Friday, August 27, 2010

Why did this happen? Because.

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Stephen Strasburg's whirlwind rookie season ended on the ultimate sour note.
The cries of "Noooooooo!" that could be heard around the District at, oh, 10:31 a.m. today were quickly followed by a barrage of questions and declarations from every corner of the sports world.

Everybody either wanted to know -- or believed they already knew -- why Stephen Strasburg's remarkable rookie season had come to such an abrupt and sad conclusion: Tommy John surgery.

The Nationals babied him too much. No, wait, they weren't cautious enough. They should have known he'd blow out his arm because of his pitching mechanics. Or maybe it's the velocity. You can't throw 100 mph fastballs and 91 mph changeups and expect your elbow to retain its structural integrity. Clearly, this ligament tear had been building up over months and years. Unless it just collapsed under the weight of one unfortunate changeup Saturday night.

The parade of "experts" claiming to know exactly what happened and why was more staggering than any knee-buckling curveball Strasburg has ever thrown. And it was unavoidable. They were everywhere you turned all day.

Perhaps everyone would have been wise to pause for just a moment and listen to what the kid whose life had just been turned upside-down had to say when asked if he'd found himself searching for an explanation the last 24 hours.

"If I keep looking for an explanation, it's just going to eat at me," Strasburg said. "I've got to let it go. I've just got to move on."

Who would've guessed the most mature take on the entire Strasburg saga would have come from the 22-year-old right-hander who will have his elbow cut open in the next few days?

We can all learn something, though, from Strasburg, whose grace and humility and perspective in the face of a career-altering injury surpassed anything he did on the mound this season.

Why did this happen? Because it did. There's no reason to delve deeper than that. Strasburg is a pitcher. Pitchers get hurt.

That's right. It doesn't matter how cautious an organization is with a young hurler. You can limit his innings, limit his pitches, shut him down early and scratch him at the first sign of discomfort. You still can't ensure a guy won't get hurt.

The human shoulder and elbow were not designed to throw a baseball overhand tens of thousands of times. It's about as violent a physical act as you could conceive short of slamming a car door on your arm 100 times every five days.

Some pitchers are blessed with an arm that can survive two decades of professional baseball without ever breaking down. (Hello, Livan Hernandez.) Most, however, simply can't do it. It's only a matter of when, not if, he'll succumb to injury.

"When I see these pitchers throw," Jim Riggleman said, "I'm almost more surprised when they don't end up with surgery."

So there's no use beating up the Nationals for their treatment of Strasburg over the last year. Mike Rizzo certainly isn't.

"We're satisfied with the way he was developed," Rizzo said. "I know Scott Boras is satisfied the way he's been treated and developed, and Stephen is also. We're good with that. Frustrated? Yes. But second-guessing ourselves? No."

Which isn't to say Strasburg's injury won't have a lasting -- and potentially devastating -- effect on this franchise. Fair or unfair, the Nats' plan for approaching contention in 2011 was built around Stephen Strasburg making 30 starts. That won't be happening now.

A boatload of non-Strasburg questions suddenly arise because of Strasburg's injury. Does this alter the Nationals' timetable, and thus alter their approach to free agency? Are they less-inclined to re-sign Adam Dunn now? Is Dunn less-inclined to want to re-sign? Do they go out and spend money on another starting pitcher this winter? Or do they figure it's not worth it to add a couple more wins to a team that is going to need a lot of things to go right to approach a .500 record?

"I don't think there's any correlation between that," Rizzo said when asked about Dunn's future as it relates of Strasburg's surgery. "We've got a plan, a gameplan, to improve the ballclub and to map ourselves a way to become a championship organization in the near future. I think the injury to Stephen and the signing of Adam Dunn are two independent things."

The overriding sense around the organization today was that Strasburg's injury won't significantly alter roster-building. The Nationals have a core of young players already at the big-league level in Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Roger Bernadina, Jordan Zimmermann and Drew Storen. To that group they intend to add the next wave, including Wilson Ramos and Danny Espinosa. And they'll continue to surround those youngsters with a handful of veterans who can help bring the kids along while also holding down important short-term roles themselves.

