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Debate Pits Strasburg's Health Against Wins

Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals pitches against the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park last week.
Patrick McDermott
Getty Images
Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals pitches against the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park last week.

One of the biggest debates in Washington, D.C., these days has nothing to do with taxes, health care or the economy. It's about baseball and whether the Washington Nationals should end the season of their young pitching star, Stephen Strasburg, just as the team may be headed for the playoffs.

Two years ago, Strasburg's promising career was threatened when he tore a ligament in his pitching arm. He needed surgery and couldn't pitch for a year.

So at the start of this season — long before the Nationals became a playoff contender — team officials said they would take the advice of Strasburg's doctors. They put a limit on the number of innings he could pitch this year to protect his arm for the future.

In the upcoming weeks, the Nationals will be faced with shutting down their star, even before they can lock up a spot in the playoffs.

Grabbing 'The Golden Ring' Now

The Nationals currently have the best won-loss record in baseball. No baseball expert predicted that for the young team at the start of season. The team hasn't had a winning season since it moved to Washington in 2005, and those poor performances gave the Nationals the first pick in the amateur draft in 2010, when they chose Bryce Harper — now, at 19, the youngest player in the major leagues — and in 2009, when they drafted Strasburg.

Strasburg starts tonight against the Miami Marlins, trying to break his team's rare four-game losing streak. Team officials say his season will end by the end of September. Right now, Strasburg, who is 24, leads all National League pitchers with strikeouts per inning and is tied for the number of total strikeouts among the league leaders in earned run average and wins.The decision to sit down a player so vital to his team hasn't gone over well on sports talk radio and TV, or with many ex-players or current ones — including some on Strasburg's own team. When your team gets a rare shot at the playoffs, they say, you play.

That includes Tommy John, the first pitcher to have the ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction surgery that saved Strasburg's career. "You want him healthy. I understand that. He's the franchise," John said recently on ESPN radio. But he added: "The golden ring only comes around on the merry-go-round maybe one time. There's no guarantee that if you keep Strasburg out this year, and keep him healthy for next year and next year and next year, that you're going to win. You've got a chance to win now."

A Long-Term Investment

But a lot has changed in baseball since 1974, when John had the surgery now commonly named after him.

For one thing, John — even at the height of his career — never made the millions of dollars a year that Strasburg is making at the start of his.

Today, a baseball player is a long-term investment.

The decision to rest Strasburg fell on Mike Rizzo, the Nationals' general manager. "We're certainly going to do what's best, in the best interests of Stephen Strasburg," Rizzo said, also on ESPN. "Because what's in the best interests of him is in the best interests of the Nationals long-term."

Rizzo says the team ruled out alternatives such as making Strasburg a relief pitcher until the playoffs, skipping some of his starts or ending his regular season early and then bringing him back for the playoffs. Strasburg still would have to keep throwing in the interim, even if not in a game.

Also, there are now more and more statistics kept on players. And those numbers, says Strasburg's agent, Scott Boras, make the case for ending the pitcher's season. "We have all these studies that show for players that throw too many innings prior to the age 24, their chance of pitching for a significant number of years past the age of 30 are dramatically limited," Boras tells NPR.

But it's not hard science. And it's not true for all pitchers. Still, there's enough evidence for Strasburg's agent, his surgeon, Lewis Yocum, and his team to worry.

As for Strasburg, he has indicated that he's frustrated with the decision to end his season. "Stephen Strasburg would like to pitch because he's a competitor," says Boras. But Strasburg trusts "the doctor who saved his career," Boras says. "He will certainly follow the doctor's advice." And that's why Strasburg will go along, reluctantly, with the decision to end his season before his team can get to the playoffs.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joseph Shapiro is a NPR News Investigations correspondent.