Monday, September 10, 2012

Protecting the Investment: The Stephen Strasburg Decision

When I heard that the Washington Nationals had shut down Stephen Strasburg for the season, I thought I had a nice article for Monday all sewn up. I could find pitchers who had had Tommy John surgery, plot their innings in their first full season after the injury, and compare that to their WAR or xFIP over the next five years.

But no, the Nationals insisted, this had nothing to do with his arm but rather his "mental state", so there goes that article.

By pinning the decision on Strasburg's mental state, the Nationals are short-circuiting any number of arguments with the "You-don't-know-what-we-know" card. It's a good card, with shiny foil edges, a limited-edition number on the back, and maybe a piece of a game-used uniform included. If it were an issue with his arm, you could use incomplete data to make quasi-flawed arguments about whether protecting pitchers actually did anything. But his mental state? How can you, mere mortal, possibly claim to know anything about what Strasburg is thinking or feeling? Or at least, how can you claim to know more than the people in the metaphorical trenches with him?

The argument from authority always grates with me. I understand that front offices -- that is, the people whose job it is to think about baseball -- are working with information that I don't have and can't get access to. But so much of sports is speculation and second-guessing, why teams and players make the decisions they do, and whether a different decision would have been better. To respond to every decision with, "Well, they have more information than I do, so they must know what they're doing," saps the color out of sports and shrinks the sports page to a half-page spread above the crossword.

Let's move on, because I could write a (very poorly read) book on the "you-can't-know" argument. Those who do argue in favor of the Nationals' decsion claim that they're merely protecting their investment so they can use Strasburg in the future. And yes, if the Nationals were in the Royals' position (a handful of games under .500), or even the Pirates (a few games out of the wild card and struggling to break even), I could understand saving him for later. But the Nationals have a 5.5-game lead in the NL East and are a safe bet to make the playoffs, making me wonder, what are they saving him for? For some future season, when every contender is deeply flawed, when they have the best record in the National League and they can make a run at the World Series? Is that not this year? When will you be here again? Are you sure?

We nerds are always accused of treating real-life ballplayers like baseball cards in some trading game, but that's exactly what the Nationals' decision feels like. Strasburg isn't something you play with or jam between the spokes of your bicycle*, this is an investment that you hermetically seal in plastic and have graded and put in a safe-deposit box to pay for your kid's college education. I understand that running a baseball team is a business, but the ostensible product is the on-the-field performance. If you have a real chance to win the World Series and you're not doing everything you can to do so, including putting your best 25 players on the field, you're letting down your customers, your employees, everyone.

And I'll say it again: who knows when you'll be here again? What terrible things could happen between October and next April? Ryan Zimmerman could start showing his age. Strasburg could blow out his elbow hailing a taxi. Ian Desmond could be killed in a fiery Metro crash. Bryce Harper could watch too much Batman and become a crime-fighting vigilante in the shadows of Rhode Island Ave. The starting pitching could regress. Jayson Werth could have his contract extended.

Everyone compares the Nationals' handling of Strasburg to the Cubs' handling of Mark Prior in 2003, but if a genie had appeared to the Cubs in March of 2003 and said, "Look, here's the deal: you get to play in the World Series against a creaky Yankees team, but the team falls apart within five years and Prior's arm gets permanently destroyed in the process," you don't think everyone -- including Mark Prior -- jumps at the opportunity to accept that deal?

But man, that genie would be super embarrassed after Alex Gonzalez botches a sure double-play ball in Game 6 of the NLCS.

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