That's not going to change just because Stephen Strasburg won't be on the Opening Day 2011 roster. The timetable for contention may have been pushed back a bit, but the realists among the front office felt like that wouldn't have happened until 2012 anyway, even with a healthy Strasburg and Zimmermann.

"A year goes fast," Rizzo said during Strasburg's press conference today. "A year from now, this guy next to me will be toeing the rubber, and we'll have two-fifths of our rotation, of what we had planned, on the field at the same time. We're going to be ready to take off from there."

If a year goes fast, then two months go by in the blink of an eye. That's as much time as Strasburg spent on the Nationals' active, big-league roster this summer. Sixty-four days. Within that brief time, he set the world ablaze with a debut performance for the ages, brought massive crowds and merchandise sales to five different major-league ballparks, left 40,000 fans holding their breath when he slipped out of the bullpen moments before a scheduled start, struggled in his return from the DL, dominated one of baseball's toughest lineups for 4 1/3 innings and then ... well, you don't need to be told how this story ended.

"Definitely a whirlwind," Strasburg said. "It kind of sucks to have it end like this, but I got a lot of great experience when I was up here. The weird thing about it is, that last game, that was when everything started to click. That was when I had that feeling. I mean, that was a packed house with some rowdy fans, and I didn't feel like they were there. I was just so locked in and everything was working. And sure enough, something happens."

Yep, something happens. And no amount of second-guessing, analyzing, hand-wringing or self-flogging is going to change that.

Stephen Strasburg's rookie season began with a flourish beyond our wildest dreams, and it ended with a punch to the gut that will sting for quite some time. It certainly didn't play out as anyone could have predicted. But maybe we should have expected that.

When it comes to the health of young pitchers, it's impossible to predict the future. The sooner we all come to grips with that, the easier it will be to move on.

38 comments:

Sunshine_Bobby_Carpenter_Is_Too_Pessimistic_for_Me said...

As usual, Mark, a top-notch, solid and, most of all, sensible story on what happened to Jesus. If his arm was a solid as your reporting, we'd still be having him out there every five days throwing heat. Thank you so much for your clarity and sensibilities.

Section 222 said...

Another beautifully written post, summing up a tough day in Natstown. Thanks Mark.

Bill said...

I agree with the first two posts. Thanks, Mark, for your perspective on what is rightly described as a whirlwind. Odds are Stras will be back for 2012, maybe even stronger, if that's imaginable. Now, let's focus on the Nats' efforts to strengthen their core of young talent. Young and growing is fun to watch, even if sometimes frustrating. Just like kids.

DJ said...

Tell the Lerners to spend some freakin money. Nobody should buy tickets for nats games if they don't go out and get a Carl Crawford and a frontline pitcher.

JayB said...

Mark Says, "Fair or unfair, the Nats' plan for approaching contention in 2011 was built around Stephen Strasburg making 30 starts."

First off thank you Mark for great reporting today and everyday.

Second, Nats are going pay a heavy cost in ticket sales and a drop to sub 5K in season ticket holders. Stan, Rizzo and Lerner put too many eggs in the SS basket. They risked too much of their future on a 22 year old pitcher. They should have spent on proven 28-32 year old arms to lead the say in 2008-2011. Nats plan was too high risk and they are paying the price for it now and for two years to come.

Sad day for Nats....100 loses this year and next because they put it all on SS arm. Dumb move and you did not need hind sight to know the risks were very high in their Plan.

Mississippi Snopes said...

You know, DJ, I'm tired of this repeated nonsense about the Lerners being "cheap." They offered $180 million to Texeira, broke the records for draftee pitchers and position players with Strasburg and Harper, offered $25 million to untested Cuban pitcher Aroldis Chapman, pay higher salaries to their scouts and minor league coaches than any other system in baseball, offer $5 tickets to every game, offered tons of free tickets to season ticket holders this year through the Red Carpet program, and are seriously talking to a 30 year-old first baseman who fits the profile of a player whose skills will rapidly decline about a three to four year contract worth sixty to eighty million. AND they paid hundreds of millions of dollars for a franchise to come to this town that has never supported a major league team since the 1920s.

