Landed a Cy Young award in 1982, at 29 . . . and, after winning nothing to open 1983, missed the rest of that season and all 1984. Pitched hurt helping the Brewers win the 1982 pennant; gone at 33.

LaMarr Hoyt—Back-to-back wins champion at ages 27-28, including a Cy Young Award. At 29: 18-game loser, future drug rehab patient, finished at 31.

Rick Sutcliffe—ERA champ at 26; 20-game winner (including a 16-1 mark in the National League after his trade to the Cubs, leading them to their first postseason since 1946) and Cy Young pitcher at 28. At 29-30: Injuries, 11-22 span thanks to premature comebacks. Occasional flashes of his old self the rest of the way . . . very occasional. He, too, moved to the broadcast booth in due course.

Dwight Gooden—From 19-21 they talked about when, not if he’d make the Hall of Fame having obliterated half the pitching records in the book. Warning sign: the 1986 Mets began throwing salves of doubt into the quietly confident kid, telling him, essentially, he couldn’t live on just that exploding fastball and voluptuous curve ball. Forget the drug issues, Gooden by 25 would be damaged once and for all by shoulder issues. The miracle is that he managed to make a sixteen-year career with a .634 winning percentage, but they’ll never stop calling him the greatest might-have-been of them all, unless the Nats are fool enough to ditch the Strasburg Plan, maybe. (Gooden’s first major league manager: Davey Johnson.) His post-baseball life hasn’t been simple, either.

Boddicker—wasn’t built for his workload or his money pitch . . .

Mike Boddicker—Age 26, after a few cups of coffee and a promising 1983: Led the American League in wins and ERA. The next and last nine seasons of his career: Won more than 15 only once; never again got his ERA under 3.00; never again enjoyed a WHIP under 1.20. Those in the know believed Boddicker was done in by too many innings and too many curve balls, neither of which his body could really withstand.

Generation K—The once-vaunted trio of Met young guns. Isringhausen, Wilson, Pulsipher. Arm and shoulder trouble practically out of the chute. Only Isringhausen would make anything like a long, never mind respectable career, and that when he converted to relief pitching. Which he still does, now for the Los Angeles Angels.

Steve Avery—Want one reason why Scott Boras isn’t in any big hurry to push his client Strasburg to infinity and beyond just yet? He’s been there, done that: Avery at 21 went 18-8 and finished sixth in the Cy Young voting helping the worst-to-first Atlanta pennant winners. By 23: 50-36 record, ERA around 3.20, excellent postseason jacket. At 24: Popped an armpit muscle, never again the same.

Kerry Wood—At 21: A 20-K game and a Rookie of the Year award. At 22: Sitting out a season following Tommy John surgery. By 26: Don’t go by the innings pitched, he was piling up crazy pitch counts as often as not and ended up developing triceps and rotator cuff trouble, among other maladies. He’d make fourteen trips to the disabled list and convert to relief pitching before he finally called it a career this year.

Mark Prior—At 21: mid-season phenom. At 22: 18-game winner, All-Star, third-place Cy Young finisher. At 23: Achilles tendon injury just the first of enough health troubles including two shoulder surgeries that Prior hasn’t thrown a major league pitch since 2005. Latest comeback attempt in the Red Sox organisation ended with his release last week. What got him? Possibly the same thing that helped get Wood—too many 120+ pitch count games too young—plus his pitching mechanics, which may have put excess strain on his shoulders before anyone caught on.

Going for the guts and glory is one thing. Going there at the expense of a solid long-term baseball life is something else. Maybe nobody expected the Nats to be roaring toward the postseason this soon after building a powerful enough young team, of whom Strasburg is merely the most significant (and most popular?) element, but maybe they’re teaching baseball a huge lesson about sustained future success over immediate gratification. Immediate gratification might get you a World Series ring at most, but ignoring sustained future success might mean that one ring and damaged goods otherwise is all you get with your current array.

