The Matt Harvey-Stephen Strasburg Tommy John Debate

There is no shortage of narratives this season.  Last week, Jordan Zimmermann returned to Nats Park on the night Max Scherzer–Zimmermann’s de facto “replacement”–tied a major league record striking out 20 hitters.  Last night provided an even juicier narrative–Stephen Strasburg shutting down the Mets (pun intended) on the same night Matt Harvey’s season hit a low point, giving up 9 runs before being pulled in the 3rd inning to boos.

Strasburg and Harvey, of course, are on opposing ends of the Tommy John spectrum.  Their teams facing identical situations, approached UCL surgery recoveries in completely opposite ways.  The Nats shut down Strasburg for the season in September even though the team was likely to make the playoffs.  The Mets continued putting Harvey on the mound, all the way through the World Series.

People are locked into their positions on this.  Debating Strasburg’s shutdown is likely to have the same effect as debating gun control at an NRA rally or abortion with people holding signs outside the Supreme Court.  The opponents of Rizzo’s Strasburg plan are locked in.  They think it was foolhardy to shut down a “healthy”* pitcher when elbows are such an inexact science.  Or worse, they realize it’s a risk but don’t care, thinking a playoff run is worth the potential cost of blowing out a pitching arm worth $100 million ($175 million in Strasburg’s case, it appears).

*I don’t acknowledge Strasburg was “healthy” in 2012.  People recovering from injury aren’t healthy, they’re recovering.  Tommy John surgery takes more than a year to recover from.  

It was fun to poke fun at the Mets last night, but I don’t think Harvey’s bad game, or even bad April/May, has a lot of impact on this debate.  It’s possible Harvey’s arm is tired from last season’s extended workload, but it’s equally possible Harvey didn’t adequately prepare for the season (remember was sidelined in early April due to some ailment allegedly–and unbelievably–tied to holding his bladder too long).  It’s also possible, if not likely, this is a temporary blip in performance common among MLB pitchers.

I’m a fan of the Strasburg Shutdown.  Actually, “fan” is the wrong terminology.  I acknowledge it’s a crappy thing to do, but I thought it was wise nonetheless.  It was the lesser of two evils.  There are so many unknowns in elbow ligaments, the safest course in the safest course.  I think it’s a mistake for teams to make up their own recovery schedules like the Mets did with Harvey, and the Braves did with Kris Medlen.  Do what the doctors recommend and, most importantly, what has worked in the past.  People focus on the Strasburg Shutdown because the Nats made the playoffs that season, but the Nats shut down Jordan Zimmermann in 2011 and Joe Ross in 2015 in almost the same way.  Indeed, every Nats pitcher undergoing Tommy John surgery follows the same recovery plan.

The focus, like many of Mike Rizzo’s moves, is on the long-term.  Long-term, Jordan Zimmermann was healthy enough to deliver four more healthy seasons after his shutdown, and then net the team a first round pick after signing with Detroit.  Joe Ross is now pitching in his first full season after Tommy John and it’s easy to imagine him doing something similar.  The Nats are so confident in their approach to UCL recovery, they draft players other teams won’t even touch like Lucas Giolito who is now the best pitching prospect in baseball.  Giolito followed the same recovery schedule as Strasburg/Zimmermann/Ross.

The Nationals shut down Stephen Strasburg amid great criticism in 2012.  Four years later, the winds have not shifted.  The external pressure for the Mets not to shut down Harvey last year, if anything, seemed greater than what the Nats faced with Strasburg.  Rizzo will keep shutting down his pitchers recovering from Tommy John surgery, however.  It must be tempting to amend his policy to include an “unless we make the playoffs, then we’ll ride him like a horse” clause, like the Mets did with Harvey, but they won’t.  In their minds, it’s not broken and they won’t fix it.

What offends me most about Harvey isn’t that the Mets pitched him into October, it’s that they did it without much thought at all.  The Mets made the playoffs, so he pitched.  He was available, so they used him.  This is the way baseball teams have approached recovering pitchers since baseball was invented, and likely why Strasburg Shutdown critics are so offended by any other approach.  I would be a Shutdown critic too, if the Nats did it arbitrarily.  They did not.  It was a carefully managed recovery plan, blessed by doctors, and proven to work.  There was nothing arbitrary about it.

Harvey’s terrible start to 2016 doesn’t settle anything.  Strasburg’s health since his surgery since 2012 doesn’t settle anything either.  I’m happy, though, to have a team taking an educated and enlightened approach to recovering elbows.  It’s possible the Nats have just gotten incredibly lucky the past 6 or 7 years with their pitchers’ health.  But since luck is the residue of design, I expect that luck to continue.

 

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Reaction: Stephen Strasburg signs contract extension with the Nationals

I remember being in Nats Park the night Stephen Strasburg was drafted in June 2009.  The team was terrible back then, 16-40 to be exact.  There weren’t a lot of fans in attendance that day; the newness of a baseball team in DC had long since worn off.  The road to baseball relevance looked very, very long.  When the Nationals put Strasburg’s image in the big screen that night–effectively introducing him to the DC fans for the first time–I remember thinking if Nats ever become a winning baseball team, this guy will be a big reason why.

It was not surprising, then, when I found myself again at Nats Park a little over one year later for Strasburg’s first major league start.  It’s hard to explain “Strasmas” to anyone who wasn’t there in June 2010.  It was the strangest sporting event I ever attended.  Strasburg received a standing ovation when he walked from the bullpen to the dugout before the game.  Fans stood and applauded for every Strasburg pitch.  It was a playoff atmosphere for a meaningless June game.  It was the first time baseball in DC felt like big league baseball.

Ryan Zimmerman is often thought of as the face of the Nationals franchise.  He was their first ever draft pick and their first legitimate star player.  Zimmerman signed two contract extensions to stay in DC, and he’ll probably be a National his entire career.  It’s fitting, then, that Strasburg signed a contract extension too.  If Zim is the Face of the Franchise, Strasburg is the Face of the Turnaround.  He, too, now has the potential to be a National for life.

Soon we’ll learn why Strasburg decided to forego the free agent market this winter.  Almost everyone expected it.  To be honest, I was shocked when I heard the news about the contract extension last night.  Almost every Scott Boras client goes to free agency, and we had no reason to expect Strasburg to be any different.  For some reason, he decided to stay here.

Perhaps Boras did a full survey of the market and concluded Strasburg was unlikely to get a 7-year deal anywhere else.  Maybe Boras had concerns about Strasburg’s health, and concluded it was wise to grab $175 million while it was still on the table.  After all, no Tommy John pitcher has ever come close to that kind of contract (the previous record was Jordan Zimmerman this past offseason for $105 million).  When you’re one ligament tear away from getting no contract extension whatsoever, $175 million has to very tempting.

But I’m going to lie to myself and conclude Strasburg signed with the Nats the same reason the fans wanted him to stay here.  I’m going to think Strasburg values his role in the Nationals franchise turnaround.  In my mind, I imagine a conversation between Strasburg and Tony Gwynn, his college coach, back in 2008.  Tony Gwynn was the rare star player to stay with one team and one city his entire career.  Somewhere along the line, maybe Strasburg picked up the value in that.

Too often we think of baseball as a business.  To the fans, it’s not.  There’s an emotional element to keeping Strasburg in a Nationals uniform.  If you don’t understand it, there’s probably no way I can explain it to you.