I don't know you, so I'm not accusing you personally of anything. But one of the best indicators of bigotry is when someone believes something despite all the objective facts to the contrary. Like someone who believes that all blacks are stupid or all Mexicans are drug dealers ... or all Jews are "cheap."

You might not be an anti-Semite but a whole lot of the no-nothings who keep insisting the Lerners are cheap when all the evidence shows they are amazingly free-spending are in fact just that -- anti-Semites.

And I'm sick of reading that garbage.

Scooter said...

"Strasburg is a pitcher. Pitchers get hurt."

Mark Zuckerman, I could kiss you on the mouth.

In other news, my wife wants me to stop reading this blog. So if she asks, you guys saw me over at MLB Trade Rumors, okay?

rmoore446 said...

To Mississippi Snopes, despite the awful name you have chosen I can't help but wonder if you are right. All this "the Lerners are cheap" talk flys into the face of reality.

And I have to wonder if JayB truly predicts a 100 loss season this year and next. Does he really stake his reputation (in the eye of the beholder for sure) on that prediction?

Green Armadillo said...

I agree with the perspective. What makes this hard for Nats fans to deal with is the fact that we've already lost 280 games in the last three seasons, with a month left to play and a solid shot at 300 losses in three years.

The thing we had to look forward to and dull the pain was the 2011 rotation, with Strasburg, Zimmerman, Lannan, and Marquis, and half a dozen decent prospects and vets slugging it out for the last slot. Now, Strasburg will miss most or all of next year, Lannan will be coming off a season where he got sent down to AA ball, and Marquis barely recorded his first quality start of the year in August. I can't think of anything specific the front office has done that I think was a bad idea in principle, but somehow the results just haven't worked out yet. I suppose that all will be forgotten if we make the playoffs in 2012.

Also, out of literally morbid curiosity, does Strasburg get major league service time for the entire duration of his recovery because the injury occurred while he was on the big league team?

Mississippi Snopes said...

rmoore446 -

You're talking to a ghost. My confrontational comment was quickly deleted and I frankly don't blame Mark for that. He has every right to keep this focused on baseball and to avoid arguments that will cost him readers.

However, I must object to calling "Mississippi Snopes" an "awful name." It is a tribute to my roots in poor white folks Mississippi, as brilliantly captured by Faulkner in his "Snopes Trilogy" -- The Town, The Hamlet, and The Mansion (and it's the online name I've used since at least 1991 so it's too late to change it now).

Sam said...

Well written and thought out, Mark. Thank you! People always try to make patterns out of nothing, and there is often nothing but our own personal biases telling us what to believe.

Anonymous said...

The next person who blames this on the Nats rushing Strasburg to the majors is getting punched in the face. He throws the same speed, with the same motion, in the minors as he does in the majors. How could it possibly matter which jersey he's wearing?

Bote Man said...

Today's news on Strasburg was flickering in the back of my mind as I watched his debut pitching performance on television. Something along the lines of "this is too good to be true, or to last". Sometimes I just hate it when I'm right.

But, this guy is only one pitcher who could only affect the outcome of every fifth game. It is not the end of the world.

Besides, the Nats have a LOT more work to do to improve the team in order to make Strasburg's contributions pay off.

jcj5y said...

Very well said. I have a lot of respect for a 22 year-old who exhibits the sort of perspective Strasburg did yesterday.

Here's my question: can the front office really afford to see this development as simply "pushing back" their plan for a year? If they didn't really think contention was possible until 2012, this means that it won't happen until 2013, when Strasburg, assuming he's healthy by this time next year, will be cleared to pitch around 200 innings. 2013 is the last year of Zimmerman's contract.

The way I see it, this very sad development with Strasburg has to put a big question mark in the team's mind about his future contribution. The front office has worked hard to build a roster that can contend in 2012 and 2013, but if they don't have a number one starter, it isn't going to happen. So for me, the message here is that the Nats should make a serious effort to sign Cliff Lee this offseason. He's the only insurance policy they can buy on Strasburg, but such a policy is really insurance that all their other investments in 2012 and 2013 pay off.