The Nats have a deep enough and strong enough team if you remove Strasburg from the equation. Would you like to see what they could become, in postseasons to come, with him? Then let them stay with the plan. Unless you really want Strasburg on a roll featuring not a few pennant-winners over a long, distinguished career but, rather, a roll featuring the sad like of Barney, Blackwell, Black, Spooner, Score, Dalkowski, Bouton, Lonborg, McLain, Fidrych, Jones, Candelaria, Tanana, Garland, Flanagan, Richard, Stone, Norris, Vukovich, Hoyt, Sutcliffe, Gooden, Boddicker, Pulsipher, Wilson, Avery, Wood, Prior, and the walrus-looking gentleman who’s now Strasburg’s and the Nats’ pitching coach.

And if you do, ask what favours going for the guts and glory really did those once-formidable arms and their owners.

Stay the Course with the Strasburg Plan

“It’s funny,” Stephen Strasburg told reporters Tuesday night, after he waxed the Atlanta Braves with six one-run innings, not even letting a rain delay affect him. “Nobody talks to me personally about it. Obviously, I can either scour the Internet or watch all the stuff being said on TV or I can just keep pitching and watch the Golf Channel, I guess.”

If Strasburg did any Internet scouting over last weekend, he might have seen the innings limit—the talk of which has dominated just about everything when it comes to the National League East and, really, most everywhere else in the Show—has now achieved what some might think the ultimate affirmation.

A writer for Rant Sports, Michael Collins, suggests the pending Strasburg Shutdown is really a well-constructed smokescreen the aim of which is to lull the competition asleep and then, bing! wheel out Strasburg once the postseason, into which the Washington Nationals seem to have a locked-down berth, practically, opens. And Mr. Collins all but blames the conspiracy on, what do you know, Strasburg’s agent.

Strasburg’s agent is the venomous Scott Boras, and it wouldn’t be beyond the scope of possibility that Boras, Rizzo, and all other parties involved have hatched a little scheme to catch other clubs asleep at the wheel.

Boras has made passive aggressive legal threats in public regarding the Strasburg situation, saying that there could be “legal ramifications” if the Nationals don’t follow the advice of physicians and shut him down.  But has anyone really seen a doctor’s note, or heard directly from any qualified physicians who have examined Strasburg and recommended this action?  There’s just a lot of fluff being thrown around the whole situation.

Strasburg—The Plan proceeds, and not without controversy still . . .

You want a doctor’s note? How about commentary from the surgeon who performed Strasburg’s Tommy John surgery? The Nats came up with the Strasburg Plan based on the counsel of Lewis Yocum. “It is Yocum’s belief,” wrote Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post, who has been absolutely on board with the Plan from the outset, “that pitchers who break down from premature returns from elbow surgery—sometimes ruining their shoulders, and their whole careers, rather than their new elbows—don’t usually do so during the first big stress year but rather the following season. That would be 2013 in Strasburg’s case.”

If you believe Tyler Kepner of the New York Times, Boras isn’t exactly talking like a man looking to snooker the competition on the field. He’ll play the hardest game of hardball at the negotiating table when it comes to his players’ paydays, but ponder what he tells Kepner regarding the Nats’ following—read carefully, Mr. Collins, wherever you are—doctors’ recommendations, if not doctors’ orders.

“A lot of people have come to me,” Boras says, “and said, ‘What about the fans?’ You’ve got to remember, the fans of Washington are benefiting from this program. The Nationals wouldn’t be where they are without [Jordan] Zimmermann being part of that staff. Zimmerman followed the same protocol, and that’s why he’s about to pitch 200 innings and pitch in postseason games—because he’s healthy.”

Collins seems blissfully enough unaware that Zimmermann (who isn’t a Boras client) underwent Tommy John a year before Strasburg did and, while Strasburg sat it out for 2011 after having his procedure, Zimmermann worked 161.1 innings and was shut down 28 August. It was the heaviest workload Zimmermann had had to that point, too.

Oho, you can hear Collins fuming to himself, but where did the Nats end up last year? Is he aware that, this year, unless there’s a Boston-type breakdown due in September that we’re not aware of, the Nats have run roughshod enough over the NL East in very considerable part because Zimmermann is working with, at this writing, the second-lowest earned run average in the league? Is Collins willing to argue that the Nats finished third last year because they shut Zimmermann down when they did?

