Last Tuesday, Nationals rookie Stephen Strasburg made one of the most dynamic pitching debuts in major league history, striking out 14 batters in front of a sellout crowd and more than 200 media members in a 5-2 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The start was the culmination of Rizzo’s meticulous pitching plan for Strasburg, developed a month before the Nationals even took the right-hander with the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft and implemented across three levels of the organization.
After the start, Rizzo got together with MASNSports.com Nationals beat writer Ben Goessling to lay out the plan he used to develop Strasburg:
BG: Did you base the Strasburg plan on how other young pitchers had come up? How did you come up with it, and when?
Mike Rizzo: It was kind of a hybrid developmental plan. As you know, I’ve done this for quite a long time. I’ve never done it with as high a profile guy as this. Of course, I don’t think anybody’s done it with as high profile a guy as this guy. I had history to go back on, and I had the way I wanted to do it, which has been successful in the past. I knew I was going to be very, very cautious and careful with the player, as I have been with a lot of high profile power pitching guys. I think that had a lot to do with it. It was the type of pitcher he was. I certainly didn’t treat Brandon Webb the same way I treated this guy because Brandon didn’t need the power to get to his ceiling. Power pitching is different. There’s more stress on the arm with each and every pitch. So I followed my power pitching kind of format. (Minor league pitching coordinator) Spin Williams was in the loop with me at all times, as was (Nationals pitching coach) Steve McCatty. And I called on a couple of experts outside the organization on some advice and some tidbits. That’s where the blueprint began, and it began like a month before we drafted him.
BG: When was it done? Was it done by the time you took him?
Mike Rizzo: It was done in my mind by the time we took him, in generalities. The specifics were done as he entered the (Arizona) Fall League, and that type of thing, after we knew we signed him and he was going to be ours.
BG: Were you mapping out the number of innings last May?
Mike Rizzo: Yes, we were. I took into account his history and his workload in the past and talked to the coaches back there at San Diego State - what was his routine like then, how did he prepare for starts and that type of thing. In May, I had it mapped out in generalities. And when we signed him and we knew he was going to go to the Fall League, I got really specific, into thresholds and limits and that type of thing.
BG: There’s been a lot made of this idea of an agreement with his agent, or an understanding about how many innings he would pitch...
Mike Rizzo: There was never an agreement with his agent.
BG: I’ve always kind of thought it was probably what you were going to do anyway; I suppose you keep him informed, but there was never an agreement to limit him to a certain number of innings?
Mike Rizzo: I’m under no obligation to do that. I do what’s best for the players and what’s best for the Washington Nationals. We develop the player. The agency doesn’t develop the player. The player doesn’t develop the player. There certainly was no agreement, written or unwritten, or perceived or unperceived, whatever it is. I do know Scott and I discussed what my thoughts were, and how I was going to do things, and I kept him informed all the way, so he could keep Stephen informed the whole way. And when we did sign him and prepare him to go to the (Arizona) Fall League, communication is the key for me. I certainly don’t want to keep the agent in the dark. I’ve developed Scott’s players before, (Diamondbacks shortstop) Stephen Drew, for one. He trusts my scouting abilities and knows that I know how to develop players for short-term success, not for long-term gains. We were on the same page the whole way. And you’ll notice, you didn’t hear a word from the Boras camp that it was going too slow, or too fast, or any of that arbitration stuff that was going around, that we weren’t bringing him to the big leagues because of that. Which was not true, because if that was the only qualification, we could have done it three weeks earlier.
BG: Was that a qualification, or a consideration, at all?
Mike Rizzo: No. It was not. Because obviously, it was expedited with Drew Storen, bringing him up. If that was our primary concern, Drew Storen would’ve come up when the calendar said it was safe to bring him up. We had a need at the time (in mid-May), and Storen was the best guy. He earned it, and he earned it by signing quickly, and getting out, and getting a half a season more minor league baseball under his belt. He was ready to go, and he was mentally, physically and emotionally prepared.
BG: So with Strasburg, arbitration was not a consideration, either?
Mike Rizzo: Nope, no.
BG: How hard is it to stick to the plan when he pitches as well as he did?