BQ said...

First I must admit, I was very disheartened to hear this news. I was avoiding any news from Nationals for a whole day. Usually I am on my computer 24/7, checking up on any updates in Natstown. (yeah I know I have no life but one love). After reading SS's take on this issue, I am somewhat calm now. I went and checked the wiki article on the surgery, and also the players that have gone through this surgery. There have been lot of pitchers who had a successful one such as Tommy John himself, Josh Johnson, Tim Hudson, Chris Carpenter, etc. These are not some random pitchers but aces on their respective pitching staffs. All is not lost because SS will lose this and the next season. We have hopes of him not just coming back, but coming back stronger than before. Does this affect our starting rotation big time? I wouldn't say so. I might even consider this a blessing in disguise for two reasons. One for it happened now than later in his career. And second, we have a reason to retain Livan now. Marquis, Lannan, JZ, Maya, Livan. Otherwise we do have choices such as RD, Stammen, etc. Our offseason needs still haven't changed though. We still need the best defensive 2B we can find and a solid RF, while resigning Dunn. It is a great loss but all is not lost. Wish SS a speedy recovery. We all still love you SS.

JayB said...

Yup they are heading to 100 loses this year and next---unless they fire Riggs and move to a proven winning attitude manager or take the out the wallet and spend on hitting, defense and starting pitching. Choice is theirs but doing the same thing this winter, that is looking for cheap talent with issues is going to produce the same results the past 3 seasons have.

Anonymous said...

Two points -- no, this isn't good news. But I'd much rather see it now before the Nats are in contention for a post season spot than when they're chasing a wild card berth, or worse, actually in the post season.

Also, the Nats are currently 54-75, which is .418 ball. There are 33 games left in the season. They need to lose 25 of them to arrive at 100 losses, which is about .270 ball. Sure, the franchise is snakebit, but it's within the realm of possibility that they'll do better than that.

Sure, it slows down the climb to respectability, but, realistically, don't we need to find other pieces of the puzzle? The outfield is still in flux, especially at right field, and I'm not sure we have the long term answer at either second or first. We're probably okay at catcher, but Ramos could still use some experience.

At this point, I don't like the news that Strasburg is injured, but at least Albert Haynesworth has been upstaged. This is neither here nor there, but I think part of the reason behind his behavior is that the press has been hanging on to his every word. If nothing else, we're seeing an example of maturity and professionalism in handling a setback. I hope Mr. Haynesworth and the Redskins are taking notes.

SJ_Writer said...

Mark,

This piece is why you are my favorite writer in DC. Well thought out and credits Strasburg for his maturity and class after terrible news. I only wish I could do the same.

There will be naysayers, but the Nationals organization under Mike Rizzo is professional and competent. My more optimistic friends are bullish on the Nats future because of this.

And kudos to the Nats last night. I was there and they played with effort and guts and were a few inches shy of likely winning the game. There only flaw was that they tried TOO hard. The errors and the pick-off and the poor clutch hitting were from that. This team is not mailing it in, they are just short-changed on talent and experience and knowledge of how to win in the majors. All that will come in time.

Anonymous said...

"Why did this happen? Because it did. There's no reason to delve deeper than that."

Actually, there is a reason to delve deeper than that. One of the best relievers in baseball history, the 1974 Cy Young winner, and the holder of many pitching endurance records, Mike Marshall, holds a PhD in exercise physiology and has an entirely different approach to pitching, one he claims eliminates pitching injuries.

I'm not a Marshall partisan -- I don't have an independent view of whether his approach works. But there is evidence to suggest that Marshall may be to pitching what Bill James was to sabermetrics -- a visionary with a radically different approach that could revolutionize the game, but who was dismissed by the entire baseball establishment, all of whom had a vested interest in the status quo. Many of those who have worked with Marshall are effusive in their praise, and Marshall's own remarkable record of endurance is pretty good evidence that there's something to it.

