Stephen Strasburg

Thinking about Stephen Strasburg’s workload

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It wasn’t quite so eagerly anticipated as last year, but Stephen Strasburg made his spring debut on Saturday, giving up two runs in two innings against the Mets. Both runs came on a first-inning Ruben Tejada homer that benefited from a nice little breeze to left-center. After throwing 31 pitches in the first, Strasburg was perfect in an 11-pitch second inning.

The outing was Strasburg’s first since he was famously shut down last September 7 after 28 starts and 159 1/3 innings.

This year, Strasburg is working with “no restrictions,” according to manager Davey Johnson. Nationals VP of player development Bob Boone clarified that with USA TODAY last month:

To say there’s no restrictions really means, ‘Hey, we’d like him to pitch 200 innings,’ ” Boone said. “But, you’re not gonna say no restrictions like you might have on Steve Carlton, who would throw 320 innings. You’re not gonna do that. There’s always restrictions, but the meaning is, ‘We’re not gonna shut him down after 160 innings.’

Strasburg, for what it’s worth, talked about being ready to “throw 200-plus innings.” GM Mike Rizzo hasn’t chimed in with any specifics.

Personally, I can’t imagine Strasburg being allowed to throw 200 regular-season innings this year, not with the Nationals hopeful of  playing deep into October. Because if Strasburg throws 200 regular-season innings, then he could end up approaching or even topping 230 innings should the Nationals reach the World Series.

I think the ideal would be for Strasburg to throw about 180 innings during the regular season this year. That’d be a nice little boost from last year and still not a scary number for him to enter the postseason with.

Still, I don’t know whether that is part of the plan at all. Last year, the Nationals refused any possible alternatives that could have made Strasburg available for the playoffs. And the simple fact that he was on the mound today, on Feb. 23, suggests they’re not very concerned with any sort of innings rationing at the moment.

In 2012, Strasburg made his first spring start on March 4 and was fine to throw seven innings on Opening Day. It would have made sense to have him on a similar schedule this spring. As is, he’s due to make seven spring starts, which is two more than he or anyone else really needs. Perhaps that’s not so important without the innings limit this year, but I’d still rather save any extra bullets for September and October than have him pitch in games in February.

Marlins acquire starter Dan Straily from the Reds

CINCINNATI, OH - SEPTEMBER 3: Dan Straily #58 of the Cincinnati Reds throws a pitch during the first inning of the game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Great American Ball Park on September 3, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by John Sommers II/Getty Images)
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The Miami Marlins have acquired starting pitcher Dan Straily from the Cincinnati Reds. In exchange, the Reds will receive right-handed pitching prospects Luis Castillo and Austin Brice and outfield prospect Isaiah White.

For the Marlins, they get a solid starter who logged 191.1 innings of 113 ERA+ ball last year. Straily has moved around a lot in his five big league seasons — the Marlins will be his fifth club in six years — but it was something of a breakout year for him in Cincinnati. The only troubling thing: he tied for the league lead in homers allowed. Of course, pitching half of his games in Great American Ballpark didn’t help that, and Miami will be a better place for him.

Castillo is 24. He split last season between high-A and Double-A — far more of it in A-ball — posting a 2.26 ERA over 24 starts. Austin Brice is also 24. He pitched 15 games in relief for the Marlins last year at the big league level with poor results. He seemed to blossom at Triple-A, however, after the Marlins shifted him to the pen. White was a third round pick in the 2015 draft. He played low-A ball as a minor leaguer last year, hitting .214/.306/.301.

A mixed bag of young talent for the Reds, but stockpiling kids and seeing what shakes out is what a team like the Reds should be doing at the moment. For the Marlins: a solid mid-to-back end starter who may just be coming into his own.

Have Hall of Fame Voters actually made the PED thing More complicated?

Sammy Sosa
Associated Press
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The story coming out of this year’s Hall of Fame balloting is that the BBWAA voters are finally easing their antipathy toward players with performance enhancing drug associations.

Jeff Bagwell — the subject of unconfirmed PED rumors — made the Hall! Pudge Rodriguez, who was named in Jose Canseco’s book and who had a . . . curious physical transformation around the time PED testing came online, made it on the first ballot! Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, whose PED use was well-documented, saw their vote totals advance above the 50% mark, making their future elections look more likely!

It’s an interesting development, and one I’m obviously pleased with, but I wonder if the BBWAA’s new approach to PED guys, while far more forgiving than it used to be, has actually become more complicated in practice.

I ask this because I look way, way down the ballot and I still see Sammy Sosa scraping by with around 8% of the vote. I ask this because I still see Gary Sheffield at 13%. I ask this because when Mark McGwire was on the Today’s Game ballot in December, no one really stumped for him at all. I ask this because, even though Bagwell and Mike Piazza got in eventually, they still had to go through a lot of hazing first and I suspect, if they hit the ballot for the first time again tomorrow, the same arguments and delay would occur with respect to their cases.

In light of that, what I suspect has happened has not been a wholesale surrender of the anti-PED voters. Rather, I think it has been a transformation. One in which a moral test — did he use PEDs or not? — has been discarded as a threshold question and a scientific/physiological test — would he have been great even without the PEDs? — has replaced it. In essence, voters are becoming “PED discounters” in the aggregate. Making calculations as to whether a guy was, in their mind, a creation of PEDs or not.

Such an approach explains these new voting patterns as well as those in recent years.

  • Ivan Rodriguez may have been called out by Canseco and may have noticeably shrunk over an offseason, but his calling card was his defense behind the plate and voters, I suspect, have told themselves that such a thing is not PED-aided.
  • Bonds and Clemens may have been PED users, but each of them was undeniably talented and, if you discount for the PED use, hey, they’re still all-time greats.
  • Sammy Sosa’s case rests disproportionately on homers and, as everyone knows, PEDs = instant dingers, so no, he’s not gonna cut it.

And so on.

As I said, I’m glad that the strict moral test — did he use or not? — is losing its hold on Hall voters. But I do not think the “did PEDs make him who he was test?” is a good approach either. Baseball writers are in no better a position to assess the physiological and performance enhancements caused by pharmaceuticals than they are to be judges of character and morality. Given the identities of players confirmed to be PED users, the old eye test implicit in these cases is famously faulty (Neifi Perez, anyone?). The idea that PEDs only affect home run totals — and not, say, the ability for a player to take the abuse of the catcher position for 21 seasons — is crude and ignorant.

I suppose it’s naive to expect voters to completely disregard PEDs in their assessment of players. It’s a bell that cannot be unrung. But while we may, thankfully, be moving away from a moral test with respect to drugs, it’s been displaced by a scientific test that is no more reasonable in practice.