MLB.com Columnist

Terence Moore

Gospel of Leo says let Strasburg pitch

Moore: Gospel of Leo says let Strasburg pitch

Nobody with a clue and a pulse knows more about pitching than Leo Mazzone. It's his passion. During any conversation that lasts longer than it takes for a Stephen Strasburg fastball to reach home plate, Mazzone delivers the Gospel of Leo, which stresses that pitchers should throw and throw, and then they should throw some more.

Speaking of Strasburg and that gospel, Mazzone is somewhere right now preaching strongly and loudly about this evilness on the horizon for the Washington Nationals.

"I think it's absolutely ridiculous, and it basically insults my intelligence, to be honest with you," said Mazzone, his voice rising, while delivering his latest sermon. He is the legendary pitching coach who helped produce Cy Young Award winners Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz for the Atlanta Braves -- and who wonders why Nationals officials are threatening to lose their minds.

Maybe you've heard. Although Strasburg ranks among baseball's elite, the Nationals say they won't allow their right-hander to finish the year, due to a predetermined limit they've placed on his number of innings pitched. It is believed to range between 160 to 180 innings for the season.

Which means Strasburg could miss his last two or three turns in the rotation, according to Nationals manager Davey Johnson.

Which means the city of Washington could have its first baseball team in 79 years enter the postseason without its best pitcher.

Which means Mazzone's head is about to explode.

"You know, with Strasburg in the rotation, Washington's got a chance to go to the World Series, and I think it's a slap in the face to fans when you say, 'Oh, by the way. He's only going to pitch 160 innings,' " said Mazzone, 64, just warming up in the bullpen with his outrage. "This idea of (shutting down pitchers due to pitch and inning counts) is starting to go around the whole game now, and it's totally ridiculous, because there is no guarantee that lesser innings is going to do anything for a pitcher's arm.

"The smart thing to do is to keep everybody in a routine and make sure that you, as a coach, that if there is any type of labor issues when he's out there pitching, then you have to take care of that and get him out.

"But as long as he's going fine without a lot of effort and without a lot of labor issues, you're OK. It's got nothing to do with the innings. It's how you're pitching those innings."

Makes sense to me.

This doesn't make sense: The Strasburg situation.

He is 15-5 with a 2.85 ERA, and nobody in the National League has more than his 183 strikeouts. He's also a baby at 24, and he has shown zero signs of tiring or aching after his 145 1/3 innings this season.

It's just that Nationals management is spooked by Strasburg undergoing Tommy John surgery near the end of his first Major League season in August 2010. He returned to pitch a few games in September 2011, and then he became a regular in the Nationals' rotation this season -- but that is about to end in a hurry.

Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said the organization decided this spring that it only wanted Strasburg to throw a set amount of innings to preserve his recovering arm for the future.

That screaming you hear is from Mazzone's home in Atlanta. There, he tried to recall the other day the number of pitchers he coached during his 27 years in the Braves organization who needed Tommy John surgery after following the Gospel of Leo.

Mazzone still is thinking.

"The reason I'm so passionate about this subject is because the thing that I've always been the most proud of is the health of our pitching staff in Atlanta over the long haul," said Mazzone, whose primary starters routinely threw more than 200 innings per season during his stretch as Braves pitching coach from June 1990 to the end of the 2005 season.

There also were a slew of innings for Mazzone's pitchers during the playoffs. With Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz leading the way, the Braves won their division a Major League-record 14 straight times while taking five pennants and a World Series.

The casualties were few among Braves pitchers.

"I look back, and I'm trying to figure out the Tommy John surgeries we've had, and I only can come up with Kerry Ligtenberg, and then we had Smoltzie over a period of time, which you can understand that one," Mazzone said. "Paul Byrd may have had it, but he wasn't with us very long. I can't think of anybody else."

There wasn't anybody else. The Gospel of Leo worked, and Mazzone chuckled while recalling the times that he did keep a pitch count -- well, sort of -- to satisfy former Braves manager Bobby Cox.

"I remember having a clicker in the dugout, just to give you an idea of where they're at (as pitchers in their pitch count), but I always used to cheat," Mazzone said, chuckling some more. "If Glavine threw a pitch, and the first guy popped it up on a changeup, I'd go, 'What the heck. I'm not counting that one.' It got to the point where Bobby would say, 'What's the pitch count, Leo? Is it your pitch count or the real one?'

"We had some fun with it. I've seen guys throw 70 something pitches in a game, and they're exhausted -- just by the way they threw. I've seen guys throw 100, and they're perfectly fine.

"These are things you have to understand. It's how you're throwing those innings and how you're getting to those innings. Are you having stress innings? Are you having easy innings?

Strasburg's innings mostly are easy...

Except to hitters.

Come mid-September, it appears that won't matter to Nationals management.

Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.