Sabermetrics existed for decades before one exceptional person in professional baseball establishment (Billy Beane) was willing to risk trying it, defying virtually the entire baseball establishment in the process. It's very plausible that Marshall's insights are comparably valuable, but that nobody's willing to take a similar risk.

Not to pick on the Nationals, but does Steve McCatty or anyone of the Nats staff even begin to understand anything about Marshall's theories? Have they looked into it in a serious way? I'm willing to bet they haven't, and that they simply lack the understanding of physiology to even begin to evaluate Marshall's perspective.

It's not unusual for true innovators to be unable to win support for radical new approaches in any field. Sometimes, it takes something dramatic to break through. Perhaps if Strasburg is unable to return to form, his injury could provide a catalyst for more people to rethink pitching mechanics. Meanwhile, Mark, Marshall's is a fascinating story waiting to be told (again).

For those interested in exploring Marshall's theories, check out his website at: http://www.drmikemarshall.com/.

N. Cognito said...

Equating Strasburg to "all their eggs in one basket" is one of the most idiotic posts I've read here and proof that certain "fans" are nothing but whiners and complainers.

The Nats have been drafting pitchers out their you-know-what in an effort to construct a home grown quality rotation. One can make an argument that the Nats should be supplementing that effort with a quality free agent signing or two (and when to do that is another argument), but anyone thinking the Nats are pinning all their hopes on Strasburg is a dolt.

Jimmy said...

This may sound stupid, but it seems most young pitchers are heading for Tommy John surgery. They seem to heal fast when they are young, so why not have that operation before it happens. You won't tear your tendon but you will even have a stronger new one (from the leg) with the normal tendon.

NatsFanTom said...

This post represents your finest hour Mark. You touched on all the points related to the Strasburg matter perfectly.

Green Armadillo said...

Quoth Anon: "Also, the Nats are currently 54-75, which is .418 ball. There are 33 games left in the season. They need to lose 25 of them to arrive at 100 losses, which is about .270 ball. Sure, the franchise is snakebit, but it's within the realm of possibility that they'll do better than that."

The number that I suggested was in reach was 300 losses in 3 years. We have a five game head start on that mark for losing 102 in '08 and 103 in '09, and would need to win 14 of the last 33 (0.424 ball assuming no rainouts that don't get played, better than their current season mark) to avoid the requisite 20 more losses.

Also, remember that the 0.418 mark is padded out by the strong start from the early weeks of the season. We'll play September without Capps, Willingham, Guzman, and Strasburg (our second best starter, behind Livan only because of the late start), and those 33 games include 12 against the pennant racing Braves and Phillies.

All of this is what it is at this point. I'm just saying that we opened the year hoping that at least we might be respectable next year. If the less-solid rotation is the deciding factor in cutting Dunn loose, we could be looking at years before we can field a winning club.

JayB said...

Read the post N. Cognito and expand your closed mind.....It says they needed to sign good proven FA pitching in 2008-2011.....get a clue definition of Dolt.

Sunshine_Bobby_Carpenter_Is_Too_Pessimistic_for_Me said...

I think Green Armadillo is right. Three-hundred losses in three years is right on target. But whether it's 299 or 301 or whatever, the larger issue is player development. Basically, the Nats' cupboard was bare when they arrived here -- remember, their top organizational prospect was Kory Casto, now demoted to AA, and going nowhere. Basically, in six years here, they've developed Zimmerman, Zimmermann, Storen, Desmond, Bernadina and maybe one or two other legitimate big leaguers. Rizzo has helped with a few trades, namely Wilson Ramos. Harper, of course, looks good on paper. Actually, he looks pretty good in person. So there's a nucleus of maybe 10 legitimate big leaguers, or close to big leaguers. That's two players a year, more or less, that they've developed, or drafted.

The FO cannot continue on this pace. It has got to start spending money. Its business plan is a lot closer to the Pittsburgh Pirates than it is to the Yankees or Phillies. Yet, they certainly are charging big-market prices and finished third in operating profit ($43 million) two years ago behind the Marlins and Red Sox, according to the Forbes rankings.