Nobody else is, so far as I know.

And nobody else seems quite so ignorant of the point that, thus far, the Nats’ three-way brain trust—owner Ted Lerner, general manager Mike Rizzo, manager Davey Johnson—takes doctors’ recommendations/orders seriously.

Rizzo has been the point man on the Strasburg Plan, of course, and he’s never been silent about his thinking regarding this. In the proverbial nutshell, the easiest thing on earth would have been to push for the Promised Land like now. (Want to know the last time a Washington team won a World Series? How does a month before Americans elected Calvin Coolidge to the White House in his own right strike you?) The harder but more prudent thing on earth would be exactly what Rizzo has said: taking the future of this pitcher and this team into full account.

“One reason the Nats have come so far, and so fast,” Boswell wrote almost a fortnight ago, “is the same reason they will shut down Strasburg when Rizzo decides the day. The Nats do things their way—or, rather, Rizzo, Johnson and Lerner’s way. They act in line with their best baseball, medical and philosophical judgment. Then, they don’t care what anybody thinks—as they’ve proved time and again in recent years, though few notice.”

It didn’t begin with the Strasburg Plan. It sure as hell didn’t begin with last season, when then-manager Jim Riggleman tried a holdup for a contract extension and Rizzo held the door for him as he quit ignominiously. And it didn’t end with Rizzo bucking every last urging from the conventional wisdom and, ignoring then-free agent Mark Buehrle or failing to deal for Zack Greinke, sending the Oakland Athletics four prospects for Gio Gonzalez. Whose 16-6/1.16 WHIP/3.23 ERA/9.5 K-9 is a neat parallel and companion to Strasburg and Zimmermann. And, whose personality has apparently turned the Nats’ rotation as lively off the mound as on it.

Gonzalez is also one of the Nats’ best interviews. Not to mention one of the wisest, as he showed talking to a Washington radio host earlier this month:

“I think that we want what’s best for Stras . . . “

I don’t really try to sit in the office and [say] ‘Hey, Rizz. What are you doing?’ I think he knows what he’s doing and I think that we want the best for Stras. And if that’s the situation, we’re more than happy to back him up. He’s an unbelievable pitcher and he’s been lights out for us all year. He’s key for us so far.

“But at the same time, we want him to be healthy and strong. We don’t want him to be damaged in any shape or form. I feel like we have a great team behind us, great rotation. Guys that can still pick him up whenever they need them. Our bullpen to me is gonna be our key. As long as they’re healthy and strong, they’re gonna definitely clean up a lot of our mess.

The Nats aren’t flying blind here. They know damn well that Strasburg is one of their biggest weapons against teams .500 or better. In fact, after he got through with the Braves Tuesday night he stood at a nifty 7-1 against those teams. Gonzalez is 6-3, but Zimmermann is 2-4. Edwin Jackson is 4-2 but Ross Detwiler is 2-4. But they have a bullpen more than capable of picking up and kicking aside any dicey openings.

But they also know damn well that their chances for going all the way to the World Series, never mind winning it, decrease without Strasburg. And if they’re OK with it, and Nats fans seem more and more to be OK with it, what’s the big deal?

Believe it or not, Tommy John himself thinks it is. The man upon whom the procedure bearing his name was first performed thinks the Nats should just turn Strasburg loose. Why? Because John himself pitched over 200 innings the year after he had the procedure. What he didn’t say was that he’d pitched 1930+ innings before he underwent it. Strasburg pitched a mere 68 innings before his procedure; Zimmermann, 91.1.

“Should we follow the expert medical opinion of a licensed surgeon who performed Tommy John surgery,” Boras asks, “or of the patient who was asleep?”

“Should we follow the expert medical opinion of a licensed surgeon who performed Tommy John surgery, or of the patient who was asleep?”

The Nats also know they’re not the pitching-only club they were reputed to be when the season began. Since the All-Star break, they’ve scored the most runs in the National League. They’ve found ways to win that would have been unthinkable for earlier Washington franchises. Their defence has been showing itself as somewhere between acrobatic and brilliantly timed.

