Warning: A team’s window is never as large as it first appears.
In that magical year when a young team finally makes “the leap,” the possibilities seem limitless. Our players are young – we’ll only get better! Our payroll is small – we have financial flexibility! And this season isn’t even that important – we’ll be back again next year!
OK, I’m probably the first person to put an exclamation point after “financial flexibility.” But take it from a Capitals fan. There’s never a playoff run quite like the first one.
“The [Oklahoma City] Thunder have been an elite team for two seasons now, and while they still have an aura of newness about them, it’s finally starting to feel like some tough things are expected,” Brian Phillips wrote on Grantland last season. “There’s a bar now that they can’t clear just by showing up. Maybe what I’m really feeling here isn’t worry about Durant and Westbrook at all; maybe I’m caught in the vague anxiety of one of the hardest transitions, for both players and fans, in sports. Like the Thunder, I now have something to lose.”
The Thunder’s steady rise over the last few seasons has explicitly demonstrated what we already knew; becoming a championship team is a process – in basketball. Young NBA teams invariably lose, but they learn things (like, after the Dallas loss, that Kevin Durant should be closer than 25 feet from the basket late in playoff games).
But in baseball, it’s hitter vs. pitcher until you make 27 outs. Age, so much as age is independent of skill, shouldn’t particularly matter.
The fully armed Nationals are among the best teams in the National League. Will they reach this position again? Probably. But probably, even with Zimmerman, Harper, and co., is as far as I’m willing to go.
I’m not willing to grant the Nationals this degree of starting pitcher health (total starts made by pitchers outside their regular rotation this season? Six), or bullpen effectiveness, ad infintum. The offense should improve, given a full season of Jayson Werth, something other than a black hole at catcher, and Bryce Harper not being Nineteen Forever. There’s a rationale for presuming the team will remain among the best in baseball for the next few years, even as the National League grows stronger.
But this, too, is a risk.
To the extent playoff series aren’t completely arbitrary, the drop-off from Strasburg to Ross Detwiler is real (and it’s spectacular.) Detwiler’s produced a great season for a No. 5 starter, with an ERA and WHIP comparable to Strasburg’s. But Strasburg’s much better at missing bats (11.2 K/9 vs. 5.7) for Detwiler and more capable for producing a dominant game in the playoffs. The flip side of this, of course, is that the playoffs are completely arbitrary, and once the Nationals are in, the sample size is sosmall it hardly matters what roster they field. After all, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson, and Detwiler stack up rather nicely with the Jeff Weaver-Jeff Suppan garbage heap the Cardinals rode to their 2006 title.
But if Strasburg over Detwiler gives the Nationals some appreciably better chance to win the World Series, isn’t that the point of the whole having-Strasburg-on-your-team thing in the first place? Shout “Prior and Wood!” all you want, but that implies there’s no middle ground between an arbitrary innings limit and Dusty Baker-style pitcher abuse. Here are Mark Prior’s pitch counts from September 2003 through the Cubs’ NLCS loss: 131, 129, 109, 124, 131, 133, 133, 116, 119. You can’t find some compromise between that and a complete shutdown?
Rany Jazayerli, the Baseball Prospectus co-founder who developed pitcher abuse points nearly 15 years ago, recently noted: “I’ve been arguing for protecting pitchers arms since 1998. But we’ve reached the point where the pendulum has swung too far the other way.” Rob Neyer, Jazayerli’s lone partner in Kansas City Royals fanhood, diagrams this manifestation: “It seems like the Nationals have replaced an old paradigm — let pitchers pitch until they get hurt, which has actually been out of style for a while now — with something new that’s nearly as ill-considered as the old one. The only way to keep Strasburg healthy is to bench him after 160 innings and no time off? Really?”
I don’t know all the science. But, to Neyer again, no one else does, either: “There are doctors who are encouraged by the Nationals’ caution with Strasburg, who underwent Tommy John Surgery last year. Those same doctors can’t say that throwing just 160 innings this season will lower the chance that Strasburg will be injured again.”
Shutting Strasburg down simply diverts blame from Washington’s front office in the event Strasburg gets hurt in the future. It doesn’t actually make the team better in the long term. Per ESPN The Magazine’s Peter Keating: “There’s no evidence the arbitrary limitation will keep Strasburg healthy.” This is managerial cowardice at its worst: Rizzo’s jeopardizing, to whatever degree playoff Detwiler-over-Strasburg starts do, the Nationals’ 2012 title hopes to cover his own ass.
Why does this bother me? After all, the number of starts affected by this will be in the single digits, and the actual impact of any individual baseball personnel move is often much smaller than we realize.
I can’t stand the Nationals taking this playoff run for granted, assuming the future will always look so rosy.
Unless the Nationals win the World Series soon – which, regardless of how many playoff innings Strasburg pitches in 2012, they probably won’t – there will be, in a few years, a bar they can’t clear just by showing up; tough things will be expected.
I just hope it won’t already be too late.