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Top 25 Baseball Stories of the Decade — No. 23: Strasburg Shutdown

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We’re a few short days away from the dawn of the 2020s. So, instead of counting down the Top 25 stories of the year, we’re taking a look at the top 25 baseball stories of the past decade.

Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most over the past ten years.

Next up: number 23 — The Strasburg Shutdown 

Stephen Strasburg was the number one overall draft pick in the 2009 draft. The Nationals took him and, almost immediately, the countdown to his Major League debut began. It wasn’t a long countdown.

Strasburg made his professional debut in the 2009 Arizona Fall League, pitched five games in 2010 at Double-A Harrisburg, pitched six games at Triple-A Syracuse, and debuted for the Nationals on national TV on June 8, 2010 against the Pittsburgh Pirates. His debut was dubbed “Strasmas,” as he was the wonderful gift given to Nationals fans and, really, to baseball in general. He struck out 14 Pirate batters in seven innings that evening. He’d continue his dominance in his next several games and would grace the cover of Sports Illustrated back when that still meant something. A legend was born.

And, almost as quickly, the legend was injured. Strasburg first suffered shoulder inflammation and then, in late August, it was announced he’d have Tommy John surgery. Such is, unfortunately, life for a large number of young phenoms with electric stuff.

Strasburg was doing rehab starts in the minors in less than a year and managed to pitch in five games at the end of the 2011 season. He entered 2012 poised to claim his role as the Nationals’ ace. And, with the expected ascent to the majors of fellow phenom Bryce Harper that season, 2012 looked to be the year the Nationals finally arrived.

And arrive they did. They were in first place by the seventh day of the season, never fell more than a game and a half out of first place after that, and didn’t spend a single day out of first place after May 21. The Nats won 98 games and the National League East crown, thanks in part to Strasburg, who won 15 games and struck out more than 11 batters per nine innings in his first 28 starts.

But they would be his only 28 starts because, as part of his rehabilitation from his Tommy John surgery, it was decided by both his doctors and Nats officials that he should limit the number of innings he pitched in 2012. Which, to be fair, was and remains a fairly common practice for pitchers who are coming back from major surgery. Indeed, the Nats had done it the year prior with Jordan Zimmermann. What made this different, however, was just how early and how specifically and how publicly Nationals officials began talking about what came to be known as the Strasburg Shutdown.

Rather than give Strasburg breaks or skip his starts to manage his workload throughout the season, general manager Mike Rizzo declared that Strasburg would continue to take his normal turns in the rotation until he reached his innings limit, which Rizzo said would be somewhere between 160 and 180. At that point Strasburg’s season would be over no matter what was going on with the Nationals. Given how much Rizzo talked about — and, subsequently, was asked about — the shutdown, it became a matter of national conversation, with people across the sports world and, in some cases, the political world, weighing in on it all. For his part, Rizzo held firm, saying that while “it’s a good debatable subject, most of the people that have weighed in on this know probably 10 percent of the information that we know, and that we’ve made our opinion based upon.”

Strasburg was originally set to be shut down after his start scheduled for September 12. In the event, the Nats actually shut him down after his September 8 start, which was a bit rocky. He finished his season with 159.1 innings pitched.

Things continued to go smoothly for Washington, with their 6.5 game divisional lead on Shutdown Day dwindling by only a couple of games. They won the NL East and then prepared to do battle with the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS. It was the team’s first-ever postseason appearance.

The Nats won Game 1 behind 20-game winner and confirmed number one starter Gio González. Jordan Zimmermann — who actually had a considerably better season than Strasburg and would’ve likely been starting after Gonzalez regardless — took the loss in Game 2. The Nats lost Game 3 behind Edwin Jackson but then won Game 4, with starter Ross Detwiler tossing six innings while giving up just three hits and one run. The Nats jumped on Adam Wainwright in Game 5 and got a decent start from González. The bullpen collapsed, however, allowing the Cardinals to score six runs in the final three innings to eliminate the Nats and move on to the NLCS.

It wouldn’t be fair to say that those who came after Mike Rizzo and the Nationals for the Strasburg Shutdown did so as a matter of second-guessing in the wake of the gutting loss in Game 5, as there were many first-guessers too. Indeed, it was a matter of controversy from the moment the club began hinting that Strasburg’s season would be truncated months prior. Still, the vehemence with which the critics hit the Nats after the NLDS flameout was great.

Some had a point that, yes, having Strasburg start a postseason game might’ve been preferable to having Edwin Jackson start one, but at the time the sense was that Jackson would’ve been in the postseason rotation regardless and that, actually, Detwiler would’ve been the odd-man out. Given that Detwiler pitched well and the Nats won his start complicated all of that. More broadly, Strasburg or no Strasburg, the Nationals would’ve certainly been in the NLCS if the bullpen had actually done its job in Game 5. Whether Strasburg’s absence might’ve made a difference in later rounds is a purely academic exercise.

The craziest thing: people continued to litigate the Strasburg shutdown through the 2013 season and beyond.

The Nats had a down year that season, winning only 86 games and missing the postseason. Some called it the result of a “Shutdown Curse,” citing mojo, karma, hubris and other such mumbo-jumbo. Some commentators — including some who should know better — made tortured arguments about how Strasburg’s absence in the 2012 NLDS put too much pressure on the Nats pen, causing them to go get Rafael Soriano for 2013, which then messed up team chemistry. Nowhere did they seem to note that, apart from Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth, almost everyone on the 2013 Nationals had worse seasons than they did before and that that was not exactly Stephen Strasburg’s fault.

As for Strasburg, all he did was turn himself into one of the more reliable and, for the most part, durable starters in the game. He’d toss over 180 innings in 2013, over 200 in 2014 and would not miss much time for most of the next five seasons. He’d go to multiple All-Star Games and receive Cy Young votes in three different seasons, finishing third in 2017. You also may have heard that Strasburg was the 2019 World Series MVP, pitching the Nationals to the World Series title.

And he proved certain specific criticisms from some prominent folks pretty wrong in other respects too:

Strasburg, of course, signed a seven-year extension with Washington in 2016 and, after opting out in November, last week signed a seven-year, $245 million deal to stay with the Nats. If he completes the deal, Strasburg will have pitched 17 years in Washington.

Does that make the Strasburg Shutdown an unmitigated success? I’m not sure anyone can answer that because no one can say what might’ve happened in 2012 if he were available. At the same time, one need only look at another young ace with electric stuff who pitched a heavy workload the season after coming back from Tommy John surgery — Matt Harvey — and wonder if pushing Strasburg’s limits might’ve ended in disaster.

That’s the thing: no one really knows, even in 2019, the best way to deal with a post-surgery pitcher. Some do just fine even when heavily used. Others break down multiple times, even if they were treated with kid gloves. All we can say for sure is that, in the event, things did turn out well for Strasburg and the Nats.

Which means that the only real solid lesson we can probably take from the Strasburg Shutdown is a P.R. lesson: if you’re gonna limit the amount you plan to play one of your best and most exciting players, just do it. Don’t make a big story about it by announcing it months in advance. That’s just gonna buy you a headache and a lot of people who have no idea what they’re talking about asking you questions you probably don’t want to have to answer.

PREVIOUS ENTRIES:

No. 24: Chicken and Beer
No. 25: All-Star Game no longer counts
Honorable mention: Astros Sign Stealing Scandal