Monday, October 29, 2012

Baseball Folly Struck Out

They stopped playing baseball games for awhile last night, and I'm not very happy about that even though I was rooting for the team that won. Now we're plunged The Void and, in this part of the country, facing the latest storm of the century. The wind is picking up outside my window, and my mission at this point ought to be to write what's on my mind and send it out into the blogosphere before the power goes out. I haven't written a baseball blog since August, first sidetracked by writing the that covered the trip that took good care of September, then overwhelmed by catching up once we returned home. There were plenty of things I wanted to write about, but never got to them. Now I have the whole damn void to make up for the longest gap in more than four years of blogging.

So here's the thing that made the strongest impression on me this post-season:  the Washington Nationals lost. Despite posting the best record in the National League during the season, they lost early, they lost decisively, and they lost chiefly because their starting pitching was mediocre. The five starters against the Cardinals had a 5.25 ERA, and both Nationals victories were picked up by the bullpen. Meanwhile, their best pitcher--and arguably one of the top handful of pitchers in the majors--sat on the bench, quarantined since making his last start on September 7. Stephen Strasburg, with his 15-6 record and 3.16 ERA in 28 starts, rode the pines for the Nationals' final 24 games of the season, while the rest of us sat there shaking our heads, wondering if the Nationals would make good on the most self-defeating stratagem in baseball history. They did.

Many things were written about Strasburg's supposedly unique case during the season, and lots of rumors muddied the issue of how the decision was reached to put Strasburg on an innings limit for 2012 no matter what. At first, it seemed like some abstract concept, as in "In a perfect world we'll be able to shut him down after 160-180 innings with no adverse effects and protect his arm so he'll be able to help us win a title someday." Apart from the yearly springtime burst of optimism which infects most major league teams, the Nationals had no particular reason to think they would contend for a title in 2012. In 2011, they finished third, one game under .500, and while they had a lot of promising young talent, so did every other team in the division, including the Marlins, who had spent a ton of money on established free agents as well. So adopting a special policy regarding Strasburg seemed, on the surface, to concern nobody but Strasburg.

But a strange thing happened. The Nationals jumped into the lead in the division and, except for an eight-day stretch in mid-May, they held first place all season. Only the Braves threatened them during the season's second half, and the day Strasburg made his final start, they held a 7 1/2-game lead. After a certain point long before that day, their winning the division or, at minimum, securing a wild-card spot was a foregone conclusion. Yet it was only at that point that the Nationals seemed to begin to consider the possibility that this circumstance might somehow affect their vaguely stated policy concerning Strasburg.

The rest of us were way ahead of them, and the consensus among fans was simply stated: "If the Nationals go through with their plan, they're nuts!" At the very least, I figured that they might shut Strasburg down for a couple of weeks at the age of September to give him extra rest, then turn him loose during the post-season. What a great weapon he would be in a deciding game! I never imagined that the Nationals would extend their restrictions on Strasburg to the post-season. Simple: any team that didn't take its best roster to the post-season didn't expect to win or even care about winning. And so it was. The Nationals left Strasburg on the bench, and they lost. The fact that they came close without him is irrelevant. They lost without him.

It's almost as if the Nationals didn't believe their own hype and somehow decided they had boxed themselves into a corner. By declaring before the season that Strasburg wouldn't pitch more than "X" innings, they left themselves no wiggle. But there was plenty of wiggle room all along, plenty of times to give him extra rest, turn him into a "Sunday pitcher" like Hall of Famer Ted Lyons, or otherwise preserve his allotted innings enough to let him start two or three games in October.

But no. They did the baseball equivalent of a motorist setting out to cross the desert on a full tank of gas, with a gas station just past halfway to the destination. A sane driver will stop at the gas station and replenish his fuel for the rest of the trip. The Nationals breezed right past the gas station, determined to run out of gas in the middle of the desert, at which point some other driver might come and give them a ride. Now they get to spend the whole winter out there in the desert, wondering might have been.

