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The Nationals' Strasburg decision

4/14/2012

When Nationals GM Mike Rizzo speaks of possible innings limits for Stephen Strasburg, as he did over the phone Friday, you're reminded of your parents' use of the word "maybe."

As in, maybe they'll let you have the keys to the car. Or maybe not. By saying "maybe," they weren't boxed in by their own words, and there was nothing hard and definitive in place.

This is the situation with Strasburg's innings this year. Maybe he'll be shut down at about 160 innings, or maybe not. "It could be a few more innings, it could be a few less innings," Rizzo said. "A lot of things will go into it."

In the big picture, the Nationals are cognizant of the general innings guidelines for young pitchers, especially for someone like Strasburg, who is about 20 months removed from Tommy John surgery. Rizzo intends to protect Strasburg, as he protected Jordan Zimmermann at the end of last season, by holding him to 161 1/3 innings. "It'll probably be in that neighborhood," Rizzo said.

But you don't have to be a Las Vegas oddsmaker to see that any innings restrictions for Strasburg are on a collision course with the practical realities of the big-picture needs of the organization. The Nationals are off to a good start, with a good team, and already Strasburg appears to be one of the best pitchers in the majors, with four plus-plus pitches -- a four-seam fastball that approaches 100 mph, a two-seamer that veers sharply, a breaking ball that locks up hitters, and a changeup that might be the best in the sport.

The other day, Strasburg was throwing his changeup in the 88-90 mph, and to call it a Bugs Bunny changeup would be a disservice. Bugs' changeup was straight, albeit effective, as described in this legendary breakdown of his matchup against the Gas House Gorillas. Strasburg's changeup against the Mets the other day seemed to reach a stop sign and then take a right-hand turn. Ron Darling, who worked the game on SNY, laughed a couple of times at the pitches, and the reactions of the Mets' hitters to them.

"It had as good of a depth and movement that I've ever seen," said Rizzo.

Strasburg has thrown 105 innings in the majors, and opposing hitters have a .529 OPS against him, with a .249 on-base percentage. He's got 130 strikeouts while issuing 23 walks, your basic 6-to-1 strikeouts-to-walk ratio. Since returning to action last year, he hasn't allowed a home run in 37 innings, which tells you a lot about the quality of swings against him.

So what happens this summer if Strasburg has 110 innings by the All-Star break, and the Nationals have a chance to win their first division title since moving to Washington? What happens if they have a chance to break through in their market?

It's not as if every pitcher who soared beyond the artificial innings guidelines has fallen apart. In 2005, the 22-year-old Justin Verlander threw 130 innings in his first year in pro ball. The next season, his innings total soared to 207, as the Tigers won their division and played into the World Series. Verlander has survived, and thrived; he's currently the best pitcher on the planet.

Cole Hamels' innings count soared from about 190 to 260 from 2007 to 2008, and he was a Cy Young candidate in 2011 and is about to get one of the richest paydays in history, either from the Phillies or as a free agent in the fall.

Strasburg doesn't say a lot, like Roy Halladay, and like Halladay, he's incredibly competitive. "He walks around like a choir boy, but he's ornery," Rizzo said.

If the Nationals have a chance to win this year, Strasburg will want to pitch; he always wants to pitch. Rizzo knows this. He is well-aware, too, that there will be a lot of pressure from a lot of corners to allow Strasburg to go beyond 160 innings.

So Rizzo answers questions about it the way your parents used "maybe."

"We're not going to reinvent the wheel on this," he said. "We're not going to be fancy. We're going to work him on a regular routine, and if we have a chance to skip him, we could. There are no pitch limits in his games, no innings limits [in individual games].

"We're going to use our eyes to see how he feels."

I remember talking with Phillies manager Charlie Manuel about Hamels' innings in the spring after Philadelphia won the 2008 World Series, a year which represents a turning point for that organization. Their ballpark has been filled since then, their payroll has skyrocketed; the franchise has become one of baseball's superpowers.

He nodded about the concern over Hamels' innings, and answered the question this way: "You don't get too many chances to win."

Maybe it'll be 160 innings for Strasburg this year. Maybe not.

The Nationals have won four straight, including two straight walk-off wins, after Jayson Werth's single late Friday night.