But they also know what those yammering to chuck the Plan and let the kid pitch don’t know. Never mind that Washington hasn’t seen a postseason since Franklin Roosevelt’s first year in office, these Nats weren’t built to win like yesterday, never mind now.

“We know what’s right for us,” Rizzo insisted as early as the Fourth of July. “And we have the guts to stick with it. We’re an organization that prides itself on proper development of players. That’s what we explain to every parent about their son and every agent about a player. What’s changed? What’s different than it was with Zimmermann? Oh, a Washington team is in the race. I guess people are shocked. We’re building a team that we think will be good for a lot longer than one season.”

It beats the living hell out of some near-future prospects getting the idea, based on dumping the Plan and possibly watching Strasburg turn from winger to wreck, that signing with the Nats means you have a great chance at a short career launching with a team that couldn’t build and secure a Tinkertoy tent.

Damn right it’s fun, fun, fun to say “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and way out in first in the National League East.” Damn right it’s going to be fun to watch the Nats in the postseason no matter how far they actually go without their main lancer. But won’t it be even more fun to watch, very possibly, the Nats going back again and again, maybe even picking up a couple of rings, with Strasburg on the mound, and without having to worry about 95 percent of the time whether he’s going to break in half for good along the way?

I guess it won’t be, to enough people. Among them, the kind of people who let a great conspiracy theory—or a pitcher with a whole career ahead of him getting wrecked by overwork before he hits 25—get in the way of plain sense.

The Rise and Demise of the Five Aces

The Washington Nationals say Stephen Strasburg won’t be limited in his 2012 starts but will be limited in his total innings’ workload this season. They’ve clearly learned a lesson or three from Strasburg’s almost-lost 2011 following his rookie splash of 2010. They may have learned it in decent part from the wizened gentleman who is only their second pitching coach since they relocated from Montreal. A gentleman who knows only too much about the destruction, actual or potential, of talented young pitchers who might be overworked, overused, overextended, and finally overcooked.

Steve McCatty has been there. Done that. Bought the Billy Martin bar coasters.

A pitching coach who learned the hard way about arm preservation . . .

We take you back to a Sports Illustrated cover of 27 April 1981. There they are. Resplendent in their beer-league-style Oakland Athletics uniforms. Resembling a second- or third-generation Mustache Gang in their own right. Even behind their playful smiles, even the most loosey-goose of the lot,they look as though one and all are about to gouge their initials into your craniums beneath the visors of your batting helmets. Clockwise from the upper left, they were: Rick Langford, Steve McCatty, Brian Kingman, Mike Norris, and Matt Keough. Righthanders all. Posed in front of clubhouse lockers and behind a bold, red cover headline:

THE AMAZING A’S AND THEIR FIVE ACES.

And you thought last year’s off- and pre-season Four Aces hype around the Philadelphia Phillies’ incoming starting rotation was a bunch of ballyhooey?

Pitching was a many-splendored thing for the Five Aces—at first, anyway . . .

Two years later, Oakland’s Five Aces began resembling five patients in an orthopedic surgeon’s intensive care unit, and Bill James wrote this while composing his 1983 Baseball Abstract: “A year ago, in writing about the Oakland A’s, I put forward the thesis that (manager) Billy Martin’s handling of his pitching staff was that of a man who did not quite believe in the existence of the future . . . All of the pitchers who had [thrown enormous amounts of innings/complete games] for him in the past, I pointed out, had paid a price for it two or three years down the line.”

Is that really what happened to Langford, McCatty, Kingman, Norris, and Keough?

By midway in 1984, only McCatty was on the A’s major league roster. It wouldn’t be long from there—the odd, brief, failed comeback attempt to the contrary—before all five were out of baseball. In the middle of the concurrent hype known as Billyball—the run-and-gun, junkyard-dog baserunning game the former Yankee brought to fruit with the 1980-82 Athletics—did Billy Martin, that least patient of managers, really burn out a starting staff who were reasonably young and likewise a little more than promising?

Let’s take it season-by-season:

Billy Martin—Did he wreck a pitching staff behind Billyball’s running and gunning?

