Steven Strasburg and the Nats playoff defeat

In the wake of the Washington Nationals heartbreaking playoff series loss to St. Louis, John Feinstein takes to the pages of the Washington Post to write a bitter and unfair attack on the club’s management for shutting down ace pitcher Steven Strasburg before the playoffs. Feinstein believes that the Nationals, once they realized they would make the playoffs, should have “stretched out” Strasburg’s season so he could pitch in October without a workload that would risk injury to his newly-rehabilitated arm. I argued for the same approach two months ago.

So-so minds think alike.

But Feinstein goes further to suggest that shutting down Strasburg likely caused the Nationals to lose the series. He asks: “Do you honestly believe the Nationals would have wasted a 6-0 lead [in the deciding game] Friday night if Strasburg had been the starting pitcher?”

My answer is: quite possibly, but Strasburg wouldn’t have been the starting pitcher Friday night in any event.

Let’s start with the second part of my answer. Even if not shut down, Strasburg was never going to be the Game 5 starter. Any plausible “stretch out” approach would have precluded him from pitching Games 1 and 5. In all likelihood, Strasburg would have pitched Game 2 and only that game.

Moreover, it is not far fetched to think that Strasburg’s bottom line, had he pitched Game 5, would have resembled that of the actual starter, Gio Gonzalez – namely, 3 runs allowed in 5 innings pitched. In his final start, against a weak Miami team, Strasburg allowed 5 runs in 3 innings. Two starts before that, also against Miami, Strasburg allowed 9 runs (7 of them earned) in 5 innings.

Finally, in a July game that Strasburg started against Atlanta, the Nats led 9-0 but lost 11-10. Strasburg allowed 4 runs in 5.1 innings in that contest.

As noted, Strasburg likely would have pitched Game 2, not Games 1 and 5. The Nats scored 4 runs in Game 2. It’s probably about even money that with Strasburg on the mound the Nats would have won. Keep in mind that the Cardinals scored 12 runs in that game, in which Jordan Zimmerman, who is almost as good as Strasburg, started.

If they had won Game 2, the Nats would have been up 2 games to none. But they would have lost Game 3, in which they failed to score at all. And they probably would have lost Game 4, in which they scored only 2 runs, because their starter would almost surely been Edwin Jackson who was ineffective in the series. Only the absence of Strasburg caused the Nationals to turn to Ross Detwiler, who stopped St. Louis cold in Game 4.

So now, in the best plausible case scenario for Washington, the series would be tied 2 games a piece. And Game 5, with Gio Gonzalez on the mound as he was in the actual Game 5, probably (but not certainly, with the Nats bullpen in a different shape) would have played out along the same tragic lines we witnessed.

Feinstein tries to get around this scenario by castigating the Nats for signing Edwin Jackson in the first place. He posits a team that doesn’t include Jackson and that thus starts Detwiler in Game 4. and he wants to tie the signing of Jackson to the handling of Strasburg on the grounds that Strasburg and Jackson have the same agent, Scott Boras. Supposedly, Boras told the Nats to sign Jackson to absorb the innings Boras didn’t want Strasburg to pitch.

But it was reasonable for the Nats to sign Jackson regardless of who his agent is. Teams need five starters. Without Jackson, the Nats had Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmerman, Detwiler, and veteran John Lannan. But Detwiler was largely unproven and Strasburg was not going to work a full season’s load of innings in any scenario. Moreover, the Nats have a strong preference for power pitchers, a preference that has helped them produce one of the best pitching staffs in baseball. Jackson answers to the description of power pitcher; Lannan does not.

Moreover, the Cardinals series aside, Jackson turned out to be a good back-of-the-rotation pitcher. As Adam Kilgore and James Wagner, who cover the Nats for the Post, wrote today, “Jackson was a capable No. 4 starter with some of the best swing-and-miss stuff in the majors.” Yet Feinstein makes Jackson out to be a waste of roster space who was obtained to placate a powerful agent.

Feinstein apparently doesn’t like Scott Boras. But that’s no excuse for unfairly attacking both Jackson and Nats management.

By the end of his piece, Feinstein’s seems out of control. He compares the decision to shut down Strasburg to a hypothetical decision by the Washington Capitals to exclude their star Alexander Ovechkin from the playoffs “because his agent wanted to save his legs.” But Ovechkin never had to undergo the hockey equivalent of Tommy John surgery. No medical experts counseled the Caps to shut down Ovechkin. By contrast, plenty of medical advice apparently militated in favor of treating Strasburg as the Nats did.

I would have treated Strasburg differently. But disagreement should not give rise to distortion of reality.