Over the last week or so, the talk about Stephen Strasburg's innings limit has been talked about ad nauseum. The newest tidbit states that Nationals GM Mike Rizzo has vowed that he *won't* continue to let Strasburg throw once his innings limit is reached, playoffs be damned. The limit has also revealed at 180 innings, more than the 160 innings that were rumored before the season. Of course, people are going ballistic about Rizzo's decision, claiming that the Nationals need to go all-in on a playoff run this season, and that flags fly forever and all that.
Rizzo is taking a lesson from the Cubs blowing out Mark Prior and Kerry Wood during their 2003 playoff run, sabotaging Prior's career for good (though he's still attempting a comeback as a reliever at age 31 with Boston, god love him) and turning Wood into a reliever that retired before his 35th birthday. The cases of Wood and Prior are huge warning signs for overuse of any young starter, But for the record…none of the injuries suffered by Prior involved Tommy John surgery, which is what Strasburg is recovering from. The only severe elbow injury suffered by Prior is a fractured elbow when he was hit by a line drive. His main issues came in the shoulder, a much more serious injury that the torn UCL that Tommy John fixes. The same goes for Wood, who had Tommy John surgery in 1999 (and for the record, didn't throw 200 innings in a season until 2002) and after that, didn't have an issue with his elbow until 2007.
But anyway. I'm not here to compare Strasburg to Prior or Wood and whine about his pitch count. I'm here to look at just why the Nationals could end up being just fine without Strasburg in the playoffs once his limit is reached.
With Strasburg in the fold, Washington's starting rotation has a 3.22 ERA, 3.40 FIP, and a 2.96 strikeout to walk ratio in 702 1/3 innings. Strasburg has contributed to those numbers with a 2.90 ERA, 2.72 FIP, and a 4.37 strikeout to walk ratio in 133 1/3 innings. Those are extremely impressive numbers without a doubt, and the Nationals are definitely a better team when Strasburg is starting every fifth day. But if you remove Strasburg from the rotation and look at the stats of Washington's rotation…you won't notice much of a difference. The team has a 3.29 ERA, 3.57 FIP, and a 2.65 strikeout to walk ratio. With Strasburg, those three stats rank first, first, and seventh in the National League. Without Strasburg, their rotation ERA is *still* first, their FIP slides to third behind the Cardinals and Dodgers, and their strikeout to walk ratio clocks in at 12th.
Essentially, removing Strasburg from the rotation turns Washington from having THE best rotation in the majors to *one of* the best rotations in the majors. Considering that these stats also include six starts worth of stats from Chien Ming Wang (who hasn't pitched since June, and has been pulled from rehab with hip soreness) and John Lannan (who has spent the year in AAA, but has made two spot starts and will likely be Strasburg's regular season rotation, if necessary), the Nationals "top four" non-Strasburg starters are still pretty damn good. Gio Gonzalez has had a four win year, and Jordan Zimmermann has had a three win year behind Strasburg, which absolutely helps the rotation's depth.
Having a rotation of Strasburg, Gonzalez, and Zimmermann in a five game series would be deadly for any team facing the Nationals, but replacing Strasburg with Edwin Jackson would still create a fearsome trio that could destroy a team in a short series. Even during a seven game series, Ross Detwiler in the fourth spot isn't exactly a drain on the team due to Detwiler's impressive year.
Without Strasburg, the Nationals go from an elite team to merely an excellent team. With a 4.5 game lead in the NL East and a 7.5 game lead in the overall playoff race, the Nationals could probably get away with skipping a start or two from Strasburg once rosters expand in September to keep him under his innings limit heading into the playoffs. Even if the Nationals don't limit his innings and go into the playoffs without their ace, it's not the end of the world by any means for Washington.
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