1980: Martin’s first season managing the A’s, after being shoved out of New York. Langford led the American League in complete games and innings pitched to go with his 19-12 won-lost record, his 1.60 strikeout-to-walk ratio, his 1.17 walks/hits-to-innings-pitched ratio, and his nifty 3.26 ERA. McCatty was a .500 pitcher (14-14) with a 3.86 ERA, a 1.36 WHIP, and a 1.15 K/BB. Kingman hung up a 1.41 K/BB, a 1.38 WHIP, and a 3.83 ERA, not exactly world-beating. (He also got only 2.87 runs of support to work with per game, on average, which may explain a lot about why he was a 20-game loser that season.) Norris was a 20-game winner in 1980, finishing second in the Cy Young Award voting (three writers left him off their ballots, somehow, ensuring the win for Baltimore’s Steve Stone), with a 2.15 K/BB, a 1.05 WHIP, and a 2.53 ERA. Keough was almost as good, a 16-13 W-L taking only a little of the luster off a 2.92 ERA, a 1.25 WHIP, and 20 complete games.

In other words, among the Amazing A’s and their Five Aces, only Norris and Keough really did look like aces by their statistics entering 1981. Langford, and McCatty looked like potential aces but serviceable numbers three through five pitchers. Kingman pitched in a lot of hard luck and a lot more of Martin’s foolishness, about which more anon.

Langford–Reeled off one streak of 22 straight complete games . . .

Thirty years after the season which would hang up their dilemna once and for all, though, the quintet is still remembered as a dominant or at least intimidating staff in a three-season period in which all wasn’t exactly how it seemed to promise.

1981: The strike-interrupted and shortened season. The A’s ended up in the postseason but got shoved out of the American League Championship Series. (By the Yankees, of all people.) This is what happened to the Five Aces, taken clockwise again by light of the SI cover portrait:

Langford—Shaved his ERA to 2.99, led the American League in complete games (18) for the second year in a row (in 1980, he threw 28 complete games), hiked his K/BB to 1.45, and this in spite of his WHIP swelling a tick to 1.27. He finished 1980-81 with 46 complete games and, at one point, reeled off a stupefying 22 straight complete games.

McCatty—Led the American League in wins (14) and shutouts (4), cut his ERA dramatically enough, to 2.33, ballooned his K/BB to 1.49, shrank his WHIP to 1.08, and finished second in the Cy Young Award voting.

Kingman—Pitched in only eighteen games and hung up a 3-6 W-L record with his ERA swelling a tick to 3.93, and though his K/BB improved to 1.63 his WHIP swelled to 1.53. He clashed hard enough with Martin to earn a banishment to the minors before the season ended.

Norris—Saw his ERA swell back up to 3.75 on a 12-9 won-lost record, his WHIP climbed to 1.21, his K/BB shrank to 1.24, and he led the league with 14 wild pitches.

Keough—Shrank his WHIP a tick to 1.21 and finished 10-6 after starting the season 5-1, but his ERA jumped to 3.40 and his K/BB wasn’t much different (1.33) than 1980. He’d become notable for a gutsy performance in the final ALCS game against the Yankees, pitching eight and a third and leaving the game with the A’s down a mere 1-0.

And the Oakland pitching staff still led the league with 60 games out of the 109 played on the split-season, after leading the league with 94 complete games in 1980.

McCatty—Second for the Cy in ’81 . . .

In other words, if the 1980 Aces had only two (Norris and Keough) whom you could call aces in fact or in potential by their numbers, the 1981 edition had only two—who weren’t the same two (this time: Langford and McCatty)—who could have been called aces in fact or aces-potential, according to their statistics. So what happened to the quintet in 1982? This time, let’s take them in reverse order:

Keough—Led the American League in losses (18), home runs surrendered (38), saw his WHIP balloon to 1.60 and his K/BB shrink to a staggering 0.74 (he struck out only 75 and walked 101). He also surrendered the most earned runs in the league and finished with a whopping 5.74 ERA.

Norris—His ERA ballooned to 4.76; he had a convenience store W-L record (7-11); his K/BB shrank almost as dramatically as Keough’s (to 0.99; he struck out 83 and walked 84).

