Nobody From Nowhere (@i8dc)

Occasional Common Sense

To John Feinstein on Stephen Strasburg: your argument is dishonest

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I see the Washington Post has seen fit to give John Feinstein a platform from which to proclaim that not only was the Washington Nationals’ decision to limit Stephen Strasburg’s innings the cause of their playoff loss to the St. Louis Cardinals last year, but also the cause of their failure to make the playoffs this season.

I’m surprised Feinstein didn’t also blame Nats management for the dysfunction of Congress.

There are two things wrong with the arguments of Feinstein and his ilk. Yes, such is my disdain that I use the word ilk.

First, they claim that Mike Rizzo made a foolish decision, by saying (a) that Strasburg was not at risk medically and (b) that even if he was, they could have managed his workload to enable him to pitch into the playoffs. Second, they claim that it would have mattered (a claim now unfortunately joined by Davey Johnson). I’ll take these arguments in turn.

First, the medical argument.

Do a web search for “Rizzo Strasburg shutdown doctor” and you get lots of hits basically saying the same thing: Dr. Lewis Yocum, who performed Strasburg’s surgery, recommended the innings limit. Dr. Frank Jobe, who invented the surgery, said the shutdown made sense, but that the Nats might have been able to shut him down earlier to enable Strasburg to pitch in the playoffs. Dr. James Andrews is referenced by Rizzo as approving the shutdown.

Rizzo said “(Dr. Yocum’s) the one who set up the rehabilitation schedule, which we followed to the T, and he’s the one that kind of guides us through how to get these guys back on the mound effectively. Who better to listen to than the world renowned surgeon whose deal is to do these and rehab these kind of players?”

Apparently John Feinstein thinks the answer should be John Feinstein, who has behind him the medical advice of… nobody. I have yet to see a Feinstein article on Strasburg where he references the opinion of any doctor, whether it’s a recognized expert on Tommy John surgery or Dr. Oz. Feinstein’s medical argument has no weight whatsoever;  the subject matter requires expertise, and Feinstein hasn’t bothered to get any experts to back him up — or he can’t find any.

Next is the argument about manipulating Strasburg’s outings to make him available for the playoffs by putting him on the DL mid-season or putting extra days between starts.  The 160 innings limit is really about 5 starts short of a full season’s worth.  How many playoff starts does Feinstein think he should have been available for? Two years ago, Chris Carpenter started six playoff games for the Cardinals, who played one game less than the maximum. I think four postseason starts is a reasonable expectation of a World Series pitcher.  So that makes NINE starts the Nats would have had to take out of Strasburg’s normal season of 32-33 starts.  At four days between starts, that’s about seven weeks. Does ANYBODY think it would be a good idea to shut down a high-performance machine for that long during a recovery period and then fire it back up again at full speed for the playoffs?  This sounds at least as dangerous as not shutting him down at all, but I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV.

Or maybe the argument is that the Nats should have disrupted their starting rotation by having Strasburg always pitching on an extra day (or two) of rest all season?  Seriously?

And imagine the uproar and second-guessing if the Nats had restricted Strasburg’s innings in anticipation of a playoff run and then didn’t make the playoffs. Oh sweet Jesus.

Now let’s move on to the assumption that Strasburg pitching would have mattered against the Cardinals. This is where Feinstein makes a complete hash of it.

In his column after the Nats crushing loss to the Cardinals last October, Feinstein makes two patently incorrect assumptions.

“Do you honestly believe the Nationals would have wasted a 6-0 lead Friday night had Strasburg been the starting pitcher?” wrote Feinstein, apparently believing that Strasburg would have been the Nats’ Game 1 and Game 5 starter. Did he miss the season that Gio Gonzalez (21-8, 2.89 ERA, 3rd in Cy Young voting) had last year? There’s ZERO chance Stras would have started ahead of Gio, though he may have started ahead of Jordan Zimmermann (2.94 ERA, 24 quality starts).  But Gio would have been pitching Game 5, Strasburg or no Strasburg.

Next Feinstein error: “Does anyone really think they wouldn’t have been better off with Strasburg in the rotation instead of [Edwin] Jackson? Johnson surely would have pitched [Ross] Detwiler had he had to choose one or the other.” This was obviously wrong to seamheads everywhere at the time. The Cardinals killed left-handed pitching last year, hitting .287 against lefty starters compared to .265 against righties, with an OPS more than 100 points higher.  Combine this with Jackson’s playoff experience and Detwiler was the clear tradeoff for Strasburg.

And how did Detwiler do in his start, in place of the missing Strasburg?  Six innings, three hits, three walks, zero earned runs.  Tough to say how Strasburg would have made a difference there.

Feinstein has admitted he was wrong on this point, saying on WJFK: “The fact that they were going to pitch [Jackson] ahead of Detwiler was ridiculous. Because Detwiler was a much better pitcher last year.” True, but by admitting that Detwiler was the Strasburg replacement, Feinstein should no longer say that the Strasburg shutdown cost the Nats the series, since Detwiler threw a great game in that role.

Feinstein’s argument, were he being honest, would be “the Nats may have won if they hadn’t shut down Strasburg and he replaced Jackson in the playoff pitching order; but since this wasn’t going to happen, the Strasburg shutdown can’t be pinpointed as the cause of the loss.”

Instead: “Now it can be said, with almost no doubt, that the decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg last September didn’t cost Washington one chance to win a World Series, it cost the team and the city two chances.” Emphasis added.

Often wrong, almost no doubt.

Talk about hubris.

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Written by David Clayton

September 26, 2013 at 1:32 pm

Posted in Debunkery

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