By Murray Chass

September 9, 2012

One national event centered in Washington, D.C., is scheduled for the first week of November. The city’s baseball fans hope another national event comes to the capital just before that. Great debates surround both evens. Which one will stir more passion and more controversy?

The event that is scheduled for Nov. 6 will mark the conclusion of the debate for the Presidency between Barack Obama, the incumbent, and his challenger, Mitt Romney. The event that is less certain is the possible conclusion of the World Series Nov. 1. For that date to be meaningful in Washington, the Nationals would have to be in the Series, and it would have to last seven games.Stephen Strasburg 2012 225

The debate in that instance would be over the absence of Stephen Strasburg from the Nationals’ roster and starting rotation. Mike Rizzo, the team’s general manager, declared that the pitcher’s season would end with his start Sept. 12 against the Mets in New York. On Saturday, though, manager Davey Johnson shortened Strasburg’s season even more, saying he was finished for the year.

The decision to abbreviate the 24-year-old right-hander’s season was initially made because this is Strasburg’s first full season following reconstructive elbow surgery two years ago, and Rizzo didn’t want to risk injury by letting him pitch too many innings. Johnson, concerned about Strasburg’s mental approach, decided the earlier shutdown after Strasburg struggled through three innings against Miami Friday night.

There are two sides in the debate over Rizzo’s decision, those who agree with it and those who think it is unnecessary, if not downright foolish. I include myself among the latter. I have tried reaching Rizzo to get a fuller explanation of the thinking behind his controversial decision, but he did not return multiple telephone calls, and John Dever, the senior director of media relations, said Friday that Rizzo was not talking to reporters about Strasburg.

I was curious about Rizzo’s previous public comments. The more he talked the more questionable I thought his handling of the Strasburg situation became. In explaining his decision, Rizzo always talked about the number of innings Strasburg had thrown and would be allowed to throw. He had not talked in terms of weeks or months.

The Nationals’ comments raised a question in the mind of one man who knows more about reconstructed elbows than anyone. Dr. Frank Jobe did the first such operation on a baseball player, Tommy John in 1974, and hundreds more after that. Commenting on the Nationals’ announced plan to shut down Strasburg after his Sept. 12 start, the 87-year-old Jobe, now retired, said, “They may just be saying that if he has symptoms. If he has no symptoms, they may say ‘let’s try a couple more.’ They can change their minds if they want to.”

That was precisely what the Nationals seemed to be doing. After Strasburg lasted only three innings Friday night, having given up five runs and six hits in his worst performances of the season, Johnson was asked if the abbreviated outing might alter the team’s plans for the pitcher.

“It might,” he said without elaborating, raising speculation that the limit on innings may be a moving limit. As developments showed, however, Johnson meant the opposite. He acted as he did because he felt Strasburg had lost his focus as a result of the controversy.

“I know he’s been struggling with it for weeks. I know he doesn’t sleep good thinking about it,” Johnson told reporters. He added, “If you’re not there 100 percent mentally – he’s a gifted athlete, his velocity can still be there – but I don’t see the crispness. I don’t see the ball jumping out of his hand. I’m a firm believer that this game’s 90 to 95 percent mental and he’s only human. I don’t know how anybody can be totally mentally concentrating on the job at hand with the media hype to this thing and I think we’d be risking more by sending him out.”

Strasburg pitched 159 1/3 innings in 27 starts, producing a 15-6 record, a 3.16 earned run average and 197 strikeouts.

The Nationals seemingly based their Strasburg plan on their experience last year with Jordan Zimmerman, who had the Tommy John elbow surgery a year before Strasburg. In his first full post-surgery year, 2011, Zimmerman was limited to 161 1/3 innings and survived with his right arm intact, following up with a 10-8 record and 2.99 e.r.a. in 171 2/3 innings this season. At 26, two years older than Strasburg, Zimmerman will presumably be allowed to finish this season and even pitch in the post-season.

My initial thought was the Nationals were using bad science by basing Strasburg on Zimmerman. You can’t use such a small sample to forecast developments with another pitcher. Just because Zimmerman pitched a healthy 161 innings last year, what’s to say Strasburg couldn’t have pitched another 10 or 15 innings and emerged unharmed?

Dr Frank JobeI asked Dr. Jobe how many innings it was safe for a pitcher to pitch in his first year after the operation. “I’m not sure we know that,” he said. “They looked at other pitchers and decided.”

As it turns out, Rizzo based his decision on more than Zimmerman. A member of the Nationals’ organization, speaking anonymously because the Nationals haven’t disclosed the information, said that Rizzo had collected loads of information on pitchers who had experienced the surgery.

“Mike did an extensive study on this,” the person said. “He has empirical data that shows not just what happens immediately but what happens if the pitcher throws 200 innings the next year. They’ve come up with various ailments.”

The person provided no details of the study, and the Nationals declined to release any information from it.

Jobe said the only study related to the elbow operation he knew of was the success rate of the procedure. “It works pretty good,” he said. “In the last study we had 93 percent results. They were able to return to play for a year. Some had to be redone.”

Why was what he called a redo necessary?

