Commentary: Shutting down Strasburg laudable, laughable

Medical science has come so far since the late-1880s. So has our understanding of physiology. And the data from more than 100 baseball seasons is plentiful.

Yet, no one has any clue how to keep pitchers from getting hurt.

Teams limit the number of starts their pitchers can make, long ago eschewing four-man rotations. They've cut back on innings to the point that 200 in one season is considered a lot (whereas top starters routinely threw 300 in previous eras). And they've allowed pitch counts to take over the manager's responsibility of deciding when to remove a starter, making complete games a quaint notion from a long ago time.

Despite all this, 112 pitchers were on the disabled list going into this week, according to Major League Baseball. Twenty-two are recovering from or awaiting elbow surgery.

So while the Washington Nationals' commitment to shutting down ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg in the heat of a pennant race to preserve his golden arm for many future such races is laudable, it's also laughable.

They decided before the season that Strasburg's innings limit would be about 160. So right around the time he hits that number, sometime in early September, he'll put away his glove and become the highest-paid cheerleader in the world.

The Nationals say science is behind their decision, that they've done extensive research into pitchers with "similar" profiles. By similar profiles, I assume they're talking about superstar pitchers in their early 20s who have electric stuff, including a 100-mph fastball, and are coming off "Tommy John surgery."

Do you really think there's an extensive list of pitchers like that? Let's see there's Strasburg, Kerry Wood and ... and ... and?

Now, if they were closely monitoring Strasburg and seeing signs that he was beginning to wear down and, thus, more susceptible to injury, that would be one thing. No one would fault them for shutting him down immediately.

But let's face it, 160 is an arbitrary number, just like "100" is an arbitrary number for pitch counts. (And, just to clarify, he's 3-0 in three August starts, having allowed three runs on eight hits in 18 innings, so if he's wearing down, he's doing a pretty good job of faking it.)

No, that "160" number was arrived at long before the season began, perhaps by team executives, perhaps by the team's medical staff, or perhaps by uber-agent Scott Boras, who obviously has a vested interest in Strasburg's long-term health and marketability.

The stubbornness with which the Nationals have stuck to their guns even as their team is getting set for a probable postseason run - the first time a Washington baseball team has made the playoffs since 1933 - is mindboggling.

When it was suggested that the team should merely shut him down for a few weeks during the middle of the season to extend him into October, general manager Mike Rizzo was quoted as saying that shutting a pitcher down and then starting him up again would put Strasburg at a greater risk of an injury.

But if that's the case, shouldn't every ace pitcher who goes on the DL be shut down for the remainder of the season?

Rizzo also said Strasburg needs extended rest to be ready for spring training. But if that's the case couldn't they just push Strasburg's spring training back a month and let him start next season late instead of prematurely ending this one?

Everyone has an opinion on the Strasburg situation, from his teammates to anonymous executives, to ex-players turned TV analysts, to Tommy John himself (and, yes, it is amusing to listen to John describe the ligament-replacement procedure as "Tommy John surgery.")

Leo Mazzone, who came to prominence as the longtime pitching coach of the Atlanta Braves (and lost some of that prominence during his short stint with the Baltimore Orioles) was among the most outspoken on the topic of Strasburg.

Mazzone called the Nats' decision "pathetic" on ESPN radio last week.

"I think it's absolutely ridiculous," Mazzone went on to say. "I think that it's been 79 years since Washington's gone to a postseason. ... These guys have a shot, they have a legitimate shot - with the best rotation in baseball with Strasburg in it - to go to the World Series. And to shut this down like this is absolutely ridiculous."

Maybe. But let's face it, Mazzone doesn't know whether this move will help Strasburg stay healthy and pitch longer. No one does.

All the medical progress, all the physiological studies, all the data from all the baseball that's been played since Cy Young was routinely throwing 400 innings per year (and not having surgery), yet it's still a guessing game.

Your guess is as good as the Nats'. Only difference is, you don't have millions invested. Of course, you also don't have to figure out how to win in the postseason without your best pitcher.

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