The Nationals will activate Rick Ankiel today, as Adam Kilgore writes.

Notables

• It had been a good day for the Red Sox on Friday. The weather was beautiful, Fenway Park was full of good feelings as Johnny Pesky, Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield were honored, and Josh Beckett was pitching well, leading the team to its second win of the season.

But then Jacoby Ellsbury was hurt and everything changed. You cannot overstate the importance of Ellsbury to the Red Sox lineup, and as Gordon Edes writes, he has a dislocated right shoulder.

From ESPN Stats and Info: Ellsbury ranked second in wins above replacement last year in the American League, meaning that without him, the Red Sox would not even have flirted with the postseason (as opposed to suffering through that September collapse).

Most wins above replacement in American League last season:

Jose Bautista -- 8.5

Jacoby Ellsbury -- 7.2

Miguel Cabrera -- 7.1

Adrian Gonzalez -- 6.9

Dustin Pedroia -- 6.8

The injury looked painful, David Ortiz says, within this Scott Lauber story. It looks like Cody Ross could get a lot of playing time in center field. The Red Sox called up an outfielder, as Alex Speier writes.

Rarely has there been the same kind of urgency for a win, writes Dan Shaughnessy. We learned something about Beckett Friday, writes Bob Ryan.

• The Dodgers' bankruptcy reorganization was approved. MLB objected, and a fierce battle ensued.

Matt Cain was almost perfect, as John Shea writes. When he pitches that well, it takes you back to 2010, writes Tim Kawakami.

From ESPN Stats and Info, how Cain shut out the Pirates:

A) Cain worked his fastball in the middle of the zone and above (48 of 60 fastballs); the Pirates went 1-for-14 with four strikeouts in at-bats ending with a fastball.

B) The fastball success set up his off-speed pitches. The Pirates went 0-for-14 with seven strikeouts in at-bats ending with an off-speed pitch (seven with sliders, six with changeups, one curveball).

C) Of Cain's 11 strikeouts, eight were on pitches out of the zone. The Pirates swung and missed at 58 percent of Cain's pitches out of the zone, tied for third-highest for Cain since 2009.

• The Dodgers' Aaron Harang broke a 50-year-old record.

Alex Rodriguez tied Ken Griffey Jr. on the list of career homers, and he is now within 30 of Willie Mays.

By The Numbers, from ESPN Stats and Info:

9: Consecutive strikeouts by Harang vs. Padres

67: Runs scored by the Red Sox in home openers since 2005

96: Cain's Game Score; tied with Chris Capuano for highest since start of 2011

Dings and dents

1. Andrew Bailey is close to having his cast taken off, writes Tim Britton.

2. Lorenzo Cain was placed on the disabled list, as mentioned within this notebook.

3. Daniel Murphy will move to third if David Wright has to go on the disabled list, a decision that will come today.

4. Charlie Morton is getting the ball today, after being activated from the disabled list.

5. Jeremy Hellickson passed a concussion test and will get the ball today.

6. Chipper Jones is hurting, and he was scratched from Friday's lineup.

7. Jed Lowrie was back in business.

8. Justin Upton is bothered by a bad thumb.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. It seems like everybody is trying hard to say that Mark Reynolds is not being moved off third base, and yet he was the DH Friday and is taking grounders at first base.

2. Brandon Inge was activated, as Tom Gage writes.

3. The Indians have not confirmed the signing of Johnny Damon.

4. The Phillies signed Mike Fontenot.

5. It appears Tyson Ross will be the fifth starter for the Athletics.

6. Mike Cameron retired as a Mariner.

7. Jerry Dipoto says it's too early to fret about the Angels' bullpen.

Friday's games

1. The Orioles won a slugfest.

2. Jake Peavy shut down the Tigers and demonstrated his pit-bull mentality.

From ESPN Stats and Info, how Peavy beat the Tigers:

A) Tigers hitters were 1-for-15 with eight strikeouts in at-bats ending with a two-strike count, including 0-for-9 in the zone.

B) Peavy threw 45 fastballs out of 94 pitches (48 percent); the Tigers went 1-for-12 with four strikeouts in at-bats ending with a fastball.

