The Nationals' plan for Stephen Strasburg this season is both a complicated formula - based on the opinions of pitching coaches, doctors, executives and managers - and a living document. As far as the rehab process from Tommy John surgery has come, the ways pitchers return from the operation are still as varied as the hurlers themselves.
"Each one you do gives you a little better idea of how to handle the next one," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said.
For most of the season, the Nationals have used what Jordan Zimmermann went through last season as a rough model for how to bring Strasburg back. There have been enough parallels between the two pitchers - their youth, athleticism and the time of year of their operations (Zimmermann's surgery was Aug. 19, 2009; Strasburg's was Sept. 3, 2010) - for Zimmermann's rehab to inform Strasburg's. But even as useful as that parallel has been, the Nationals are finding they have to make a few alterations for Strasburg.
He will make his second start of the season on Sunday at Nationals Park, and after that, he will go to the extra day of rest Zimmermann got in most of his major league starts last fall. Strasburg will make his third start at home on Sept. 17 against the Marlins, and make another start on Sept. 23, also at home, against the Braves.
Johnson said the decision about when Strasburg would pitch had more to do with emulating Zimmermann's rest schedule, and nothing to do with making sure he pitched at home, though several team sources said last week the Nationals planned Strasburg's schedule out so he would get four starts at home this month.
After Strasburg makes his fourth start at Nationals Park, though, that's where things get tricky. The Nationals had planned for Strasburg to make only four starts in the majors, but he could pitch the final game of the season in Miami against the Marlins on Sept. 28 on regular rest. There's also a slight possibility Strasburg could go to the Florida Instructional League for some extra work once the season is over, though Johnson said that decision hasn't been made yet.
The Nationals' dilemma is this: They want to be careful with Strasburg this month, but the number of innings he throws this year will have some bearing on how many innings he can throw next year, Johnson said. Zimmermann threw 39 2/3 innings in the minors last year before adding another 31 in the majors. Adding that to simulated games he threw in Viera, Fla., he worked more than 80 innings last season, and came back to throw 161 1/3 innings this year.
But because Strasburg's surgery came a month later, he's only worked about 33 innings between simulated games, the minors and majors this year. He could add between 15 and 25 innings this month, but a lighter workload this year might set him up for fewer innings next season - which is why extra work in Florida after the season is a remote possibility.
It's an ongoing process, and every time Strasburg does something like he did on Tuesday, throwing five shutout innings in his first start back from surgery, the Nationals have to temper their enthusiasm.
"It's not about this year, days off or anything like that," Johnson said. "It's a much bigger calculation than that. We're looking further down the road."