The Stephen Strasburg Problem
Issue   |   Tue, 09/11/2012 - 23:31

In sports, especially in Major League Baseball, there is often a battle raging in the minds of every front office and in the fans that follow their teams closely: Should sports decisions be made with your head or your heart? From a purely rational point of view, it seems ridiculous that men and women whose jobs center around constructing the best team possible would potentially jeopardize the interests of the team for the sake of emotions. I mean, isn’t the mantra of father figures and Little League coaches everywhere that there’s no crying in baseball?

But when pressured by fans and ownership, or even when caught in a wave of their own emotions, GMs and other decision-makers routinely forsake rational thinking. For example, many of the worst free agent signings in league history were made merely in order to ‘make a splash’ and acquire an overpriced star talent; to make matters worse, several such signings were inexplicable as they were occurring (see Werth, Jayson). Yet while these bad deals litter the MLB landscape, sometimes even impractical deals can seem like the proper course of action. Some deals made in the heat of a pennant race can appease fans, while others bring back old fan favorites on the last legs of their careers in symbolic fashion.

Whatever the motivation for these moves may be, every GM has been trained to weigh the benefits and costs of acting rationally versus allowing emotions to rule the day; the decision between the head and the heart factors into virtually every decision they make. This phenomenon puts the Stephen Strasburg shutdown situation, the recent hot topic in baseball, in an even more interesting light.

As many know, the issue at hand for Washington Nationals GM Mike Rizzo is his controversial decision to shut down Strasburg, one of the premier pitchers in the game, after his start tonight. Interestingly, this unprecedented precautionary move proves very different from other MLB decisions in that it involves making a choice between two outcomes that a rational mind would be hard pressed to choose between.

In other words, even without emotion, this decision proves an extraordinarily bold one that chooses the safe course over the equally rational thinking that emphasizes the rarity of legitimate World Series runs.

Rizzo’s decision can be broken down and analyzed endlessly, but his basic premise does indeed make sense — saving the arm of a pitcher who could help the Nationals for a decade to come if healthy rather than gambling that Strasburg’s fragile arm will withstand the heavy innings burden of a deep postseason run and continue to produce stellar seasons in the future with no ill effects.

In particular, Rizzo has noted that pitchers who are coming off of Tommy John surgery, as Strasburg is, should be placed under an innings limit to avoid a disastrous campaign the following year.

Armed with data and examples of previous young phenoms who fizzled after overuse early in their careers (the most notable instance being the downward spiral of Mark Prior’s career after a few initially brilliant seasons with the Chicago Cubs), Rizzo feels that it is in the best interest of the franchise to take control of Strasburg’s workload, even if it might cost the Nationals one of the most intimidating pitchers in the league at the most important time of the season.

With young studs like Bryce Harper coming into their own, the possibility that the Nationals will be in the running for a World Series title for the next several years is certainly a conceivable scenario, and having a healthy, dominant Strasburg on the mound for the many projected playoff series in the Nationals’ future should appeal to the team’s fans as well.

So why the controversy? After all, if the team is primed to compete in the long run, then reducing the franchise’s first legitimate chance at a title should not be too alarming. Yet, baseball is not a game of infallible projections and predicted performance. Every dynasty in the making does not pan out, every hot prospect does not become a star and even every star does not sustain an All-Star level of performance from season to season.

As a long suffering Cleveland fan, I have plenty of experience with such disappointment. The great Cleveland Indians teams of the 1990s were twice one game away from a World Series title without coming away with any hardware, including the 1997 Game 7 against the Florida Marlins in which star closer Jose Mesa blew a ninth-inning lead. After a few years of futility, the Tribe was back in the spotlight in 2007 as one of the hottest young teams in baseball.

After storming to a 3-1 series lead in the ALCS against the Boston Red Sox, the Indians proceeded to drop three games in a row and lose a chance at a World Series appearance in which they certainly would have been the favorite. Yet, at the time, all did not seem to be lost in Cleveland. The Tribe boasted stalwarts Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner, who were expected to plague opposing pitchers for years to come and could trot out pitchers like the dynamic duo of C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona to shut down hitters. Fast forward a few years, and Sizemore and Hafner have been reduced to a shadow of themselves by injuries, with Hafner’s bloated contract becoming an albatross on a low-payroll squad. Sabathia?

The Cy Young winner was traded to the Yankees after the Indians realized they couldn’t afford to give him the lucrative contract that he would demand, and the highly touted prospects the Tribe received in return have failed to meet expectations. Young Fausto?

Well, the artist formerly known as Fausto Carmona is actually named Roberto Hernandez and had been faking his name and age all along.

In any case, Carmona/Hernandez never replicated his breakout 2007 season. Due to these problems and more, the Indians dropped to the bottom of the league and have not sniffed the playoffs since that single campaign.

The point of my masochistic digression is simply this: no window of contention, no matter how seemingly wide-open it may be, is a sure thing.

The Nationals might be beset by injuries next year and turn into a mediocre ballclub instead of the best squad in baseball. A course of thought just as rational as Rizzo’s would be to maximize the fantastic chance the Nationals have to win it all this season by continuing to unleash Strasburg on opponents and then letting the chips fall as they may in the future.

In essence, Rizzo is facing a choice between two completely defensible, rational strategies for team success and sustained popularity, with a heavy dose of uncertainty thrown in, as he is the first to propose a shutdown of this type.

While talk show hosts, fans and Monday morning quarterbacks can argue his choice and its ramifications, we can all agree on one thing: none of us would want to be in Rizzo’s shoes tonight.