September 10, 2012

Stephen Strasburg

The division-leading Washington Nationals baseball team has gone ahead with their plan and shut their prize young pitcher Stephen Strasburg down for the season. He's coming off Tommy John surgery and team management had decided early to only let him pitch 160 innings, even if they had a chance to go to the postseason with him.

I don't have anything intelligent to say about Strasburg, I just wanted to use this opportunity to post a link to a video I saw on the evening sports news on May 6, 1998. I was sitting on the couch talking to my wife with the TV on but the volume off, so I didn't get any audio hints about what was coming. I vaguely recognized Kerry Wood, the Chicago Cubs' 20-year-old phenom pitcher, and was hardly surprised when they started showing clips of his strikeout pitches from that afternoon's game at Wrigley Field against the hard-hitting Houston Astros (Bagwell & Biggio). 

But I became increasingly distracted from my conversation as the strikeout pitch clips kept going on and on, past all reasonable limits, a dozen, a dozen and a half, and still kept piling up. And the pitches weren't just Wood's 98 mph fastball. He was getting bizarre motion on the ball. By the end of the game (the 19th is 3:00 into the video), Wood was throwing what looked like 90+ mph whiffle balls at the befuddled batters. The catcher could barely backhand the 20th and last strikeout pitch, which broke two feet horizontally from right to left. The poor batter would have needed a pool cue to get any wood on the ball.

Was Wood's 20 strikeout one-hitter in batter-friendly Wrigley Field in 1998, the McGwire-Sosa peak of the steroid slugger era, the greatest game ever pitched? Many people think so.

I saw Sandy Koufax pitch at Dodger Stadium when I was five, and have been a big Koufax fan ever since. But Koufax was pitching with a huge vertical strikezone, bottom of the knees to shoulders. So he threw two main pitches: a curve that dropped sharply (but didn't swerve much horizontally like Wood's last pitch) and a rising fastball. A baseball thrown hard enough with enough backspin will tend to sail upward above its natural trajectory and that's what a lot of legendary 1960s pitchers threw. (By rising fastball, I mean one that falls slower than gravity alone would imply.) Pitching 320 innings per year burned out Koufax, who retired in 1966 after going 27-9. 

But the leagues and the umpires progressively took the rising fastball away from pitchers after 1968. By the 1990s, the strikezone barely extended above the belt, forcing pitchers into odd contortions to avoid rising fastballs. 

After Wood's 20-strikeout game, it suddenly became hugely important to everybody interested in baseball, for reasons that no longer are clear, for Wood to break the record for most strikeouts in two consecutive starts, which he did. And then he had to break the record in three consecutive starts, which he did. A few months later he had Tommy John surgery.

And Wood was never quite the same. He had three operations on his arm, and 14 trips to the disabled list. He retired earlier this season with a career record of 86-75. It was a fine career with two All Star game appearances, but it wasn't what everybody had hoped that May afternoon when he was 20.


Anonymous said...

Johan Santana threw 139 pitches in his no hitter and struggled after.

I understand shutting down Stephen Strasburg but also wonder could they have skipped a start here and there so that the 160 limit would occur in post season.

That is that they should have been more conservative in their pitch limit.

Another option would have been move him to the bullpen for a while but hindsight is always 20/20.

Anonymous said...

Do anybody's lives live up to the expectations they have in the May of their 20th year?

Camlost said...

Maybe even the 160 innings was too risky considering that Strasburg had his worst two outings of the season during his last 2 starts.

The Nationals should have kept him under 120 innnings for the year.

Anonymous said...

I don't think concerns over a potential future injury justifies the way the Nats are handling Strasburg. Of course there's a risk that Strasburg will injure himself if he keeps pitching, but if the alternative is having him sit on the bench, how is that any better for the Nats than if he were injured? Holding him back for the "future" makes no sense where he is healthy now and the Nats are in a strong position to win it all this year.

Figgy said...

