The Washington Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg Dilemma

The real problem with Stephen Strasburg’s pitching arm is that it’s attached to his neck…

I must apologize to those who care about baseball-related ethics matters. I have been so immersed in the problems dogging my sad and dispirited Boston Red Sox that I have neglected the more glaring ethics issue looming over my current home town team, the Washington Nationals, currently on top of the National League East and almost certainly bound for their first post-season appearance. They face that prospect, however, with a problem: before the season began, management pledged that Stephen Strasburg, the team’s young fire-balling ace who seems destined for a Hall of Fame career, will be shut down for good once he hits 180 innings or less. Strasburg has already had serious arm surgery once, and conventional baseball wisdom now holds that throwing too many pitches before a pitcher has matured risks his arm, his effectiveness and his career. What this means now, however, that was hardly conceivable when the pledge was made, is that the Nationals could be battling the best teams in baseball in pursuit of a World Series title with their best pitcher completely healthy but in mothballs.

I had only given this matter perfunctory focus, concluding as a fan that it was a screwball plan that would never be executed, and not thinking much about the ethics of the controversy—and as you might imagine, it’s a big controversy in the Washington area sports pages. It took respected baseball writer John Feinstein to shock me out of my apathy with his sensible and well-reasoned column on the issue today, that ended thusly:

“Pitching a healthy Strasburg in October is not a betrayal, it’s simply recognizing that circumstances have changed. Not pitching him is a betrayal: to the pitcher, to the team, to the fans and to the city.”

Feinstein’s use of the word “betrayal” places the question squarely in the category of duty and obligation, the ethics strike zone. To whom does a baseball team owe its primary duty? The answer has always been, and still is, the sport, the city whose name is on its uniforms and the team’s fans. The welfare of the players on the team’s payroll are on the duty list for sure, but they only finish fourth. When a championship is on the line, they are expected to take reasonable risks with their bodies, their health and their careers, and the team is obligated to let them do it. Players who hurtle into the stands to make game saving catches risk serious injury; catchers who stand in a runner’s way to block  game-winning runs risk career-ending collisions; pitchers who go to the mound with their ankle tendons crudely stitched to their skin risk never pitching again (okay, that was another Red Sox reference: sorry.) Taking such risks is part of the game, and playing hard, and harder when championships are on the line, is essential to the integrity of baseball or any sport.

For the Nationals to take one of their top starting pitchers out of the rotation in an exercise of special caution makes neither logical nor ethical sense. From a purely business standpoint in today’s free agent environment, there is no reason for the Nationals to care whether Strasburg’s career is like Fernando Valenzuela’s or Dwight Gooden’s, a comet that peters out by the time he is 30, or like Roger Clemens (sans drugs, of course), a pitcher who has early career arm surgery and then pitches into senility (Clemens started a comeback last week at the age of 50.) Players have no loyalty, and Strasburg’s agent is the infamous Scott Boras, who typically leads his clients to the biggest contract possible, no matter how happy they were with their original team. Why should the Nationals give up a possible World Series so the New York Yankees get to have Stephen Strasburg winning 20 games for a few more seasons?

There is also no reason to believe that cutting off Strasburg’s innings will preserve his arm, or that letting him pitch more than 180 innings will endanger it. As Feinstein notes (and studies have shown, such as a Hardball Times survey of workhorse pitchers from different eras), some pitchers thrive with heavy workloads early in their careers, and some do not. Every arm, delivery, pitch selection and pitcher is different. The Yankees famously protected minor league phenom Jaba Chamberlain when he first arrived in the majors, and he ended up having arm troubles anyway. The Red Sox (sorry again) shelved young starter Clay Buchholtz at the end of last season for an absurd length of time after he had recovered from an injury to be cautious, and he began 2012 so messed up that he was nearly demoted to the minors.

It is also unfair to Strasburg to rob him of the chance to help win a championship that his talents and efforts got his team in the position to seize. Players live for the opportunity to play in big games. It seems fine to argue that because Strasburg is young and a budding superstar, he’ll have other chances. It doesn’t work out that way necessarily, for players, or for teams and cities. The Washington Senators went to the World Series in 1933; Washington hasn’t been close to another appearance since—79 years later. The 1950 “Whiz Kids” Phillies went to the Series (and lost) with one of the youngest teams to ever get there, and everyone assumed they would be back soon. “Soon” turned out to be 30 years later.

The pledge to limit the young pitcher’s innings made sense before the season when a post-season for the Nationals seemed like a distant dream. Now that it has become reality, Feinstein is right.  “As long as Strasburg is still throwing 98 mph and looks completely healthy,”  the team should let him be a part of its post-season quest for glory.

It’s the right thing to do.


Spark and Source: Washington Post (John Feinstein)

Graphic: Washington Nationals

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at



10 thoughts on “The Washington Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg Dilemma

  1. Sorry but Feinstein is an idiot , The Doctor who did the surgery reccomends he be sat after he pitches a certain number of innings. Right now every time he goes out to pitch he is setting a record for the numbers of unnings he has pitched. By extending him into the playoffs, if they make it, we will be doubling the number of innings he has ever pitched. The club has shown they know what they are doing by how they have built the team and how they sat down Zimmermann last season for the same reason and he is having a Cy Young season.

    All these arm chair managers who keep on saying he should be allowed to pitch and whinning about how the team doesnt owe him anything and we have to win now can kiss my rebel ass. Loyalty goes both up and down the chain of command and they should do what they think is best for Strasburg AND the Team and if Rizzo thinks this is best everyone should shut their pie holes.

