If you saw the name Stephen Strasburg and the words “ligament damage” in a newspaper headline, critics of the national nightmare known as the “Strasburg shutdown” would be charging Nationals Park with pitchforks. They would be calling for general manager Mike Rizzo’s head.
They would be falling over themselves to say, “See, I told you so,” just as Atlanta Journal Constitution columnist Jeff Schultz did when Strasburg went on the disabled list for a strained back muscle last year and wrote, “For those who believe Washington blew it, this is Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo getting run over by the karma train.”
Well, the karma train has made a stop in Atlanta.
The headline concerning “ligament damage” is not about Strasburg, but Atlanta Braves pitcher Kris Medlen – held up by the Strasburg shutdown critics as a model for how to handle the recovery of a pitcher from Tommy John surgery.
Medlen had Tommy John surgery in August 2010, performed by Dr. James Andrews. Strasburg had the surgery one month later, done by the late Dr. Lewis Yocum.
The Nationals chose to handle Strasburg’s recovery by the same method they did with Jordan Zimmermann, who had Tommy John surgery one year earlier – by limiting his first full season back to 160 innings. It just so happened that the Nationals were involved in a pennant race when they shut down Strasburg in early September, 2012.
Medlen, though was called “Anti-Strasburg” in a Sports Illustrated headline. The Braves handled Medlen’s recovery by having him pitch out of the bullpen at the start of the season to limit his innings, making him available for the Braves pennant stretch in September that fell short to Washington.
Now Medlen is sidelined again with elbow ligament damage, and may need a second surgery..
Were the Braves wrong? Who knows? But what it does is illustrate how small and unfair the Strasburg criticism was.
It would be wrong to criticize the Braves for their method of protecting their young pitcher, just as it was in 2012 for the angry masses to take the Nationals to task for protecting their young pitcher.
In case you hadn’t noticed, there seems to be an epidemic of damaged young arms in baseball. No one has been able to determine why or how to prevent it, but what should be clear is that business as usual can’t continue. The Strasburg shutdown should have been a rallying cry for baseball to investigate the how and why of these damaged arms, but instead it turned into a Mike Rizzo lynch mob.
The Nationals investigated on their own the best way to protect their pitchers coming back from Tommy John surgery, and that included a recovery plan that limited innings in their first full season back on the mound. They did so with Zimmermann, and two years later he was a Cy Young candidate, with a 19-8 record in 32 starts and 213 innings pitched.
Last year Strasburg, in the season following the shutdown, pitched 183 innings in 30 starts, posting a misleading 8-9 record, considering he pitched much better than that. Now, this year is Strasburg’s step back that Zimmermann took last season.
While Medlen is waiting to see if he needs another Tommy John surgery, Strasburg is an 8-1 favorite to win the National League Cy Young award.
Of course, that could change tomorrow. It could be Strasburg with the ligament problems, any day, any time. It’s an unpredictable and fragile future.
But what if Rizzo and the Nationals were right? What if the best way to protect a pitcher coming back from Tommy John surgery is to limit their innings while keeping them in a regular rotation – not pitching out of the bullpen, not skipping every other start, not taking time off during the season and then ramping up again to pitch in September – and perhaps October?
How many general managers in baseball would have the guts to shut down one of their top starters in a pennant race, going into the playoffs if they knew – absolutely knew – it was the right thing to do?
In Rizzo’s office is a framed picture of Strasburg on the cover of Sports Illustrated. It’s signed by Strasburg, “Riz, thanks for caring about me.”
The critics may have been right about one thing — Medlen may be the anti-Strasburg.
• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 radio and espn980.com
• Thom Loverro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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