I was a huge Koufax fan and for decades I considered him the best pitcher of the modern era hands down. But lately I've been wondering about the very thing you mentioned - the high strike zone he was afforded. That gave him a huge advantage as he could just throw a 96 MPH fastball at head level and the batter pretty much had to swing at it. The higher a fastball is, the harder it is to hit. If we factor that in, Koufax was probably no better than a Randy Johnson or a Pedro Martinez, which still makes him a great pitcher but probably takes him off the Tiger Woods/Jack Nicklaus (best of all time) level for hurlers. I think if Johnson had been able to get away with the high strike, he might've set just about every pitching record besides career wins, which is untouchable.

Jeff said...

Guys like Wood and Francisco Liriano, who had a wildly dominate stretch in 2006, were running against the limits of the human body. People aren't supposed to throw 90+ mph with that much movement. And both of these guys broke down quickly and came back to be adequate but not world-beating major leaguers.

NatsFan said...

The Nats fan base has known this shutdown was coming since he came back at the tail end of last year. Its the mostly know-nothing national media that has been hand-wringing over this. Stras has been our 3rd best starter this year (behind Jordan Zimmerman and Gio Gonzalez), was increasingly less effective as the season went on, and has essentially been a 6-inning guy all year.

Is the science exact? No. Is there any guarantee he doesn't get hurt again? No. Are they playing the odds based on a voluminous amount of research? Yes.

Anonymous said...

Kris Medlen is 7 and 0 with an ERA of .81.

He had Tommy John surgery around the same time as Stephen Strasburg with the Braves choosing to have him in the bull pen before making him a starter.

Whatever choices were made were the choices made and it will be easy to say one or both did not work with hindsight.

Anonymous said...

"has gone ahead with their plan"? Subject-verb agreement is a lost art.

Anonymous said...

Baseball is boring, Football is the true American past time.

Auntie Analogue said...

Not only was the strike zone shrunk, but before that came about the mound was lowered for the 1969 and subsequent seasons from fifteen to ten inches, which forced pitchers to work harder - 33% harder, perhaps? No accident, then, that the last ML 30 game winner was Denny McLain?

Anonymous said...

Some of those called 3rd strikes seemed too far off the plate.

pat said...

This reminds me of J.R. Richard another pitcher whose arm muscles exceeded his other body parts capacity. As I remember the story about Koufax was that his doctor told him if he continued to pitch he would have to cut off his arm.

Football is a game in which others hurt you. Baseball pitching lets you hurt yourself.

I think the problem is differential development among the various elements. Muscles develop fast, tendons and ligaments next and bones last. So it is relatively quick that you hypertrophy your dominant arm like Guillermo Vilas. This is especially true today with all the anabolic steroid use. It takes maybe five more years for tendons and ligaments to catch up and ten years for the bones.

I'm told that heavy exercisers like power lifters or Olympic weight lifters only reach their peak when they are around thirty. The skeletons of power lifters show changes just as the skeletons of the medieval long-bowmen did.

So it may be that injuries of these kind - auto-induced - may be on the rise when it's so easy now to blow up your muscles before your connective tissues have had enough time to adapt too.


bleach said...

OTOH Tommy John won 164 games after the surgery, so... there's a lot of luck in sport

Steve Sailer said...

Right, Koufax in the right time and right place.

He was ineffective as a young pitcher because he didn't get to pitch in the minors. Finally, in 1961 he stopped trying to overpower every batter and his walks dropped, making him an excellent pitcher, going 18-13. Then he moved into Dodger Stadium in 1962, where it was 410 to centerfield and he stopped giving up cheap homeruns off his rising fastball like in the Coliseum where popups could be homers. He went 14-7 and led the league in ERA. Finally, in 1963, they expanded the strikezone and he went on his 25-5, 19-5, 26-8, 27-9 tear.

It didn't hurt his presence in the media at all that he was Jewish, and an extremely handsome Jew. (He's still remarkably distinguished looking in his 70s.)