Mike Rizzo: It’s not difficult for me at all. It was not. I see long term. I don’t see anything in a short-term focus. My scope is long and wide. We discussed it before Stephen’s first start: He has a perfect game, and his limits are up, he’s out of the game. Those were the only walking instructions that the staff had, and we would’ve probably taken a little beating for that. But again, I’ll take all the pressure and all the hits when he was in the minor leagues because I know when I look in the mirror, I’ve done the right thing by the organization and by the kid.
BG: Before each start, how much communication was there to update people on the plan?
Mike Rizzo: The inner circle was updated on the pitch limits, and the preparations for it. I did give my longer-term plan to ownership, and to presidents, and of course, the major league and the Triple-A staffs knew about what the plan was, because they needed to be involved. Those guys are guys I’d like to really identify. (Double-A Harrisburg manager) Randy Knorr first, and (Harrisburg pitching coach) Randy Tomlin, and then (Triple-A Syracuse manager) Trent (Jewett) and (Syracuse pitching coach Greg) Booker. This is an organization success story because regardless of what anyone else says and they think they saw, this player needed to pitch in the minor leagues for the amount of time he was there. He was unfamiliar with the rotation of pitching every five days. He learned about fielding his position. He learned about controlling the running game. He learned about handling the bat and swinging the bat and defending himself at the plate. He also learned the nuances of how to achieve his maximum stuff from the stretch. He learned how to read bats and determine swings, and I think you saw that distinctly in play during his first game. He gave up a home run on a changeup, and then he determined after that pitch, they were not getting around on his fastball. He went almost strictly with power stuff after that. I can’t overestimate and overstate the need for a player like this to pitch in the minor leagues.
BG: How far ahead of time did you have June 8 in your mind for when he was going to come up?
Mike Rizzo: I had a couple of different windows in mind. A short start here, and a rainout here, and pushing him back here always affected it. But it was one of the several windows we had. And this was all based on best-case scenario, where he gets his work done and gets to the level I wanted him to be before he set foot here.
BG: Did he respond to it in the best-case scenario, in terms of how fast you wanted him to go?
Mike Rizzo: He exceeded all my mileposts, and it was really one of the reasons I felt good about setting a date in advance. Even if he had gotten rained out of that last minor league start, in which the weather was iffy, I felt that was just his tuneup to get him stretched out to a number of pitches to pitch here. It was never based on his performance, on his ERA or his strikeout totals or anything like that. It was about how he was commanding his fastball, how does his secondary stuff play and that type of stuff. It really had nothing to do with his won-loss record, his ERA or any of his statistics.
BG: So was this on the earlier side of your windows?
Mike Rizzo: I think it’s probably safe to assume it was on the early side of my windows, yeah.
BG: What did Stephen have to say about the plan, or what has he said about it since he’s been up here? Anything?
Mike Rizzo: Stephen was informed of what we were going to do in generalities, not in specifics. We informed him out of spring training he was going to go to Double-A. We got him to Double-A in spring training with enough time left to get to know his teammates and his pitching coach, that type of thing. But there were never any specifics told to him, like, ‘You’re going to pitch three times in Double-A, and move to Triple-A for three starts.’ All he knew was, when we were prepared to move him to Triple-A, you’re going to pitch on this date, and every five days thereafter. And he was alerted before his last Triple-A start that this was probably going to be his last Triple-A start.
BG: Has he given you any feedback about how he felt about it?
Mike Rizzo: We’ve never really discussed the plan or anything like that. I often ask him how he feels, and that type of thing. We discuss that. But my job as a GM is to do my job and plan out, and his job is to perform and follow the plan. The good thing is, I know he believed in the plan and had confidence in how I’m going to develop him. I get that feedback from his agent. That’s a good thing. I’ve had cases where they don’t agree with the protocol and the time frame. It doesn’t change what I do, it just makes it a little more difficult.
BG: What experts did you talk to when you were putting this all together?
Mike Rizzo: Just people that I trust as pitching guys, and guys who have developed pitchers. It wasn’t formal. It was maybe sitting, talking to a Bobby Cox or a Dave Duncan, when we’re there and the topic of Stephen always comes up - Getting their input, getting their ideas and kind of putting all that information into my style of development, and we came up with the plan.
BG: Obviously, those two guys have developed some pretty high-end pitchers.
Mike Rizzo: Yeah, I went to pretty good sources.