Next week my favorite baseball pitcher will pitch for the last time this season. Oh, Stephen Strasburg is healthy and sound, and his Washington Nationals were atop the National League East yesterday with a commanding 83-52 record and a .615 percentage facing the Cubs. But Stephen will be “sat” after next Wednesday’s appearance against the Mets and the decision to end his season this early in September before the pennant chases begin has raised more of a tempest than the political conventions.
Stephen, just like me, is a right-handed pitcher. Unlike me, he still has his right elbow and, while I spent about $120 million in a vain attempt to keep mine, Strasburg has a $120 million contract that impels him to keep his. Right now he’s tied for fourth in the National League for wins (15), is second in strikeouts (195) and sixth with an earned-run average of 2.94. Further, the streaking Nationals lead their division by 6½ games.
The trouble is that it was just this time last year when Stephen, now 24, finally came back from what is called “Tommy John” surgery, an elbow procedure done especially to pitchers who suffer torn ulnar collateral ligaments in their throwing arms. No one could have predicted five months ago, when Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo clamped a 160-170 inning limit on Strasburg’s “heater,” that Washington would become the chalk in the National League this season.
Strasburg has been special ever since his first day in Washington. When he made his debut on a cool June 8 in 2010, it was storybook stuff. He jogged out to the mound and promptly threw 14 strikeouts in seven innings – a team record. No walks, two earned runs and fanned the last seven batters in a row – he struck out every Pirate that went to the plate that night.
Since then Strasburg has been “the king of ah’s” and the way he pitches is hardly indicative of the fat, argumentative brat that showed up at San Diego State after the Stanford coaches couldn’t get Strasburg admitted after high school. His rise to the “bigs” was “earned,” believe you me.
Every time I watch him throw I’m reminded his San Diego State teammates called him “Slothburg,” that so out of synch was the pudgy 250-pounder he moved back in with his mom after five days in the dorm. But, as is often the case, then he grew up and there are those who think the lengthy rehab from elbow surgery tempered him even more.
Now, with the regular schedule going into early October, Rizzo is standing firm on his early decision to protect his ace’s arm. “I’m taking the decision out of manager Davey Johnson’s hands and out of Stephen Strasburg’s hands,” said a determined Rizzo, and his in the final word.
Noted orthopedist Dr. James Andrews, the Birmingham genius who routinely performs surgery on the world’s top athletes but who has not seen Strasburg professionally, agreed with the decision in a recent interview with ESPN. "He's such a young pitcher, such a tremendous talent, and I think prevention and being careful with these high-level pitchers is certainly admirable," Andrews said.
"So I would certainly take up for the decision. And I don't know first-hand -- there's probably a lot of intangibles that helped them make that decision. But I don't think you can criticize that one bit, to be honest with you,” Dr. Andrews said.
"If you look at the injury rates on re-dos for Tommy Johns, the highest injury rates they have is during the second year, when they're coming back and really back up at top form and throwing and getting fatigued," Andrews told the network.
"So I think that's a bold step, but it's probably protective for him and for his long-term career, which is always more important than anything else, particularly in a high-level pitcher like that, and a young pitcher."
But guess who doesn’t agree? That would be Tommy John himself, who underwent the procedure when Dr. Frank Jobe fixed his arm in the first such surgery in 1974 when Tommy was with the Dodgers. Mind you, Tommy John went on to pitch three 20-win seasons and made three World Series appearances after he returned to the majors.
"Dr. Jobe told me the longer you pitch -- post-surgery -- without setbacks or any problems, the farther you are from having arm problems again." John said in a recent telephone interview with Major League Baseball. "I think it's wrong, but that is my opinion," John said via telephone.
"They could shut (Strasburg) down all year for all I care. Maybe (Nationals general manager) Mike Rizzo should go to the Atlanta Braves school of shutting pitchers down, because they have the guy (Kris) Medlen. He is going to be able to pitch because they have the foresight to pitch him out of the bullpen during the first couple of months of the season. Now they have him for the rest of the year. They worked their plan better than Rizzo and (agent) Scott Boras worked their plan."
Whoa, not so fast. "The Tommy John surgery is a secondary factor in this," Braves manager Frank Wren said about Medlen. "The primary factor was that the most innings he had ever thrown in a year in his career was 120-something. Our normal progression with any of our pitchers is about 150-160 innings. So we wanted to limit that.”
So on and on they go. All I know is that next Wednesday night when Stephen Strasburg faces the Mets in his last appearance this season, he’ll have a four-seam fastball that goes somewhere between 95-98 miles an hour, a two-seam fastball that that will turn somewhere between 93 and 97, a change-up that can cut anywhere from 87 to 90 and that “slurve” as he calls it – a hybrid cross between a curve and a slider that comes in between 79 and 82 -- that will make a grown man curse.
It takes guts to sit a pitcher down like that. Then again, he’s 24 and still has his elbow while I am older and wear a heavy brace. Oh, baseball will drive you nuts. I can hardly wait until Steven Strasburg begins to pitch again next spring.