I've softened my Lerners-are-cheep stance in light of the money they've spent on SS, Harper and a couple other draft picks. But their biggest FA acquistion last year was Jason Marquis, and we see how well that's worked out.

StanK talks about this glorious plan, but it's basically a one- or two-year shot at 2012 and 2013 when (hopefully) SS is healthy again, Zimm'nn, Zimm, Desmond and (maybe) Harper are still on the roster. If it doesn't click by 2013, these guys will be migrating away.

It's very difficult to improve 10 wins a year for three years, yet that is what the Nats' plan for 2013 requires (assuming they win about 62-64 games this year).

I love optimism. But StanK's so-called plan actually calls for delusional optimism, of which I'm not a big fan.

JayB said...

exactly....exactly right Sunshine Bobby...."StanK's so-called plan actually calls for delusional optimism"

Anonymous said...

They should have spent on proven 28-32 year old arms to lead the say in 2008-2011. Nats plan was too high risk and they are paying the price for it now and for two years to come.

Now JayB,

You mean like Randy Wolf?

They did go out and get a proven 28 year old Cuban named Yunieski Maya didn't they? He just threw 90 pitches for Syracuse last night. Say, weren't you the one all hot and bothered about International Signings? Well they made one! And he is at least one proven veteran to put into the rotation. Livan is still here and he has been pitching well ... they also signed Marquis ... although we'll have to see how he pitches next year.

Unless its Cliff Lee you are going to find few top of the rotation starters worth throwing money at. Many probably wouldn't even want to come to the Nats. So, a more likely scenario is going to be that pitching talent will be acquired through trades.

They did manage to sign all of their top talent pitchers in the draft. Many are now in the pipeline ... so that's something accomplished.

Doc said...

Few pitchers have as much vested interest in the status of their pitching arm than does Stephen Strasburg.

Given Stephen's interest in physical fitness, and natural intelligence, I think that over the next few months he'll be considering the ideas of Mike Marshall, Don Cooper, and Rick Peterson.

If pitching is 80% of successful baseball, then its time that coaches and executive personnel start considering a more sophisticated approach to managing the physical status of their pitchers.

Anonymous said...

Strasburg is a pitcher. Pitchers get hurt.

Actually, I think this quote should be attributed to Posnaski during his interview during Federal Baseball on the ongoing Stras injury saga.

Anonymous said...

If Cliff Lee was here, JayB would find a way to complain about him. JayB is nothing but a whiner. Ignore him.

Anonymous said...

If Cliff Lee was here, JayB would find a way to complain about him. JayB is nothing but a whiner. Ignore him.

Beltwayboy7 said...

It's a tough blow, but I don't fault the Nats in anyway for this. It sucks for Stephen Strasburg and all Nats fans, but that is life! Time to suck it up and move on!

Sunshine_Bobby_Carpenter_Is_Too_Pessimistic_for_Me said...

Speaking of sucking it and moving on, is Double Dribble do back on the air tonight? Or is he continuing his "vacation" to hop on those late-summer sales at Nordstrom Rack?

Eric said...

JayB = Moron

His takes are so idiotic they are really not even worth responding to.

BinM said...

Mark: First of all, thank you for the well thought-out post; Your response here reads much more like a column, rather than the typical blog post, driven by reason & insight rather than reaction. Trying to talk the majority of the five-year-olds off the ledge in their terms (WHY? - Because) was appreciated.

Again, Thank you for bearing up & giving consistent quality in your posts, while mostly working without a net (supporting publication).

LoveDaNats said...

Mark,
I totally agree with every positive post about your writing. Really a pleasure to read. It was a shock about Stras but our distress as fans is nothing compared to what he and his family are about to go through. I wish him well and can't wait to see him back on the mound.

Anonymous said...

why did this happen...poor mechanics and previously undetected injuries which Stephen pitched through in college. As I said the other day BFD if he does not pitch until 2012, this team is horrible and next year's team was not going to be much better with Stephen.

Anonymous said...

JayB is a moron indeed. He posts on the Nationals website under the moniker "MysteryMan", and he posts bizzare gibberish there as well. Best to just ignore him - he's got issues.

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