One thing that the Major League Baseball advertising department would like you to believe would be that you can’t predict baseball. And while that’s been a slogan for many a campaign, it’s a mainly false statement. Baseball, for the most part, is a very predictable game. The best hitters only make something happen one third of the time. And there are only so many possible outcomes for every situation. Groundout, flyout, strikeout or hit. But the times where you see something amazing, crazy or just odd, are the times where the phrase comes to your mind. Maybe it’s an unassisted triple play. Maybe it’s when the pitcher hits a home run, or when catcher legs out a bases-clearing triple. However, the one thing you can never consistently predict is how successful a player will be next year, next month, week or even game. So when Stephen Strasburg was controversially shut down as an effect of his previous Tommy John Surgery in 2012, right before the Nationals were poised to make a deep run into October, and right after he had a career year, the baseball world was unhappy. People questioned if he’d ever have a year this good again. People wondered if it was the right decision for him mentally and physically. Everybody from government officials to columnists to football players weighed in. The verdict typically seemed to be to let him pitch. Mike Rizzo stuck to his plan. Two years later, on the brink of another postseason, how does that decision look now?
The answer? Pretty darn well. This season, he’s pitched more innings than he ever has, his E.R.A. is down to 3.23 and his W.A.R. is at a career high. More importantly, he’s proven he is past his injury prone days, and he has become a full blown ace. As September progresses on, he has consistently pitched lights-out baseball. Opponents have barely been able to scratch out a .207 batting average against him, and he’s given up four earned runs in 26 innings. He is peaking, like the rest of the Nationals, at the correct time. He looks like he could very well be the Nationals’ game one pitcher, especially at home. He has the potential to lead this team deep into October.
(All stats in last paragraph from Fangraphs.com)
But, for a minute, let’s shift to an alternate universe. Let’s pretend Stephen Strasburg was not really from San Diego. Let’s pretend that he was actually from further north in the state and that Atlanta drafted him in 2006. Let’s pretend that his name is actually Kris Medlen. The Braves, who also had a good shot of seeing late October in 2012, started Kris Medlen in the bullpen that season, after he missed 2011 with Tommy John Surgery. He was then moved to the rotation and pitched as well as Strasburg if not better. But he was never shut down. And where is he today, you ask? He is waiting for his doctor to clear him to throw again after another Tommy John Surgery. This is not just the story of Kris Medlen, but the story of countless other pitchers who have tried many different methods of avoiding the shutdown. But it turns out that what saves the arm of an average pitcher, is a shutdown. Many people were angry about it after 2013, after the Nats dissapointed and failed to make the playoffs. But now? Strasburg is eagerly awaiting his first postseason. “I’m really excited, but at the same time, I’m trying not to focus on it too much,” Strasburg said. “I just want to finish the season strong.”