Kingman—Recalled from the minors, his ERA shot up to 4.48; he went 4-12; his K/BB fell between Keough’s and Norris’s (0.81); his WHIP went back to 1.55.

McCatty—He managed a winning record (6-3) but his K/BB fell to 0.94 and his WHIP inflated to 1.51, not to mention his ERA jumping up to 3.99.

Langford—His K/BB was even better, at 1.61 . . . but his WHIP climbed to 1.32, he went 11-16, and his ERA blasted up to 4.21.

With the A’s falling to fifth place in the American League West, and the surrealistic toll beginning to show in earnest on that once-vaunted pitching staff, the new A’s ownership (Walter Haas had bought the team from Charlie Finley) dumped Martin at the end of 1982.

Kingman–Lost 20 in ’80 with only 2.87 runs a game to work with . . .

There were plenty enough around the American League who believed Martin, in somewhat typical style, had also made sure enough of his pitchers learning a few subterfuges, enough to turn an apparent group of raw kids and also-rans into a group who seemed to strike trepidation enough into the league’s hitters. Or so it was thought. Wherever Martin traveled, seemingly, so traveled his favourite pitching coach, Art Fowler. Fowler, once a late-blossoming and useful relief pitcher for several major league clubs, was reputed to be teaching the wet one to enough pitchers on any staff with which he worked, for his entire life as a pitching coach, and was often suspected just as powerfully of being Martin’s number one drinking buddy.

Some of the evidence? Before Fowler showed up in Oakland, Keough, Langford, McCatty and Norris had a combined 30-53 W-L record with 23 complete games. After Fowler’s arrival, those four went 71-48 with 83 complete games. This can be seen as the sign of a coach who spots and knows how to get the best out of his charges. Customarily, it is. But there were loud enough whisperings around the league that Fowler was getting something else out of them: what Thomas Boswell once called “salvation by salivation.”

“Gaylord Perry was the one who turned on Billy Martin,” Paul Richards—former catcher, manager, general manager, and then a pitching coach for the Texas Rangers—told Boswell in the middle of the Five Aces’ actual or alleged run. “Now, everywhere that Martin goes, he takes along Art Fowler, who was a pretty good spitballer himself. There’s no doubt that the Oakland staff all had grease on ’em someplace last season.”

Well, now. Throwing the spitter is thought to abet elbow and other arm strain. “The strain on a spitballer’s arm is exceptional,” Richards also told Boswell, “and you’re endangering your career. You throw the spitter like a fastball but with a stiff wrist, squeezing the ball out of your fingers like a watermelon seed. Instead of a free-and-easy release, the shock goes back into your shoulder.”

Norris—Lost the Cy to Steve Stone in ’80 . . .

If Fowler indeed taught any or all the Five Aces the spitter, and that were blended to their workloads in the Martin-Fowler years, not to mention the breaking balls all five already threw (McCatty’s was thought to be the best of their curve balls), then it merely becomes a backstory behind their apparent rise and striking fall within three years of their 1980-81 performances:

Langford—Pitched in pain, perhaps stubbornly (“He’s his own worst enemy,” McCatty would say of him), throughout 1982. He spent just about all of 1983 on the disabled list and underwent elbow surgery that August. By age 30 he’d be finished as a starter; he’d hang around until 34, somehow, as a somewhat marginal relief pitcher.

McCatty—Started to suffer shoulder trouble in 1982, pitched with it as far as 1984, by which time he was the only one of the Five Aces to still be in the majors when SI caught up to him and them that season.

Kingman—His 1980 ERA of 3.84 ERA balanced to that of 20-game winner Dennis Leonard . He avoided arm trouble, perhaps the only one of the Five to do so. But his competitiveness and his distaste for martinet-like authority figures collided with Martin’s stubbornness, Martin leaving him in games when he was being murdered on the mound. He ended up banished to the minors, traded, and out of baseball at age 29.

