It was a busy week for the Washington Nationals on a lot of fronts. Lucas Giolito, the Nats top pick in the 2012 draft, is having Tommy John surgery. Stephen Strasburg, despite his shutdown, should be a Cy Young contender. The Nationals don't want to pay for the Metro when the game runs long, and the Braves extra inning game was a fun one. Finally, we talk about some former Nats greats.
Just was listening to the podcast and reading the Rob Neyer article on the Strasburg shutdown (http://mlb.sbnation.com/2012/8/24/3264006/stephen-strasburg-nationals-james-andrews), and was finally motivated to write down my thoughts on the issue on a comment over there, but thought I should post it here too in case you guys find it interesting (not that we haven't all read enough already on the subject).
From the Nats perspective, there was simply no way they were not going to be extra cautious with Strasburg this year, so any talk of letting him pitch 200 some innings in the regular season and playoffs was simply a non-starter. The question was, do you follow the Zimmermann path and simply pitch him every five days and shut him down when the time comes, or find some way to be creative with his limit so he has the chance to pitch in October. Rizzo made this decision at the beginning of the year, and what is he trying to maximize with this decision, probably something like playoff appearances or championships over the next five years or so, roughly the 'window' for this young and talented team. Even with all the uncertainty, I hope everyone can agree that from the perspective of the beginning of the season, shutting down Strasburg would have a negative impact on the Nats probability of making the playoffs / winning the World series this year, and positive impact on there chances on both probabilities on years 2 - 5 of their 'window'.
Now again from the perspective of the beginning of this year, how would those probabilities be impacte by moving from the current shutdown plan to some 'creative' plan (extra rest, fake DL sting, 6 man rotation, whatever) that keeps his workload down but extends his season to October. Fewer regular season Strasburg innings in the 2012 regular season means that making this change probably lowers their odds of making the playoffs this year, but maybe even with those lower odds of making the playoffs, the possibility of having your ace in October raises the odds of winning the World Series. For years 2-5 of this 'window', the doctors seem to be telling the Nats that there really is no data, but any of these 'creative' plans might slightly increase the risk of injury compared to the simple shutdown plan, so the 'creative' plans would slightly decrease the chance of success in years 2-5. Given what everyone knew about this team at the beginning of the year, and depending on what your discount rate is on future success and what guesses the doctors and Rizzo were making about the probability of injury under the different scenarios, I think you can make the case that Rizzo made the right call at the start.
The problem with the argument happening in the media now is that we all have different information than the Nats did at the beginning of the year when they were making this decision. Clearly the Nats are a good team now, and even with reduced regular season innings from Strasburg, they'll probably make the playoffs. Had we known they'd be this good at the beginning of the year, maybe it would have made sense to get 'creative' from the start and find a way to save some innings for October, but we didn't know they'd be this good in Spring training. So the question becomes, was there a point in the season where Rizzo had enough information about the Nats playoff chances this year that it would have made sense for Rizzo to change the plan? Well from what we've heard from Dr. Andrews, shutting a pitcher down and starting him back up carries particular risk, so a simple 'creative' plan like a fake DL stint might be particularly worrisome for the Nats, and a plan like a 6 man rotation or skipping starts here and there needs more time to save enough innings for October. Is there an increased injury risk from changing usage patterns mid-season? There's no data, but Rizzo has to assign some probability to it in his maximization decision. What does changing plans mid-season do to the discounted sum of expected World Series wins over the next five years? What does it do the the discounted sum of expected playoff appearances? For playoff appearances, it has to decrease the sum. For World Series wins, I can see the answer going either way, but Rizzo and Dr. Yoccum have a lot more information about the parameters of this maximization than anyone else does, so as a Nats fan I'm willing to accept their decision.
It's great that this debate is happening, hopefully it will help lead to better management of pitchers' health in the future. As a Nats fan, I can't wait for a taste of October baseball, and even without Strasburg, you never know what will happen in those games. You never know what will happen in the future, but the plan has always been to build this team for the long haul, and even though we might never taste the playoffs again, I'm comfortable that Rizzo's plan for Strasburg is maximizing my expected discounted future baseball pleasure.