“Maybe the player didn’t rehab properly,” Jobe said. “Or he over did it after the operation. Some people have a condition that doesn’t stand up to throwing. Those will break down and have to be redone.”

What are the telltale signs of post-surgical problems?

“Pain, swelling, stiffness, inability to perform,” Jobe said.

Asked what he thought of the Strasburg matter, he said, “I think it’s admirable that they’re thinking about the player and not winning the World Series. They’re looking at him as a person, which is admirable. I’m pretty sure he could go that many innings without coming apart,” meaning pitching the rest of the season. But he added, “Their plan is good.”

A club executive who has dealt with the aftermath of Tommy John surgery commented similarly to Jobe on Strasburg. “There’s no scientific evidence that says anything,” he said. “Most of the doctors say ‘Yeah, he should be fine, but this is a good idea.’”

Then there’s this view from a Washington area orthopedist who is not connected to the Nationals.

“It’s all theoretical; no one knows,” he said. “They’ve never done any good study to show the effects. The Nationals are basing it on one pitcher. There’s no good science behind it.

“I think they’re being stubborn, having made the decision earlier in the year when they didn’t know they were going to be this good and now don’t want to change their decision. You never know if you’re going to be back. I think they should let him rest for a week or two.”

Tommy John himself put his two cents into the debate, telling Yahoosports, “I think it’s wrong.”

Johnson, the Nationals’ wise and capable manager, sees a bright future for the Nationals and doesn’t think anyone should see this season as a quirk. “I don’t look at this as the only chance you’re going to get to be in the post-season, the World Series,” he said recently. “This team wasn’t just piecemealed together for one year. It was built to last, and we’re trying to make sure it lasts.”

Other teams have been built to last but make missteps along the way and don’t play in the post-season every year, let alone get to the World Series.Stephen Strasburg Walkoff

I suggested in a recent column that had the Nationals planned better they could have had Strasburg for the rest of this month and the post-season. I specifically suggested that the Nationals could have skipped one Strasburg turn a month. At his average of a shade under 6 innings a start, Strasburg could have started two extra games this month and four in the playoffs.

A reader offered a different plan the Nationals could have used.

“I went through the Nats schedule,” he wrote, “and worked out that they could have made Stras a Saturday-night-special pitcher (once a week), and not affect the rest of their rotation (no one pitches on short-rest).” Using any other day, he added, would not work.

That schedule would have given Strasburg 26 starts for a total of approximately 156 innings, leaving enough innings for the post-season.

However, the member of the organization who told of the Rizzo report on post-surgical pitchers said the Nationals had problems with the various ideas that have been proposed. “They don’t want to mess with him,” the person said.

“He feels great, but they want him to feel great next year. If he’s not pitching, he can’t get hurt and they don’t want him to get hurt. They want him to be healthy next year.”

But looking at the issue from another angle, he added, “The World Series doesn’t come around every year.”

Not surprisingly, Strasburg is not thrilled with his shutdown. “It was pretty shocking,” he told reporters. “Honestly, I’m not too happy about it. I want to keep pitching out there.”

The pitcher said he was especially bothered by the all of the talk stemming from the issue.

“Everybody talks about it and that’s all you hear,” he said. “It’s hard not to let it bother you.”

The Nationals, of course, have only themselves to blame. They have talked all season about how they would shut down Strasburg after he had reached an undefined plateau of innings, prompting ongoing debate and incessant questions.


Yankees Lose 2012The season is too far into September for someone to have as spectacular a September swoon as the Red Sox and the Braves had last year, but the Yankees are auditioning for a part in this year’s swoon song.

Entering Sunday’s games, the Yankees were tied with the Orioles for first place in the American League East for the second time in three days. The same teams were half a game behind the Athletics in the wild-card fight.

The Yankees, who have pitching problems, led the Orioles by 10 games July 18 with a 57-34 record. They have had a 21-27 record since. That’s not quite up to the Red Sox feat of last season – a 7-20 record in the final month – or the Braves’ 8-18 record, but it will do as a 2012 version of a collapse.

The Braves are making sure there will be a post-season spot for them; they have led the National League wild-card race since Aug.3 and have a 24-11 record since then. The Red Sox? They are making sure they will miss the playoffs for the third consecutive season. They woke up Sunday in last place in their division and with eight teams ahead of them in the wild-card standings and a ninth, the Kansas City Royals, only one-half game behind them.

The Red Sox, however, still lead the league in salary dumping with their shedding of $275 million in contracts in their trade last month with the Los Angeles Dodgers.


If you have a short-term memory problem, you might not remember that earlier in this season the New York Mets had a winning record. So did the Miami Marlins. The last time the Mets had a winning record was at 47-46 July 20. The Marlins were last over .500 was at 33-32 June 16.

Since their last days with winning records, the Mets have an 18-28 record for a .391 winning percentage, the Marlins 29-46 (.387). The two teams figure to have a spirited fight for last place in the National League East.

The American League has one of those teams, too. The Cleveland Indians last had a winning record July 26 at 50-49. Since then they have played at a .225 rate, good for a 9-31 record. The Chicago Cubs and the Minnesota Twins have not had a winning record on any day of the season.

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