Norris—His decline was punctuated by shoulder surgery following 1983, after he’d spent 1981 and 1982 pitching through pain. There were those who believed, however, that he was affected at least as much by too much taste for the high life and, in time, an addiction to cocaine. (He was one of the players to testify at the infamous Pittsburgh drug trials of 1985.) He may also have been affected by throwing a screwball that interfered with his mechanics and may have contributed to his shoulder trouble. He was gone by age 28, never mind a brief and failed comeback try at 35.

Keough—The son of one-time major league utility player Marty, and nephew of one-time Oakland outfielder Joe, Keough was actually named the American League’s Comeback Player of the Year for 1980. His fate may have been sealed when he dinged his shoulder as he slipped off a mound during a 1981 game against the Orioles. In early 1983, Keough was traded to the Yankees for a pair of minor league players and finished the year 5-7 with a 5.33 ERA. He sat out 1984 recuperating from a rotator cuff inflammation, then played in the National League two more seasons, mostly as a relief pitcher of little enough note.

What did the Five Aces have to say about their actual or alleged Martinizing when Sports Illustrated caught up to them in 1984?

Langford—“I didn’t feel overworked under Billy. I wasn’t being abused. I was doing what I enjoyed doing—pitching as long and as hard as I could. I did what I wanted to do, and I felt great pitching all those innings and all those complete games. We (pitchers) pushed each other . . . Not one of us thought he was pitching too much . . . Unfortunately, we don’t have lights on our bodies to tell us when to stop. I could’ve been a lot smarter . . . Now I know I should have paid more attention to the warning signals. But I’d never had an injury before so bad that I couldn’t throw a baseball. This was the first time I couldn’t answer the bell. I just couldn’t accept that. But when I realised I couldn’t turn a doorknob to get out of the house, I knew I was in trouble.”

McCatty—“Billy didn’t ruin our arms. Our own competitiveness did it. We wouldn’t take ourselves out. I know what I should have done when my arm started hurting. ‘Tomorrow it’ll be fine,’ I’d say. So I paid the price. Nineteen-eighty-two and -three were the most miserable years I’ve ever been a part of. I pitched when it felt like my arm was going to come right out of the socket . . . I still don’t know why I got the soreness, but I was really the first to go down. Then it was like dominoes . . . The reason we stayed in so long was that we were throwing well and Billy didn’t have much confidence in the bullpen . . . Billy called most of our pitches. We’d always have to look in the dugout for the sign. It became an involuntary action . . . The worst of it is, with the pitching staff the critics were right. We did go down. But they were right for all the wrong reasons. I know that with me I was just too dumb to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got pain. Better rest me’.”

Kingman—“Billy affected us all. He helped some of us. Norris had that tremendous ability, so Billy let him do his crazy things. Rick would succeed anywhere under any conditions. Billy really liked Matt. I’ve often thought he ruined my career, but I know he didn’t try to. Even if he hated someone, if they could win for him, he’d stick with them. The thing is, Billy likes to yell when he loses and I was losing the most and I don’t like to be yelled at. Losing 20 for Billy makes a season twice as long . . . I think Billy thought I hated his guts and he was probably right. Actually, I’ve gone the whole route from hating him to indifference to regarding it as a great experience . . . From Day One, we were motivated by fear. Billy wasn’t just a manager. He was a tyrant. Nobody was sure of his job. Anybody could be replaced. It seemed as if your career depended on every play . . . Billy called most of my pitches and that would add about 20 minutes to the game—all that looking in the dugout . . . He had this rule that if I ever got to 2-0 on a hitter, I couldn’t throw the curve ball. I’d obey that rule, throw a fastball, and somebody would hit it out. The next day in the paper, Billy is calling me an idiot.”

Norris—“Before Billy, I had never before been able to pitch in abundance. I welcomed the chance ecstatically . . . I can remember the look on Billy’s face when he’d come out to the mound. He’d want to say something like, ‘Hey, guy, I want you to come out,’ but the look said, ‘Please don’t.’ He made you feel as if you had feminine tendencies if you wanted to come out. He instilled confidence in you . . . Pitching itself is an unnatural act, and the screwball is an unnatural pitch. I fell in love with that pitch. I could throw it hard . . . If I threw 120 pitches in a game, 75 of them were screwballs. That’s hard on the arm, and as my arm got weaker, I lost velocity . . . Without velocity, (my screwball) wouldn’t sink. It just stayed on the same plane and became hittable.”

