What lies ahead for Stephen Strasburg

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One of the most enjoyable parts of working at MASNsports.com is the interaction with our readers and regular viewers of our broadcasts. Whether we’re debating something on the MASN Nationals Facebook page, checking comments on this blog or engaging in some friendly back-and-forth on Twitter (@masnNationals and @kerzelpete), the opportunity to exchange thoughts and ideas with the fine citizens of NatsTown is fun - and occasionally offers fodder for a post. That’s the case today, where a comment from astute reader jb_fastpitch got me thinking about Stephen Strasburg, what kind of innings limit he’ll have in 2012, whether contention would complicate that limit and how the Nationals will most effectively piggyback another pitcher (or pitchers) behind the right-hander when he starts.

First, the facts: Strasburg will have an innings limit, probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 170 innings, in the coming season. General manager Mike Rizzo said in September that he’d already settled on a general number of innings Strasburg would pitch in 2012, pending further talks with the coaching and medical staffs, but that seems to be a logical ballpark figure. That guess is based on the fact that Jordan Zimmermann, coming off Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery performed in August 2009, worked 161 1/3 innings in 2011 after totaling 70 1/3 between 10 minor league rehab starts and seven major league starts in 2010.

Strasburg was 1-1 with a 1.50 ERA in five major league starts last season after going 1-1 with a 3.54 ERA in six minor league rehab starts spread over four levels, just as Zimmermann had done the previous summer. And while comparing Zimmermann and Strasburg may be the proverbial apples-to-oranges discussion, there’s plenty to be gleaned by the conservative approach taken by the Nationals in terms or protecting the investments made in their talented right arms.

I think Strasburg gets a little more leeway simply because he can be a more dominant pitcher. While he gets his strikeouts - 116 in 92 innings in his brief major league career - Strasburg also has the penchant for some incredibly pitch-efficient innings, the product of aggressive hitters wanting to take a whack at whatever he’s throwing early in the count rather than later in the count, when the balance often tilts to a talented pitcher with a wide arsenal of weapons at his disposal. Strasburg isn’t as punchout-focused as a lot of people think; he’s perfectly happy to let his fielders do some of the heavy lifting behind him and understands that fewer pitches usually means he gets to work deeper into a game.

But in his 17 career starts, he’s never worked more than seven innings, which he’s done twice: in his scintillating, 14-strikeout debut on June 8, 2010 against the Pirates and two starts later, on June 18 when he got a no-decision in a 2-1 loss to the White Sox. Nine times, he’s failed to make it to the sixth inning - in 2010 because the Nationals were taking a cautious approach in his first major league action and last season because he was coming off Tommy John. Either way, there’s a good chance the Nationals will need to come up with a plan of attack to both maximize however many innings he pitches in 2012 and cover those innings after he exits the game.

jb_fastpitch suggests working Strasburg no more than three innings and then piggybacking lefty John Lannan in as a spaceholder for three or so innings to get the Nats to the back of their powerful bullpen. The left-hander following a righty might create some match-ups in Washington’s favor. I don’t think Strasburg would be happy with an arrangement that doesn’t give him a chance for a victory - remember, he needs to work five innings for the W - there could be some merit to putting a soft-tosser or finesse pitcher behind him on a regular basis. Imagine opposing batters unable to catch up to Strasburg’s heat suddenly trying to cope with a guy who tops out at a significantly lower mph rate. I don’t think Lannan is that guy - he’s never pitched in relief and pitchers, especially starters, are often creatures of habit who can’t just adjust roles for convenience’s sake. But maybe there’s something to the notion of a finesse pitcher following Strasburg before turning the game over to power arms like Henry Rodriguez, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen. It probably can’t be the same guy every time - best-laid plans aside, it would be hard for manager Davey Johnson to designate one guy in the bullpen to piggyback Strasburg every time out - but the possibilities are interesting.

Equally intriguing is how the Nationals will maximize their use of Strasburg, particularly if they can stay in contention. It’s difficult to imagine the Nats willingly sitting Strasburg during a September pennant race, but that’s just what will happen if they hold firm on their innings limit plan. They might be able to stretch another start or two out of him by skipping him once or twice, or starting him in the fifth game after the All-Star break, for example. Or they might not let him pitch any more than five or six innings in game, regardless of how many pitches he’s thrown. The presence of a healthy Zimmermann, the arrival of Gio Gonzalez and a resurgent Chien-Ming Wang could provide a nice cushion, lessening the burden on the bullpen and giving Johnson some leeway with Strasburg. But they’ll have to be creative without taking unnecessary risks.

One thing you won’t see is Strasburg pitching deep into September - or, if things break just right, in the playoffs. Rizzo and Johnson want to win, but they’re big-picture guys and realize that the promise of another dominating decade or so from Strasburg is much more enticing than the immediate gratification of seeing him in a pennant drive or the postseason now. Get used to the conservative approach - it’s going to be as much a part of Strasburg’s 2012 as fastballs approaching triple digits, confounding changeups and unhittable slurves.

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