The Nationals had a plan for Stephen Strasburg long before this season began. They are sticking with that plan come heck or high seeding. So is Nats general manager Mike Rizzo, who put this plan in place, being stubborn to a fault or commendably cautious with the ace and face of the starting rotation?
The answer, of course, depends on who you ask. And aside from, perhaps, the Brewers' bat boy, the parking attendant in the lot outside Tropicana Field and the guy who puts the parsley on the garlic fries at AT&T Park, it seems we've heard just about everybody's opinion on what is the right course of action to take with a pitcher two years removed from Tommy John elbow surgery, right down to Tommy John himself (he's opposed to the Strasburg Shutdown, for the record). Colleague Matthew Leach says give the kid the ball and see how far he takes you. I say proceed with the plan. Really, one opinion boils down to machismo, the other to medicine. Because while those in favor of extending Strasburg's season are siding with their inner competitor, the Nats are siding with medical evidence and intellect. Ultimately, the only relevant opinion is the one belonging to Rizzo, because this is his call. And the sad thing is that the reams of research he's read and the cautious course he's following come with absolutely no guarantees. But until somebody can point me to a crystal ball that resoundingly refutes Rizzo's expert-aided instinct, I simply can't fault the guy for putting the player's long-term health in front of the team's short-term success. Strasburg has thrown 139 1/3 innings thus far this season, and he is expected to be capped around 180. Because he is averaging right around six innings per start, Strasburg can reasonably be counted on to make seven more starts, beginning with Tuesday's outing against the Braves. With 40 games left on the regular-season schedule, Strasburg's switch would be set to the "off" position in the season's second-to-last week, provided he keeps pitching every fifth game. Now, the Nationals still have the chance to manipulate this, if they so choose. They could, for instance, go with a six-man rotation when rosters expand in September to ensure Strasburg is available in the final week. Washington could even skip Strasburg a time or two, allowing the club use him in a Division Series or Wild Card playoff game. This opens up a debate within a debate. As fans, it is easy to be tempted by the thought of what seems to us to be minor manipulation to ensure Strasburg is an October factor for at least a single start. But if you're the Nats, and you're already cautious enough to be capping the guy's innings, why on earth would you purposefully mess with his rest and routine? And so, the shutdown looms. I understand the emotional elements at play here. Not only will the Nationals, who seem a safe bet for postseason play, be significantly weakening their rotation at the most pivotal point on the baseball calendar, they'll be robbing Strasburg of a potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pitch on the game's most prominent stage. No matter how much talent is on hand, playoff appearances are promised to no one, and there's no telling what derailments might be in store in 2013 and beyond. But I think we seem to emphasize the extreme with regard to the Strasburg Shutdown. In reality, pitching him comes with no guarantee of a World Series win, and sitting him comes with no guarantee of an early-round exit. What if he pitches in the first round, blows out his elbow (again) and the Nats still lose the series? Or what if the Nationals are deep and balanced enough to win it all without Strasburg? We could play that game all day. In the end, none of us is smart or psychic enough to know what's in store. All we can do is go with what we know. Here's what we know: If Strasburg pitches 180 innings this year, that will be a 46-percent increase on the 123 1/3 innings he pitched in 2010, before surgery, and a 30-percent increase on his previous innings high of 138 1/3 with San Diego State and Team USA in 2008. That's a significant uptick in workload for a 24-year-old. Tom Verducci, a writer for Sports Illustrated and analyst for MLB Network, has both opened some eyes and caused some others to roll with his annual "Year-After Effect" column, in which he points out the risk in 25-and-younger pitchers whose innings increased by 30 or more from one year to the next (or, for those coming off injuries or a change in roles, the previous innings high, regardless of when it occurred). Say what you will about his theory, but Verducci targeted 11 guys as "red flags" this season for making that kind of jump -- Derek Holland, Jaime Garcia, Yovani Gallardo, Daniel Hudson, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Harrison, Dylan Axelrod, Liam Hendriks, Nathan Eovaldi, Mike Leake and Michael Pineda. Nearly every one of those guys has endured regression and/or injury this season; Harrison is the only one who has markedly improved. Even with a 180-inning cap, Strasburg will make the "Year-After Effect" list next year, because his increase from 2010 will have already fit the formula. But as the case of Kerry Wood illustrates, the Nats are right to avoid letting Strasburg approach the 200-inning realm. Remember Wood? He retired earlier this year, ending a career that will be remembered as much for what could have been as for what actually was. Like Strasburg, he had Tommy John at 22. He missed the 1999 season, then averaged 200 innings over his age 24, 25 and 26 seasons. He was essentially relegated to a relief role by 28, and he made 16 trips to the disabled list in his career. I remember talking to Wood about Strasburg during the latter's rookie season. "His stuff," Wood had said, "doesn't come around that often." And Wood, who struck out 20 batters in his fifth big league start but became a poster child for early-career overuse, knows just how quickly that stuff can disappear. That the Nationals will make it disappear by choice at the tail end of 2012 rubs many the wrong way. And I get that. In that battle between machismo and medicine, machismo will win every time in the eyes of the general populace. Rizzo, however, is siding with medicine. His stance comes with no promises, and it certainly comes with no popularity. But he had a plan, and he's sticking with it. And I, for one, am on his side.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.