Washington has many fine sportswriters. Atop the list are Tom Boswell, Tim Kurkjian, and until recently John Feinstein. Last season Feinstein was one of the louder voices calling for the Nationals to keep sending Strasburg out every five days in September. And now he is using the failure of the Nationals to make the playoffs as proof that Strasburg should have led Washington to the World Series in 2012.
Feinstein’s thesis is that the failure of the Nationals to hold a 7-5 lead in the ninth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals rests not with Drew Storen, but instead stops resolutely at the desk of General Manager Mike Rizzo for pulling Strasburg at the beginning of September. Not only does the failures of 2012 rest with Rizzo’s decision to rest Strasburg, but that of 2013 as well. It is an argument that turns on the thin dime that Rizzo’s decision to shut down Strasburg was the linchipin in a house of cards. Every failure from Spetember 7, 2012 going forward rests on that single decision. Storen would have gotten the save in the fifth game of the NLDS if Strasburg had continued to pitch in September.
There is a huge fly in Feinstein’s soup. The fly is a 6′-4″ right-hander who lost considerable zip on his trademark fastball in 2013 and won only seven games all season long. This was a rested Strasburg who had no worries about the strain of a long season. But still he was not the same dominant force that was arguably the best pitcher in the National League in the first half of 2012. The question Feinstein might better be asking is which Strasburg would have shown up in September of 2o12. He fantasizes that it would have been the first half Strasburg, but that person failed to show on September 7, 2012 and has been only on rare occasions since. That is the more important issue. What does 2013 portend for the future of Stephen Strasburg?
It is not just an issue of diminished velocity, though that is vexing and important. The fly in Feinstein’s soup gets bigger when you factor in how absent Strasburg was during the final stretch run for Washington in 2013. Fast forward 12 months from Feinstein’s critical moment and it is another September. Stephen Strasburg is ostensibly healthy as a horse and the Nationals are trying to gain ground on the Cincinnati Reds for the last playoff spot. They need all hands on deck. Strasburg comes out of two starts complaining about physical issues in August and then fails to make two starts during a key period in September. The team was hitting on all cylinders, winning with abandon, but then someone went missing: Stephen Strasburg. And Mike Rizzo had not a thing to do with it.
In many ways, Stephen Strasburg was the one of the bigger disappointments in the Nationals clubhouse this season. Drew Storen blew several key games early in the season. Danny Espinosa could not hit a lick and Adam LaRoche lost thirty batting average points and a dozen home runs. Strasburg’s season belongs in that same mix.
One can argue that the biggest single failure for the Washington Nationals in 2013 was the failure of their champion Strasburg to put together the kind of dominating season that every baseball pundit predicted for him after Rizzo pulled him after signs of fatigue emerged late in 2012. With a rested arm, Strasburg should have been able to match up with any number one starter an NL team could trot out. But when called upon to win those matchups, he failed in much the same fashion as Storen.
His 2013 record is one of frustration and futility. Stephen Strasburg won only seven games in 2013 despite throwing 179 innings to an ERA of 3.03. If he were pitching for a team that did not win games overall, it would be easy to put the blame on his teammates. The facile assumption is that his team failed to score runs behind him. An anemic offense did plague Strasburg early in the season, but somehow, Jordan Zimmerman managed to win 19 games with the same offense. Zimmerman managed to pitch just well enough to win. Strasburg managed to pitch just well enough to lose.
During the eight weeks when the Washington offense was scoring runs in bunches, Strasburg made only seven starts and was pulled for physical problems in two of those. He went only one inning on August 17th and two starts later was pulled after two innings with unnamed arm problems. During the most important part of the season, Strasburg did have two dominant starts. But when you wanted him to be a key cog in a march to the playoffs, he became a non-factor. Dominant and unflappable competitor or fragile champion? Which one do you see John Feinstein?
It requires a rather superficial analysis to believe that the best pitching prospect in the last 50 years is still throwing much the same as he did in his debut game back in June 2010. A deeper look at the numbers raises troubling questions as to where Strasburg is headed longer term.
Does the fall off in velocity signal a pitcher learning to pitch rather than throw? Or does it signal a pitcher afraid to air it out for fear of injury? During many games Strasburg’s fastball sat at 94-95 mph. He relied on his change-up and curve during those games and overall he threw those pitches more this season. But the 98 mph fastball did not go away completely. Yet there was no start this season where Strasburg came out of the gate throwing 98 mph. It generally took several innings for the big fastball to top out. Strasburg often experienced problems in the early innings because he was not willing to let go with the fastball and lacked command of his secondary pitches.
The best thing would be for Strasburg to bounce back in 2014, to put the injury concerns and innings counts in a closet somewhere and throw away the key. The questions about what happened in 2012 would finally be put to rest. Feinstein could go back to golf.
It is a long off-season. Mike Rizzo has plenty of questions to answer, mainly about his bullpen and which Adam LaRoche will show up for 2014. But the questions about Strasburg rest with the 25 year old alone. Making it all hinge on some watershed moment from a season ago muddies the waters. The Washington Nationals need to put the many quesitons about past moments that could have been behind them. They moved beyond all of that during the last two months of the 2013 season. Stephen Strasburg and the Washington Nationals need a belief in the future, not an obsession with the past.