By Murray Chass

August 30, 2012

On the subject of Felix Hernandez, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: He is the best pitcher in baseball.

I bring it up now for two reasons: his performance in his last three starts and the Washington Nationals’ mean-well but questionable pampering of Stephen Strasburg.Stephen Strasburg 2012 225

Pampering pitchers is the prevailing practice today. Don’t let them pitch too many innings, don’t let them throw too many pitches in a game, don’t increase by too many the number of innings they pitch from one season to the next. The pampering, of course, is intended to protect young pitchers’ arms. But if the idea is intended to protect and preserve young pitchers’ arms, why are 20 young pitchers from major league rosters among 30 pitchers recovering from reconstructive elbow surgery (a.k.a. Tommy John surgery) and why are 6 other young pitchers among 9 pitchers recovering from shoulder surgery?

I bring the 26-year-old Hernandez into this discussion because despite all of the games he has started and all of the innings he has pitched – more than 190 for seven successive seasons, more than 200 the last five as soon as he makes his next start – he has been on the disabled list only twice, for four weeks in 2007 with a strained elbow and for 18 days in 2008 with a sprained ankle.

I asked Chuck Armstrong, the Seattle Mariners’ president for 20 years, if the Mariners proceeded carefully with Hernandez in his early major league years.

“Actually, we did in his formative years,” Armstrong said, then cited a rule of thumb some people espouse: “No more innings than 10 times a pitcher’s age.”

Whether or not by design, the Mariners have basically followed that formula with Hernandez, with exceptions in 2009 (8 2/3 innings more than 10 times his age) and 2010 (9 2/3 more). Yet Hernandez has carried a full load. In six full seasons he has started, in order, 31, 30, 31, 34, 34 and 33 games (27 so far this season, with 7 more likely to follow). But he has had no need for elbow or shoulder surgery.

“I do worry about it,” Armstrong said in a telephone interview. “I wonder how many pitches he has in his arm. He’s not a maximum effort guy anymore. If he needs to get up to 95, 96, he can, but he doesn’t have to. Early on he often threw a lot of pitches. Now he tells me ‘I’m going to throw 98 pitches tonight’ and he does it.”

On Aug. 15 Hernandez threw 113 pitches in his perfect game against Tampa Bay. He threw 105 pitches in 7 2/3 innings in winning his next start against Cleveland (“Eric took him out at the right time,” Armstrong said of manager Eric Wedge). Six days later Hernandez needed only 100 pitches to gain his league-leading fifth shutout, a 5-hitter against Minnesota.

I had Hernandez in mind recently when I replied to a reader who disagreed with my view that wins for pitchers remain meaningful despite a contrary belief of advocates of new-age statistics. “How does a starting pitcher have ‘control?’” the reader wrote, referring to relievers’ giving up the starter’s lead.

“By pitching nine innings,” I replied.

Hernandez has pitched 16 complete games in the past three seasons. Strasburg has not pitched a complete game in 43 major league starts, which is probably a good idea considering the Nationals’ stated plan to end Strasburg’s season when he reaches an undetermined number of innings. They did it last year with Jordan Zimmerman, who had elbow reconstruction surgery in August 2009.

Last season the Nationals limited Zimmerman to 26 starts and 161 iinnings, not using him in September. He has the exact same totals this season but will pitch in September.

They are following the same plan this season with Strasburg, who had the elbow operation a year after Zimmerman. As of Tuesday the 24-year-old right-hander had made 26 starts and pitched 150 innings. General manager Mike Rizzo has not said when he will shut down Strasburg, but he has said he will shut him down no matter the consequences.

Should the Nationals, who have led the National League East since May 22, suddenly encounter trouble, Strasburg will not be able to help rescue them. If they are in the playoffs, he will not be part of the team that will try to win the World Series.

This plan has been designed to make sure Strasburg doesn’t pitch too much and reinjure himself. The Nationals, of course, don’t know that Strasburg would reinjure himself. They are being cautious, overly cautious, I believe. Elbows are supposed to be stronger after Tommy John surgery. Using the rule of thumb Armstrong cited, 10 times Strasburg’s age would give him a maximum of 240 innings, well above the number he will have, even accounting for the operation.

John, who had the first elbow reconstruction, returned in 1976 and pitched 207 innings, then pitched more than 200 innings in six of the next seven seasons and kept pitching until he retired in 1989 at the age of 46.

Stephen Strasburg WalkoffThe Nationals’ plight is heightened by their success this season. They suffered no ill effect last season from shutting down Zimmerman in September. The absence of Strasburg this September and October could be fatal. Teams seldom get second chances at the World Series. Baseball people generally advocate taking the shot when you have it.

A column in The New York Times two weeks ago said injury experts “have praised the team” for its stance on Strasburg’s injury, but the writer doesn’t name or quote any of his experts. The writer, David Leonhardt, is the Times’ Washington bureau chief. Geography apparently qualifies him to make other questionable statements.

He suggests that the Nationals could place Strasburg on the disabled list, perhaps for an extended period, and he could miss several starts, preserving his arm for later use. Two things wrong with that.

Major League Baseball forbids the use of the disabled list to keep players inactive. Teams have to show that a player is injured. And if the Nationals wanted to sit Strasburg down for several starts, they could do it in September when rosters expand and the disabled list is not needed to bench a player.

Leonhardt also makes conflicting statements about the Nationals’ status. On one hand, he writes that the Nationals are good enough to have a chance to make the World Series even without Strasburg, which probably isn’t so. On the other hand, he says that even with Strasburg, the Nationals probably wouldn’t make it because Baseball Reference ranks them only as the third best team in baseball, based on various statistics.

Two comments about that observation:

Baseball games are won and lost on the field, not on a sheet of statistics.

If Leonhardt thinks the Nationals’ chances of getting to the World Series are not good, even with Strasburg, because they are ranked third behind the Yankees and the Rangers, is he suggesting that the Yankees and the Rangers would meet in the World Series? That’s not likely to happen because both are American League teams. A team from the National League would be needed, and if the Nationals are the top-ranked N.L. team, maybe they would be the N.L. representative.

Obviously no one, including the Nationals, knows what would happen if Strasburg pitched in September and October. He might get hurt, he might not. If the Nationals had been smarter about this whole thing, they could have skipped one Strasburg start a month for the first five months, and based on his average number of innings per start, 5.77, he would have 121 innings now and not 150.

If Strasburg’s limit is 160 innings, as Zimmerman’s was, or 180, as has also been speculated, Strasburg, based on his average number of innings per start, would have 6 to 10 starts left in his right arm, enough to get him and the Nationals through the World Series. It’s commendable that the Nationals want to protect Strasburg’s future, but even if he were to hurt his arm, he would live to pitch again and he and his grateful teammates might have World Series rings to gaze at as he awaits his next recovery.

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