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Hindsight just as clear for Nationals with Strasburg

Hindsight just as clear for Nationals with Strasburg

Hindsight just as clear for Nationals with Strasburg
It's easy to forget, with all the commentary and controversy that followed the decision, that Nationals ace right-hander Stephen Strasburg wasn't the first pitcher to go into a season with a precautionary innings limit.

In the din and debate over whether Washington management was ignoring one of baseball's most treasured clichés -- You never know when you'll have another chance to win it all, so, when you do, go for it -- it was simple enough to overlook that Strasburg wasn't even the first Nationals pitcher in the last two years to go through the process. The previous season, with Jordan Zimmermann also coming off Tommy John surgery, they handled it exactly the same way.

This approach wasn't always the norm, of course. It pretty much started in 1980-81, when the Oakland A's Five Aces rotation piled up wins and complete games at an impressive rate until injuries began taking a heavy toll. Rick Langford, Mike Norris, Matt Keough, Brian Kingman and ...

Steve McCatty, who just happens to be the Nationals' pitching coach.

The buck stops with general manager Mike Rizzo, who made the ultimate call that Strasburg would be held to somewhere around 160 innings and stuck to it even as it became clear the Nationals were having a special season.

It was McCatty, though, who dealt with the 24-year-old phenom nearly every day. Who had to convince him of the wisdom of the course that had been charted.

"I was one of the five guys who were basically the reason everybody started [counting pitches and innings]. It was after what happened to us that everybody started to change," McCatty told MLB.com. "Stephen and I had a lot of talks about this, and I just gave him my perspective. He was not happy. I knew that. But I said, 'Hey, I've gone through this with an injury and I played with it and it probably cost me my career when I should have done the right thing and taken the time off. But I didn't.' So if I'm a little more guarded when something happens to these guys and I have to say something and talk to them and get mad when I explain something to them or be stubborn on my stance towards it, I'll do it.

"It was for his best interest. It was for the Nationals' best interest. It just got blown out of proportion so much because of the national coverage and who he is. We had everyone hootin' and hollerin' at us and telling us what we should do. But, no doubt in my mind, it was the right thing."

Even with the benefit of hindsight, it's difficult to make the case that the Nationals would have won the World Series if Strasburg had been available. They had the best regular-season record in the Major Leagues. They were poised to advance to the National League Championship Series, with home-field advantage, before failing to hold a two-run lead in the ninth inning of decisive Game 5 of the NL Division Series vs. the Cardinals.

Rizzo admits he can't predict the future. What he can do, what he did, is to make every move he possibly could to safeguard what comes next.

"Those are the unknowns. It's hard to respond to [those who say] with Strasburg we would have won the World Series," Rizzo told MLB.com. "Whenever you take a great player off your roster, it doesn't give you as good a chance to perform as if you would have had him. We would have been a better team with Strasburg in the rotation. I agree with that. But we made a decision for the betterment of the franchise and the ballclub and the player. And we stuck to it. There's not much more I can say than that other than that. I think Stephen's going to be better for it."

In Strasburg's first 14 starts last season, he was 9-1 with a 2.46 ERA. In his last 14 starts, he was 6-5 with a 3.94 ERA. Those are telltale signs to the seasoned baseball person.

"We look at all of our pitchers every time they pitch. We analyze each guy, we take diligent notes and watch then each time they go out there," Rizzo continued. "The problem with Stephen is that even when his velocity is down a little bit or when he's scattered in the strike zone, when he's not getting his breaking ball over, he's not finishing pitches, which are all the signs of a pitcher who's going through some sort of arm fatigue, he was still getting by. And because of his talent level, he was still getting big league hitters out."

But there were signs of fatigue, and a fatigued pitcher is more prone to injury. So Rizzo did what he had to do.

Even leaving the surgery aside, there's this: Strasburg had never pitched more than 123 1/3 innings in a professional season. In 2011, he had thrown just 44 1/3. Both Rizzo and McCatty mentioned Braves ace Tim Hudson, who came off similar surgery to log over 200 innings. The difference, they pointed out, is that Hudson had shouldered that workload several times before. Strasburg never had.

It wasn't always easy. In fact, McCatty said, it was a "pain in the butt" for everybody. But the Nationals stuck to their guns, and now they're looking forward to reaping the benefits.

"He could go out next year and something could happen just as easily," McCatty admitted. "You don't know. But you try to protect it. You try to give it the best way to heal and get better that you can do. And you've got to do it with an educated thought process. And getting everybody's input, which Mike did from all the doctors. He listened to what Davey thought. He listened to what I thought. And we did the right thing, even if it's not popular.

"[Some] people don't like the answer that we've given. Mike has said that we're doing this and we're planning on being back for a few years. This was something that we had in place, and we decided to do. And we stuck with it. Well, it just so happened that we were in a pennant race. But do you jeopardize this young guy's career? You have to make a smart decision, an educated decision.

"Mike did all the things he had to do, and there was no reason to vary from that, even though we were in a playoff chase. I don't think that's a fair thing to do. I guess you could say, would everybody be happy if we let him go 185 innings and something happened to him?"

Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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