But, he was a genuinely heroic athlete in that he won a huge number of close games, rising to the occasion, something that his Hall of Fame sidekick Don Drysdale didn't do. If the Dodgers got only 2 runs for Drysdale, he'd lose 3-2. If they got only 2 runs for Koufax, he'd win 2-1. Heck, he won a lot of 1-0 games. On September 9, 1965, the Dodgers got Koufax only one hit and he threw a perfect game. The Dodgers started going out drinking the night before Sandy pitched on the assumption that they didn't need to score much for him.

And Koufax did this while in major pain.

helene edwards said...

Steve, you must have a thing for blue uniforms. Juan Marichal shut out the Braves (Aaron, Matthews) for 16 innings in 1963. Great vid though; gotta love Moises Alou blaming the ump.

GLS said...

Dave Cameron has a pretty good post on the Strasburg situation over at Fangraphs.

E. Rekshun said...

It's amazing how a few guys can throw very hard for 20+ years like Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan; most others like Kerry Wood, Bobby Jenks, Dwight Gooden and most other flame throwers continually battle injuries and have short careers after a couple of good seasons.

It seems like the 20-game winner and the sub 3.00 ERA pitcher is becoming quite rare.

Anonymous said...

I think Randy Johnson was an utter marvel. At 6'11", getting his mechanics in order took years of struggle, and then he went on to be dominant well into his 40s. He threw a lot of pitches, had back trouble (common in the very tall) and still managed to stay healthy.

When Johnson was at his best, you saw the same looks on the faces of vanquished hitters that you can see in that Kerry Woods video Steve linked: utter hopelessness predominated; they knew they hadn't just been defeated in their at-bats, but humiliated. And he did this for years upon years.

If Johnson had had the high mound and high strikezone, there'd only be "Johnson & Johnson" at the top of the list of greatest pitchers, i.e. Walter with the right hand, and Randy with the left.

ben tillman said...

Not only was the strike zone shrunk, but before that came about the mound was lowered for the 1969 and subsequent seasons from fifteen to ten inches, which forced pitchers to work harder - 33% harder, perhaps? No accident, then, that the last ML 30 game winner was Denny McLain?

Steve Carlton would have won 32 or 33, maybe 34 games in 1972 (a strike-shortened season) if he'd been pitching for the Reds or Pirates in a full 162-game season.

As it happened, he won 27 games for a team that finished 59-97. He started 41 games, completed 30 of them, and threw 346.1 innings.

Anonymous said...

A think Koufax is one of the most overrated pitchers ever. As someone stated, he took a long time to become great, was good for short period of time, and then retired.

I don't think he was really that much better than Don Drysdale.

Anonymous said...

Woods and his later teammate Mark Pryor had the chance to be the most dominant pitching duo in the league. But they were ill-served by Larry Rothschild, the worst pitching coach in MLB history. He didn't teach them how to avoid extended 3-2 counts (after gaining the 0-2 advantage) and didn't get the manager to pull them when their pitch counts got too high. That guy ruined two of the best arms of their generation.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting: one of the key variables in sports right now is how well elite athletes come back after injury.

For example, many MLB pitchers are just as dominant after Tommy John surgery as they were before; John Smolz of the Braves is a classic example. But then some -- e.g. Woods, and recently Francisco Liriano -- are clearly not the same.

The analogous injury in the NFL, and to some degree in the NBA, is the ACL tear, although microfracture surgery must run a close second for the hoopsters. Adrian Peterson looked pretty good on Sunday, but lots and lots of NFL players have lost speed and explosiveness after ACL reconstructions.

A couple of questions: how do big league teams actually decide where their prize assets get cut? Do they all go to the same few famous doctors, or do they defer to regional preferences, i.e. upper midwestern teams send their broken running backs to the Mayo Clinic? And does anyone know if the stats boys have done any studies to try to figure out which surgeons/clinics have the best records of success in fixing these common injuries? Finding out might be the Moneyball variable for smart teams to exploit in the next decade!

Anonymous said...

2 1 to the Cards and it was all oh woes me if only we had Strasburg we would be winning this series though it has been a series of the Nats winning the close games and the Cards winning by blow outs in the other games where Strasburg's bat would not make much of a difference.
Now they have a shot at hosting the Giants for a shot at the World Series.