I've seen reports that the other players on the Nationals didn't care whether Strasburg was there or not, and other reports that they were pissed about his enforced benching possibly hurting their chances at a World Series ring. I've heard that Strasburg's agent, Scott Boras, had a strong influence over the decision, hoping to keep his client's arm intact long enough to cash in on a big free-agent contract once he becomes eligible. The logic there is that Boras could not only preserve Strasburg's arm, he could also get Strasburg pissed enough at the Nationals to leave them at the first opportunity. Countering that logic is the likelihood that Boras can extort more on behalf of Strasburg as a free agent if his resume includes a couple of World Series titles and the kind of performance in Cy Young Award balloting that only comes from pitching a full season.

Nationals GM Mike Rizzo has stuck by his guns since the team's demise in the first round of the playoffs. He maintained the party line that even sacrificing Strasburg's presence this October was a reasonable price to pay for increasing the chances of Strasburg producing great results in some other October. In fact, he angered some other GMs by declaring blithely that the Nationals would have many more chances in the post-season during which Strasburg would get his chance and then some.

I have news for Rizzo: it ain't necessarily so. There is no immutable baseball law saying that any team will have a chance at the title. Look at it this way. With 30 major league teams in existence and only two making the World Series in a given year, your team on average should only get into the World Series once every 15 years. That's true even for the Yankees, whose sense of entitlement stems way out of proportion. Some writers have evoked the recent memory of the 2001 Seattle Mariners, who won a record-tying 116 games and, despite a surprise knockout in the playoffs, seemed destined to contend for a long. Well, they finished third in their division the next season and they're still waiting for their next appearance in the playoffs. Ichiro, a rookie in 2001, spent another decade there falling deeper into the doldrums of mediocrity, until a late-season trade to the Yankees this season got him back into the October action.

Proof exists throughout baseball history that one year's success does not guarantee a rosy future. Let me give you four examples of teams that paralleled this year's Nationals, and players on that team whose situations paralleled Strasburg's, and we'll see how history's twists are more fickle than Mike Rizzo suspects. I'll start with the 1909 Pittsburgh Pirates, who won 110 games and the NL pennant. Their fifth starter, Babe Adams, was 27 years old and in his first full season in the majors. In 25 games, he went 12-3 with a 1.11 ERA. Let's suppose that the Pirates had "strasburged" him, made him sit down during the World Series. It would have made things a lot tougher for them, since Adams wound up winning three complete games during the Series, including the opener and the clincher. Of course, the Pirates might have won without him. Two of the other starting pitchers struggled, but they might have won anyone. But he was given a chance for October greatness, and he seized it. With a strong pitching staff and a lineup anchored by Honus Wagner, Adams might have believed it had he been told, "Don't worry, you'll have plenty of chances to pitch in a World Series." In reality, he continued to pitch for the Pirates without getting a sniff of the World Series--until 1925, when he a 43-years-old winner of six games during the season and got to pitch inning in the World Series.

Next up is the 1954 Cleveland Indians, who won an American League-record 111 games to unseat the five-time champion Yankees. This team was loaded with starting pitching, including Hall of Famers Bob Feller, Early Wynn, and Bob Lemon, but also included a rookie reliever named Don Mossi. The 25-year-old southpaw went 6-1 with a 1.94 ERA, completing two of five starts. He pitched four innings of shutout ball in the World Series as the Indians were swept by the Giants, but he had to figure that he'd get his chance as a Series starter someday. Uh, no. Mossi did become a starter but mainly with the Tigers, and though he won 101 games as a major leaguer in a career that lasted through 1965, he never got back to the World Series. More significantly, the Indians didn't return to the World Series for several more decades, and still haven't won a title. Do you think that possibility would have occurred to anybody on a team good enough to post a record of 111-43?

One of the greatest teams I ever saw in person was the 1984 Tigers. I attended a three-game series they played in Anaheim in mid-May which they swept, raising their record to 35-5. They cruised to the pennant and blew through the opposition to win the World Series. Their pitching was deep, their manager a future Hall of Famer, and their lineup was solid, anchored up the middle by the combo of 26-year-old Alan Trammell at shortstop and 27-year-old Lou Whitaker at second base. The Tigers won 104 games during the season, and there was no reason to imagine a future without more time in the October spotlight. Trammell and Whitaker maintained their posts at the heart of the Detroit lineup for another dozen years--but they never played in another World Series. They did make the playoffs in 1987 but lost, and that was it. With a different karma, the pair would have nabbed two or three additional titles and been viewed as shoo-ins for the Hall of Fame. But they didn't and they aren't. You can't assume a thing about future greatness.