  2. I have followed this baseball story with great interest since it converges on public relations, economics, and entertainment – all part of the American Experience. I also regularly attend Nats games (as well as Orioles). Since the Nationals emerged as contenders (who would have thought?), Mike Rizzo the GM and Steve Strasburg’s agent Scott Boras have worked the media to protect their interests, namely Strasburg’s valuable arm, on which the financial hopes of the franchise are founded. To buttress their arguments, they’ve brought in doctors, but physicians are by nature conservative and, in a sense, employees of the ballclub – hired guns. They’ve been largely successful. True, Strasburg’s coming off serious Tommy John surgery, but then there is a risk for any pitcher, any year. Historically, pitchers who pitch well into the playoffs, including the World Series don’t follow-up with good seasons. Check out Cole Hamels in 2009. Still, no one is giving up the ball when it comes to chance to win it all. You may never be in that situation again.

    Boras and Rizzo and the Nationals franchise have a curious relationship. He represents a number of Nationals players (7) pulling down a big chunk of change and might almost be considered a minority partner. This is a corporate enterprise and, as such, they are all seeking to mitigate their risks and enhance their long range prospects. They’re looking to the future and they see winning seasons and franchise profitability, which will lead to development of the Lerner real estate empire around the ballpark. In short, they’re protecting their interests against a potential short-term risk which would jeopardize the Nationals’ future. In talking to the fans at Nationals game they seem to buy into this strategy.

    But as you know baseball’s a funny game; anything can and does happen in sports. There’s no guarantee that the Nats will contend next year or the year after, or if they do, will bring home the championship. I’m sure the Phillies will have something to say about (as they‘ve shown this weekend) as will the Braves and Marlins and who knows the Mets. How much money will be left on the table to bring in free agents or replacements to continue to stay competitive? What about the other player salaries, which are sure to go up? To ask the question the perennial question down here, where’s the money going to come from? This may be their best shot.

    Perhaps the aging Jason Werth (who has a history) or the rookie Bryce Harper will go down with an injury first. What are the ethics of playing a 19-year-older, in his first major league season, every day? It seems like management is being inconsistent here when they are willing to risk a younger position player over a pitcher who starts every 5 days.
    There is a big conflict of interest in having an agent, who does not officially represent the team, the city (District), or the fans set the agenda.

    Contractually, Strasburg is obligated to follow the terms he’s agreed to. I’m sure there are incentives, so if he sits, he loses money, short term.

    The matter – one way or the other – seems to fall out along age and proximity to the team. The younger Nationals fans who are crazy about Strasburg, are looking to the future. They’ve been sold by Rizzo, Boras, the doctors, and the media. Those older folks, like us, with longer baseball memories, formatively set elsewhere, want to see him play. A champion always performs, indeed, that is how he is measured. Strasburg wants to pitch – give him the ball.

    This all may be premature, with the assumption that the Nationals will even advance to the playoffs (the 2007 Mets were a lock as were your 2011 Red Sox). Would you shut down Strasburg with a playoff spot on the line? As a Phillies fan I grew up hearing about the Whiz Kids (4 and out) and lived through the 1964 “Phold,” so I well know the fates of baseball. I’d skip Strasburg on a few starts down the stretch, just to get them there. And I’d be sure to have #37 rested for the 5-6 innings of the first game of every series, however far they go.

  3. Ancient history: when I was a kid, the DC team was called the “Senators”. The owner was Clark Griffith (for whom Griffith Stadium was named). Those who cared disliked Griffith because, story had it, he was money-hungry, and every time he had a talented player, he would immediately sell him. I was not a fan, so I didn’t care; I thought baseball was boring; I liked football.

  4. I am trying to unpack your argument here and will use the NFL’s concussion policy for comparison. First, is the NFL’s policy unethical as well, if a player has symptoms of a concussion they are not allowed to return to the game. The logic that playing the game is risky and the player is the appropriate person to asses that risk also applies.

    Is the crux of your argument based on the strength of the relationship between the first injury and subsequent injuries? So the evidence for additional neurological damage after the first concussion is so much stronger then subsequent injury from high pitch count subsequent to Tommy John surgery as to make it actionable in football but not here?

    And/or is your argument premised on the magnitude of subsequent injuries, where neurological damage for the rest a players life is more worse then additional arm damage, and thus needs more protection?

    I think the second two points are true should lead to different policies, but I am uncomfortable with the idea that because sports are inherently dangerous and players are always at risk they should not be pulled out preemptively against their own will..

    • I didn’t say that, though. There is no injury to Strasburg—if he was not fully recovered, he wouldn’t be pitching. The comparison to concussions is inappropriate, because cumulative concussions have an adverse affect as well. A surgically repaired arm, Tommy John-style, is as strong (or stronger) as an uninjured arm. The issue is pitching Strasburg more innings than he has ever pitched as being inherently risky. Pitching at all is risky: its an unnatural motion. But why be a pitcher at all if you can’t ply your trade when its most needed?

      • I was combining pieces from different sources. Part of the managers justification in setting the innings limit preseason was his belief , backed by some in the medical field, that pitchers who undergo Tommy John surgery are not fully recovered and have the highest rates of re-injury in their second season, first season back on the mound.

        • There’s a bias inherent in the argument. If you’re prone to injury, you’re likely to get injured sooner rather than later. that doesn’t say that the pitchers shouldn’t be back out the next year. What you’d need is a sample of similar pitchers who didn’t pitch the season other pitchers came back, and then look at their rate of injury in the future.

      • It’s not the elbow that they are worrying about , it’s the shoulder that tends to get injured the first season they come back if they over do it .

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.