The Strasburg Innings Limit: Good or Bad Idea? A Look at History
I am hearing a lot from both sides about the whole Strasburg innings limit debacle. Honestly, the only reason this is a big deal is because the Nationals are not only going to make a playoff run, but may even be the favorites, as they maintain the best record in baseball. And a team without its ace certainly limits its chances for a World Series run. If the Nationals were in last place, no one would give a shit about the Strasburg shut-down.
I’m still on the fence as to the right move. I certainly see protecting your ace for the long term. With a young team, you’d hope to compete for years and years to come, so shutting him down and preserving his health only adds to the chances of that happening. An elbowless Strasburg isn’t any good to anyone. However, as we’ve seen with baseball, there are no guarantees to winning titles. We’ve seen the Phillies win a championship, stock up on top-tier talent, yet fail to recreate the lighting-in-a-bottle magic from that ’08 run. Of course, having Strasburg play out this year does not guarantee a title, but it certainly doesn’t hurt when you only have so many shots.
Curiosity got the best of me and I wanted to take a look at how some Tommy John patients faired not only following their surgery, but in the years following. Did limiting innings help? Hurt? So I took some recent guys and had a look at their stats following their surgery. This is strictly a look at the numbers, so who knows the other factors that could play out. Here we go:
A.J. Burnett: Speaking of outside factors, Burnett is having one hell of year now that he’s left the big apple. The talent is definitely there, but I’d be lying if I said his time in NY was anything less than a disaster. So let’s see if TJ surgery had anything to do with it. Burnett had the surgery in 2003, where he pitched only 23 innings. He came back in 2004 to pitch only 120 innings posting a respectable 3.6 ERA (about average for that point in his career). That year Burnett pitched about 40-50 innings less than Strasburg’s projected shutdown date. Now, Burnett didn’t start the season until June (unlike Strasburg), but pitched well into September until the end of the season (as Florida did not make the playoffs that year). So he would have received similar “complete rest” as Strasburg is scheduled to receive.
How’d he fair the next year after his rest-filled 2004 season? In 2005, he pitched a full load of 209 innings with a 3.4 ERA. His second-lowest ERA up until that point. He then went on to Toronto, where his ERA rose a little, but went on to win 18 games in 2008. And I’m sure you know the rest: he moved on to big money and big media where he wore the famous pinstripes and absolutely sucked up the place. Now this is where I may have said “Hey, maybe Tommy John surgery doesn’t give a player longevity. He’s just wearing out.” But, this amazing season he’s putting up makes me believe it was the NYC environment and not so much diminishing talent. Overall, did the rest do Burnett any good? The numbers don’t lie. The season after his “restful” comeback year, he went and put up career best numbers and has had a decent career since. He was never a prodigy like Strasburg, so this does bode well for resting the young kid.
Kerry Wood: Speaking of prodigy, let’s look at Kerry Wood. Wood struck out 20 batters in a one-hit shutout during his fifth major league start in 1998. He ended up posting a 3.4 ERA in 26 starts. This kid was to be the second coming. Until Tommy John called his name and he missed the whole 1999 season. So, how’d he fair when he came back? In 2000, he returned a month after the season started in May, started in 23 games but pitched only 137 innings (slightly more than Burnett). His ERA rose steeply to 4.8 but pitched until the end of the season in September (as the Cubs failed to make the playoffs). Again, same rest schedule as Strasburg’s set to take with slightly less innings. Let’s look at that oh-so-important following year: In 2001, Wood started 28 games and dramatically dropped his ERA back down to 3.3, better than his rookie year. Though he started the whole season, he pitched only 174 innings due to missing most of August to an unrelated injury. The years following? His ERA never jumped above 3.7 from 2001-2004 and had an amazing 266 strikeouts in 2003. He struggled the remainder of his career, but what strikes me the most is the fact that he had his best years following TJ surgery when he pitched only 137 innings in his comeback year. Yet another example of how limits may bode well for Strasburg.
Tim Hudson: Hudson had surgery at 32 years old in 2008, after 10 years in the majors.He missed the second half of 2008 and all but one month of 2009. His 2009 innings totaled just 42 where he posted a respectable 3.6 ERA, which by his standards turned out to be his 2nd worst. But with only 7 game starts, too much can’t be read into that. 2010 was his comeback year. Sure, he threw a little in 2009, but hardly enough to truly stretch out his arm and see if it could bear the brunt of a season. Would the Braves limit his 2010 workload? Fuck no. In 34 starts, Hudson threw a whopping 228 innings with a 2.8 ERA, the second-lowest of his career. The Braves were in the playoff race and he was far and away their ace. So they went out there and kept him going. Now, the lingering question: Did he melt down in 2011 from being overworked in 2010 following surgery? Not really. He threw 215 innings and had a 3.2 ERA (a shy below his career average). What baffles me the most about this is the amount of miles he put on his arm prior to surgery. You’d figure it’d come slinging off at any moment. Instead, he comes firing back after surgery and jumps right back on the workhorse wagon. Even with age against him, Hudson definitely didn’t need the innings limit. Strasburg, however, has youth on his side. That’s not to say you still shouldn’t be careful. Hudson is a workhorse and I think the innings he had racked up actually worked in his favor for such a quick comeback. I don’t think Stras would be so lucky.
OK, last one:
Chris Carpenter: Carpenter underwent TJ surgery in 2007 after making just one start. He missed all of 2007 and almost all of 2008 as well (coming back sporadically the last two months of the season). So would the Cards limit his innings in 2009? He didn’t get into the full swing of things until May, but once on the mound full time, he pitched only 192 innings, but pitched until the end of the season in late September where he posted a ridiculous 2.24 ERA. By 2010, he went back to pitching 200+ innings (235 in 2010 and 237 in 2011), with a postseason run to boot. His ERA came back to Earth, raising to 3.2 and 3.4 respectively in 2010 and 2011. He’s been plagued by other injuries in his career, but had he not, I feel that the Tommy John surgery would be a blink in the past. He’s still a feared pitcher to this day, and with his innings being shortened post surgery, he was able to come back the following two years and be a productive ace for his team.
Verdict: The Nationals are absolutely doing the right thing by shutting Stras down. Could there be pitchers out there who were shells of their former selves after Tommy John surgery? Absolutely. But no one who’s had as much promise and potential as Strasburg. It seems by following the plan the Nats have set, they’re playing with the odds in their favor that Strasburg will be firing on all cylinders for years to come (barring any unrelated injury), even if they are sacrificing a deep playoff run this year. But like I said before, you don’t know how it’ll go without him, and you certainly don’t know how it’ll go with him. So don’t chance it. Championships aren’t guaranteed, but with Strasburg as your ace for years to come, your odds are better than most.