Friday, August 17, 2012

To Pitch Or Not To Pitch?

Sometime in mid- or late September, the Washington Nationals are going to shut Stephen Strasburg down for the remainder of the season.  At that point, the team that currently holds baseball's best record will voluntarily shelve its best starting pitcher while standing on the brink of the playoffs (barring a 2011-Red-Sox-ian collapse, of course).  Since no team has ever done anything like this before in sports history, and since D.C. baseball fans have been among the most consistently abused people in sports history*, the question of whether the "right decision" is being made has become much more incendiary and vitriolic than a normal hot-button sports argument.  The Nats' fans (and some players) are furious, the Nats' brass are standing pat, and the rest of us are either vehemently arguing one side or the other or simply scratching our heads at the whole thing. 

It's been said that the line between genius and insanity is often gossamer thin.  There have certainly been notable past instances of courageous innovation and full-blown lunacy being two sides of a singular coin, as Picasso or Mozart would attest if they weren't, you know, centuries dead.  In fact, unorthodox thought is often perceived as madness until hindsight shows us otherwise.  So, what will history show us about Washington deactivating one of the game's elite pitchers on the doorstep of the city's first postseason appearance since 1933?

As Jayson Stark's cover-all-the-angles article noted last week, medically, we simply can't know.  There is no predicting the effects of a season-ending shutdown versus skipping a start here and there verses 15 or 30 days of rest now and reactivation when things get serious next month versus letting Strasburg continue to pitch as he has all year.  Each body reacts differently to Tommy John surgery and recovery therefrom, and past outcomes have been varied enough that a definitively correct medical course of action cannot be identified.  The Nats are apparently erring, in the most dramatic way possible, on the side of caution.  That a team would be so bold and far-sighted as to place the long-term health of a player above more pressing and immediate concerns, even in the face of so much averse reaction from fans, is its own form of courage.  And in a weird way, it is commendable.

This is no little thing the Nationals are doing, or at least have assured us that they will do.  It flies in the face of conventional wisdom, of putting your best possible team on the field, and some might even say the spirit of baseball or sports in general.  In the name of protecting the future, the team is voluntarily rendering itself less competitive, less likely to win in the present, in a season where they have a legitimate shot at a World Series title.  That's some Big Picture Thinking accompanied by a pair of Big Brass Ones.  It's certainly breaking new ground.

But here's the thing, and somebody probably ought to have told Mike Rizzo this at some point:

Winning a World Series is extraordinarily, phenomenally hard.

Ask any fan, sports journalist, broadcaster, player, or coach.  The sheer amount of factors that have to align for a specific team to plaster a locker room in champagne in October is staggering.  Team health, luck, fate, coaching decisions, umpiring calls, and usually at least one purely miraculous act have to not only be involved, but be involved in the correct sequence.  Trust a Braves fan here: my team had the best rotation in baseball for a solid decade and 14 straight division titles, and they captured exactly one World Series title.  They could have, and probably should have, had more.  But there are just too many things at play over 162 games and the playoffs.  Too much can go wrong; fate is too capricious. A Kent Hrbek/Ron Gant call here, a faulty Bobby Cox pitching change there, or a plain old "it just wasn't our year" moment, like running into that buzz saw of a Yankees team in '99.  There are literally infinite variables, some so minute that you only notice them in retrospect, that can derail a team's road to a championship.  In other words, people are asking the wrong question.

The question is not: is this a wise decision for the future of Stephen Strasburg's career, and by extension, the Nationals organization?  The question is: when staring at lightning in a bottle, when everything is clicking for your team, when you have momentum and chemistry and all those other intangibles on your side, and they are in evidence on a daily basis in the Win column, how can you resign yourself to anything less than a full-on assault at the trophy?  The Nats are in the middle of a charmed season, and they are prepared to throw it away because they believe there are many more in store.  [Ed. note: as a Braves fan, I am absolutely not complaining about this.]  Problem is, baseball almost never works like that. 

Stephen Strasburg may never miss another start for the rest of his career.  Fine, but what happens if Bryce Harper goes down with a broken tibia next July and the heart of your order can't get along against elite pitching without him?  Or if Gio Gonzalez never comes close to replicating his stellar 2012 season again.  Or if the bullpen falls apart?  If, if, if.  That two-letter word isn't worth much in Scrabble, but it's everything in baseball, and Washington is banking on several ifs, for years to come, coming out in their favor.

The odds of that happening are stacked heavily against them.  That's why you don't look gift horses in the mouth.  That's why you don't ignore lightning in a bottle.  That's why you let transcendent talent keep taking the mound.  You just never know. 

*It's true.  We think that, say, Sonics fans have it bad, but Washington has had its baseball team taken away TWICE.  The original Senators franchise had a proud history including Hall Of Famers like Walter Johnson and Goose Goslin, and were the 1924 World Series champs.  They mostly faired poorly in the '30s and '40s, but following the 1954 signing of Harmon Killebrew, their fortunes looked to be improving.  Killebrew led the league with 42 homers and made his first of 11 consecutive All-Star teams in 1959 ... and then the team was shipped to Minnesota to become the Twins in 1961.  The expansion/replacement "new" Senators were objectively terrible, averaging 90 losses a season from 1961 to 1971 ... and then they moved to Texas to become the Rangers.  Lacking a baseball team from 1971-2005, D.C. fans were forced by default to root for the Baltimore Orioles.  Aside from the '83 World Series and the privilege of watching Cal Ripken Jr.'s incredible career unfold, this was a pretty miserable proposition for most of those years.  And of course, when the city did get the Nats in '05, they were awful and have been right up until pretty much this year.  That's a lot of losing, both in the W/L column and in the ignominy of having your team taken away two times in a decade. 

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