Finally, I present the 1986 Mets, managed by Davey Johnson, who publicly bought into the save-Strasburg policy but didn't always sound convinced by it. The best all-around team in Mets history, they stormed to 108 victories during the season and prevailed in a pair of dramatic post-season series to take the title. Their greatest strength was young starting pitching; four of the five members of the rotation were 25 or younger, led by 21-year-old Dwight Gooden. Sid Fernandez was 23, while Rick Aguilera was 24, Ron Darling 25, and Bobby Ojeda 28. Gooden, Fernandez, and Darling posted win-loss records of 17-6, 16-6, and 15-6. Put yourself in Johnson's spot. Suppose Mets GM Frank Cashen had told him, "Listen, Gooden has pitched too much the last two seasons, so we're cutting him off at 180 innings this year. I don't care if it's the middle of August. We're going to win a pennant here someday, and I want him healthy to contribute when that day comes." The 21-year-old Gooden pitched 250 innings that season (Strasburg pitched 159). Considering that that was the year when he began to abuse cocaine, he probably would have appreciated the extra free time.

But one thing would not have changed. Even though Gooden pitched into the late 1990s, he never again pitched in the World Series. Neither did Darling or Fernandez, or Ojeda for that matter. None of them. They all pitched for many more seasons and on varied teams, but the big quartet for a team that won 108 games took a large goose-egg in the futures market. They never would've believed you if you had told them that in mid-August. If you had said, "Listen, we're winning this thing easily, so we're going to shut Dwight down the rest of the year. You guys are good enough to win it without him, and we'll have plenty more times when we'll need him healthy." The Mets lost a tough LCS to the Dodgers in 1988 but didn't make it back to the World Series until 2000. Their fans can tell you how shocking that is, and it's always shocking when a supposedly top-notch team doesn't perform.

But it should never be surprising. That's what happens in baseball, the most unpredictable sport. The Nationals' loss to the Cardinals in the playoffs was shocking (best team in the league vs. wild-card team) in a way, but not surprising, at least to those of us who were hoping that Rizzo and his bosses would get their comeuppance for the self-defeating presumption that shots at the World Series come along every year. (How many titles does Bobby Cox have? One.) I believe we'll continue to hope that the Nationals do not win a post-season series until Strasburg is pitching elsewhere. That would provide a satisfying symmetry to things. If you think that's an uncharitable attitude, consider an alternate wish, that Strasburg blows out his arm anyway despite the coddling, making it clear even to Rizzo that he made a fool's gamble. Hey, it already worked with Joba Chamberlain, the poster child for the futility of coddling young pitchers and ignoring the fact that arm trouble is virtually inevitable no matter how a pitcher is used. No, that's being a little harsh on Strasburg. No, let him escape to some team which will allow him to become the best pitcher he can be, and let Mike Rizzo continue to learn every baseball lesson the hard way.


Jim said...

It's all true. As a person born in DC in 1950, I've been waiting for this Nationals team my whole life, and to see them fall short was agony. Davey Johnson mismanaged that last game hideously, but if Strasburg had been in the rotation, maybe the Nats would have won before game 5. Limiting how much a pitcher throws has proven to be a failure as, even with all this "protection" pitchers get catastrophic injuries at a greater rate than at any time in baseball history, so this strategy does not work. If some so-called "genius" said hitters would do better if you limited them to 100 swings in BP, or limiting infielders to 100 ground balls, that person would be laughed off of every diamond in the country. But somehow this has become the norm with pitchers. It makes no sense and has to change.

Cliff Blau said...

Welcome back. I agree with you in principle, but most of the examples you give are no longer relevant. Look, the 1954 Indians had only a 1 in 8 chance of making the "post-season" each year. The Nationals have a 1/3 chance. Sure, there are no guarantees, but there is some sense in their approach. On the other hand, if they don't have Strasburg locked up in a long-term contract, it doesn't make sense for the Nats to try to protect a future that might very well belong to another team.