C) The Tigers went 0-for-6 with four strikeouts in at-bats ending with a pitch up in the zone or above.

3. Hiroki Kuroda was The Man for the Yankees.

How Kuroda beat the Angels, from ESPN Stats and Info:

A) Angels hitters were 0-for-10 in at-bats ending with a pitch out of the middle of the zone up or down.

B) The Angels' five right-handed hitters went 2-for-14 with five strikeouts. Righties are 3-for-24 against Kuroda this season.

C) He held the Angels to 1-for-11 with two strikeouts in at-bats with runners on. The Angels left four on base.

From Elias: The Yankees have the best winning percentage in home openers in the league since 2000, going 12-1 during that span. The White Sox are in second at 11-2 and three teams (Orioles, Red Sox, Giants) tie for third at 10-3.

Kuroda earned the great feeling he had, writes Bob Klapisch.

4. Max Scherzer left his glove in Detroit and used a teammate's glove.

5. Luke Hochevar struggled early, and he got hurt. With a bad half-inning, the Royals drained a well of optimism, writes Sam Mellinger.

I'd respectfully disagree with that. A rival executive gave the prevailing view on the improving Royals over the phone Friday: "If they go in and take two of three from a team like the Angels or Yankees now, nobody is going to be surprised."

They're a better team than they have been.

6. Adam Wainwright's stuff was missing, but he made no excuses, writes Bryan Burwell.

The Cardinals lost, but Opening Day was still special.

7. The Indians broke out, big-time.

8. R.A. Dickey had a solid outing.

9. The Pirates were shut down again, as Karen Price writes. Pittsburgh has mustered 11 runs in seven games -- most of its games have been against frontline starters -- and the Pirates' pitching has allowed just 20 runs.

10. From ESPN Stats and Info, how Beckett beat the Rays:

A) Beckett threw 20 first-pitch strikes in 30 at-bats (67 percent). The Rays went 1-for-10 in at-bats ending with Beckett ahead in the count.

B) Beckett had success throwing to the glove side as the Rays went 0-for-7 in at-bats ending with a pitch to the glove side. Opponents are 0-for-12 against Beckett to the glove side this season.

C) The Rays had trouble moving runners along, going 1-for-10 with runners on base.

11. Bronson Arroyo was terrific, but the Reds lost in extra innings, as John Fay writes.

12. Randy Wolf had a bad inning, as Tom Haudricourt writes.

13. The Cubs' offense hoisted Jeff Samardzija.

14. It continues to be a rough year for Pennsylvania offenses.

15. David Price lasted three innings.

16. Gaby Sanchez got a big hit.

17. Brian McCann had a big day.

18. J.D. Martinez hit the first home run in his hometown park.

19. This week, a rival hitter described Matt Harrison's primary pitch as a "turbo-sinker." And now Harrison is 2-0. For a left-hander who throws a sinker, he couldn't be in a better place, with Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus playing on the left side of the Texas infield. It's a very small sample of statistics, but there are only two pitchers with a greater groundball/flyball ratio than Harrison so far this year.

20. The Diamondbacks played a sloppy game.

21. Oakland faced King Felix for the third time in eight games, and won, as Susan Slusser writes.

22. The Mariners were shut down.

23. The Padres had their guts ripped out.

24. The Angels were 2-5 after Ervin Santana's rough outing Friday.

Other stuff

• There is concern about the use of a painkiller in sports, including baseball, as the New York Times reports.

Yu Darvish wants to do better today.

Jhoulys Chacin has been studying video.

Jorge Posada threw a first pitch to his dad.

Colby Rasmus has found a comfort zone.

Nick Swisher thinks the Yankees can be a modern-day version of Murderers Row.

• Kenny Williams says he has compassion for Ozzie Guillen.

Joe Nathan was back in the Twin Cities.

• Davey Johnson remembers a conversation he had with ol' Satch.

• The planned protests at Marlins Park never materialized. Empty seats at the ballpark raise questions, writes Armando Salguero.

• The Braves paid tribute to Furman Bisher, as Carroll Rogers writes.

• Losing the 1962 World Series still hurts for those Giants.

• Bryan Stow's family had a moment, as Daniel Brown writes.

And today will be better than yesterday.