Keough—20 complete games, 2.92 ERA in 1980; gutsy start in the 1981 ALCS; led the league in 1982 losses . . .

Keough—“Ballplayers are never the best judges of what’s wrong with them. We were all such good athletes that we thought we could always go nine. Billy never failed to ask us how we felt. He would always say there was no room for heroes. He just wanted you to tell the truth. But we had such egos. We felt if it’s just a soreness maybe we’re better at 75 percent than the others would be at 100. We have to share the blame for what happened to us. I know I’m sick and tired of hearing about Billy Burnout. Billy and Art took an obscure ball club and taught it how to win. How could I object to that? We never pitched any more than pitchers did on other competitive teams, anyway. I completed 20 games in ’80, but I only pitched 250 innings. There are too many intangibles involved to place the blame on any one person.”

What to say to sum it up? Perhaps the thing most proper to say is that a drink of five stubborn pitchers, with an even more stubborn manager as the straw to stir that drink, equals a potion that feels great going down but leaves you with stomach trouble when the flavour is gone.

Billy Martin—who may have been the best manager of his time for the game you had to win yesterday, and may have been one of the worst managers of his time (or any time) for the team that needs to be built to win longer term, which may be the most salient reason why he hasn’t been elected to the Hall of Fame, as his partisans insist he should be—stirred such a potion with the Oakland starting rotation of 1980-82.

Those Athletics teams went from winners to World Series would-bes to fifth-place flameouts in a space of three seasons of Billyball. It cost Martin and Fowler their jobs. And, it turned five talented if not always consistent among them pitchers into has-beens before they reached the age past which it was once said nobody should be trusted.

Rick Langford has been the Toronto Blue Jays’s bullpen coach since 2010, a return engagement since he’d been the Jays’ pitching coach in 2000 before moving to spend a long term in that job for the Syracuse SkyChiefs.

Brian Kingman has made something of an afterlife by way of his having been, for long enough, baseball’s last known 20-game loser. When Detroit’s Mike Maroth turned the dubious trick in 2003 (his second major league season), and Baltimore’s Jeremy Guthrie threatened to do it twice in a three-season span (he never quite got there either time), there Kingman would be, having been sought out for his observations, having developed an engaging sense of humour about it. Otherwise, Kingman spends his time working for a Phoenix, Arizona distribution company and coaching baseball at a private high school.

Mike Norris, who once had to be told by Bob Gibson that he’d embarrassed himself by throwing only two inside pitches all game long, overcame his cocaine addiction and today works with Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, helping teach inner-city youth the game and its pitfalls.

Matt Keough may have the saddest baseball afterlife of the Five. His lawyer has said he’s never been the same man after taking a hard foul off his head, while making an aborted comeback attempt (after a spell playing in Japan, as his father had done once) with the 1992 California Angels. Once a special assistant in the A’s front office after his playing days ended, Keough has since battled alcoholism, spent time in prison for drunk driving, and been divorced from his wife, one-time Playboy Playmate Jeane Tomasino, with whom he appeared on television’s The Real Housewives of Orange County. One of his three children, Shane, played in the Oakland farm system before bouncing around the minors and being released in 2010; had he made the majors, he would have been the Show’s twelfth third-generation player.

Can Strasburg be kept from the fate of pitching coach McCatty and his old rotation mates?

Steve McCatty, meanwhile, is looking forward to trying to keep his pitchers healthy, especially Strasburg and Zimmerman now that they’ve recovered their health. Not to mention getting veteran Edwin Jackson (signed two weeks earlier) to fix a hitch that had him tipping his pitches; or, trying to help John Lannan sort his situation out, after the Jackson signing left Lannan the potential odd man out; or, helping manager Davey Johnson decide whom, between Tom Gorzelanny and Ross Detweiler, will make the Nats’ rotation or go to the pen.

It’s probably a lot simpler for McCatty than trying to figure out how he and his fellow Five Aces went from aces to anguish, in what must now seem like a midsummer’s nightmare.