From My Cold Dead Hands
There was so much written last week in DC about Stephen Strasburg’s innings limit that he might warrant consideration as Mitt Romney’s running mate, or Obama’s for that matter. Will he or won’t he? All-Star Week was the slowest sports week of the year—no hockey, basketball, football training camp, nada. So maybe what sports junkies were talking about doesn’t really count.
And maybe it is right that we should all turn our attention back to the task at hand—winning the regular season. But there was a trump card played by Dan Steinberg at the Washington Post this past week when he quoted Strasburg himself as saying, “the Nats will have to rip the ball out of my hand.” That was Strasburg’s replay when asked about whether he would pitch in the postseason should the Nationals be so lucky.
Last week’s “Turn Back the Clock” game featured the 1924 World Series teams and there was enough talk about Walter Johnson and Freddie Lindrsom to get any self-respecting fan projecting this remarkably talented Washington Nationals team into SOME kind of playoffs. And like everyone, I am thinking there is no way a competitor like Strasburg is sitting in the dugout and watching as his mates take the field for the seventh and deciding game. No, he said it himself. He wants the frigging ball and if his arm falls off the next morning, at least he pitched in about as important a game as it gets.
So call me a dope Tom Boswell, but if this team has the baseball gods behind it, if they keep up the pace, then whatever it takes, at some point, like Walter Johnson coming in for the ninth inning of the seventh game in 1924 and pitching until Earl McNeely wins it in the 12th, there is an emotional moment waiting when Stephen Strasburg flaunts the odds and wagers everything on the here and now and to hell with next year.
I respect Boswell’ perspective, however, so I talked to Bill Blewett, a Baltimore Sun sports writer who has a book coming out entitled, The Science of the Fastball. Bill has made an extensive study of the bio-mechanics of pitching and his research is quite impressive. Bill talked about two issues with Strasburg and I will save the best for last.
First, he explained arm fatigue and how it works. One of the more important concepts is something called differential fatigue whereby parts of the arm lose their strength first. So the forearm and elbow ligaments, from which much of the torque for a fastball emanates, tire before the wrist and flexor tendons, which are equally important. The arm cannot keep up, however, and the pitching coaches say the pitcher is not finishing his pitches, he is leaving the ball up in the zone, or there is not as much arm-side run on the Strasburg heater.
That happens, according to Bill, because pitchers do too much training between starts. Especially if they have a bad start, a pitcher may throw more bullpen to work on his delivery between starts. He may work out a little harder to build strength. According to the physiology of the arm and how it produces energy, that extra work is particularly counter-productive. What the pitcher needs is extra rest. He needs to re-charge his pitching battery.
The principle can be seen easiest in a pitcher who has a bad outing. According to Bill, the bad outing is caused by arm fatigue that catches up to the thrower over numerous outings. Like a battery, the arm’s energy depletes progressively until he goes out and has almost nothing. Then, after getting shelled and leaving in the third inning, his arm heals because it is stressed less by the fewer innings. Like magic the pitcher has his old stuff in the next outing. If you look at most of the games immediately after the All-Star break, many pitchers had better games than they had before the break. The root of it is they are more rested. They have more stored energy in their arms for the old heater.
The most interesting question Bill answered was Strasburg’s innings limit. While he does not believe such limits make sense, I think that if you build a system of conditioning for the season that works one way, you cannot change in mid-stream. Strasburg’s approach has been predicated on an innings limit and it should be respected when the time comes.
But I asked Bill whether after the end of the season Strasburg could pitch in the playoffs. Does it put any extra stress on Strasburg to pitch after extended rest like he would get from being out of action for as much as a month? According to Bill’s hypothesis, Strasburg is not only capable of pitching at that point, but he will pitch even better had he not had the month off.
So it could work that Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and company might be a little tired as the playoffs loom. Not to worry, the cavalry is there to sweep in like Cossacks in the form of Stephen Strasburg. So like Walter Johnson coming in to pitch the last three innings of the seventh game of 1924 World Series, Strasburg may be the Nationals secret weapon this October. Is it a fairy tale? Every World Championship Series is a thing of legend, something a little out of the ordinary. It is a tall tale waiting to be written, and we shall just have to see what we shall see.
To hear the full interview with Bill Blewett, listen here: