Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

Ewing theory and the Strasburg Shutdown


How much will Strasburg's shutdown really affect the team? Photo

Here we are, September 1st, and every single columnist and blogger who covers baseball has, by law, added their 2 cents to the Stephen Strasburg shutdown debate. And as the imminent shutdown date approaches (I had predicted 9/12 being his last start either in a post or the comments section, and that date still seems to hold; 9/12 gives him 3 more starts, which seems to match what we’ve been hearing lately out of Davey Johnson and the front office), I’m honestly not looking forward to the coming blitz of additional opinions from the blogosphere talking about what idiots the Nationals are, blah blah.

My succinct opinion on the shutdown can be expressed in this metaphor; if you had open heart surgery, and your cardiologist says to you, “take it easy next season and only pitch 160 innings,” wouldn’t you follow his advice?   Both the doctor who performed Strasburg’s surgery (Lewis Yocum) and the famed James Andrews (together essentially the two leading experts on the injury and the surgery) have come out in support of the National’s conservative plan.  To every other pundit out there who says something like, “there’s no proof that shutting him down will protect him in the long run,” I’ll say this: I trust the guy with the M.D. behind his name over the internet dork sitting in his mom’s basement who thinks he knows better.

Even my wife has added her 2 cents; while watching Saturday’s game (a pretty amazing back and forth offensive outburst ending with St. Louis scraping a run against Drew Storen to take it 10-9), one of the telecasters added his opinion on the matter and my wife asked me why the Nats didn’t just “let him pitch less” earlier on in the season.  A common theme for Strasburg shutdown critics; to which I say this: if you think the whole shutdown thing isn’t playing will with the Veterans in the Nationals clubhouse, exactly how do you think it would have played out if the entire pitching rotation was manipulated all season on account of one guy?  Baseball is a team game; you have 25 guys out there who contribute to each win, and I’m pretty sure the veterans on this team wouldn’t have taken well to having their routines thrown off in an effort to squeeze 5 more starts out of a 24 yr old (no matter how promising he may be).

But I digress slightly from the point of this post.  I’m of the opinion that we may see an interesting phenomenon occur when Strasburg gets shutdown for the season.  We may see a theory that Bill Simmons has come to popularize called “The Ewing Theory.”  In essence, the theory says that teams with stars who receive an inordinate amount of media attention often perform better once that star has either left the team or gone down with injury.  Teams rally around each other after their star player either leaves or goes down with injury partly because of the “relief” they get from media questions, partly to show that they can win without the big name, and partly (in some cases) because the star player was “holding the team back” by virtue of his presence (this happens more in sports like Basketball, where one player can really command an entire team’s attention; less so in Football or Baseball).  It is named after Patrick Ewing because his 1998-99 New York Knicks ended up in the finals despite Ewing going down with injury.  The phenomena has repeated itself in a number of notable ways over the years; off the top of my head these situations fit the theory:

  • UVA basketball went as far in the NCAA tournament without Ralph Sampson in 1984 than they ever did with him.
  • The NY Giants won the super bowl the year AFTER Tiki Barber retired.
  • The Seattle Mariners won 116 games the year after Alex Rodriguez left as a free agent.
  • The Tennessee Volunteers won the National title the year AFTER Peyton Manning graduated.

I think this team may exhibit a bit of inadvertent Ewing Theory once Strasburg sits.  You have to think the players are tired of being asked about it; who’s to say they won’t just keep on rolling and play even better once Strasburg gets shutdown and the issue is done?  Plus, here’s some corroborating evidence that may help out;

1. After September 12th, the Nats will only miss three Strasburg starts.  The difference between Strasburg starting those three games and John Lannan is likely to be nearly negligible.  Strasburg’s Wins above Replacement (bWAR) figure for the season is 2.6 right now through 26 starts.  That’s .1 WAR per start that Strasburg gives the team over a replacement player.  And Lannan isn’t exactly a replacement-level pitcher; he owns a sub 4.00 ERA and a 103 ERA+ for his career.  Lannan’s WAR for his two spot starts this year?  Exactly .2, or the same .1 WAR contributed per game as Strasburg.

2. Lannan is the quintessential guy pitching for a contract, and in all likelihood will use these three spot starts to showcase himself for his eventual new team in 2013.  It isn’t that Lannan isn’t a good pitcher, its just that he isn’t the type of guy Mike Rizzo likes to have in his rotation (i.e., power arms with high k/9 rates).   So I’d bet dollars to donuts that Lannan pitches three quality games in mid-to-late September, then gets left off the post-season roster and eventually gets non-tendered at the arbitration offer deadline.

3. Of the 6 series that the Nats play between September 12th and the end of the season, at least 3 will be against teams with no playoff implications (home-and-home versus Philadelphia plus a 4-game home series against Milwaukee).  The Nats are also at St. Louis in the second to last series, by which time the Cardinals may very well be completely out of the Wild Card race.  If the end of 2011 showed us anything, its that teams out of playoff contention in September have a tendency to play really, really weak lineups of prospects and September 1 call-ups.  Look at some of the lineups that the Nats faced in September of last year (especially some of the New York line-ups): they were literally two regulars and 7 AAA guys.  There’s no reason to think that the Nats won’t improve on the .655 winning percentage they’ve had for the last two months despite not having Strasburg in the rotation.

But, the critic may say, wouldn’t you rather have Strasburg pitching Game 1 of your divisional series?  Well, yes of course.  In arguably putting out a playoff rotation of Strasburg-Gonzalez-Zimmermann-Jackson is better than Gonzalez-Zimmermann-Jackson-Detwiler.  But, our playoff rotation is still pretty darn good.  Using the probable playoff teams as of this writing, here’s how our playoff rotation would rank with other NL playoff teams (the ranking is league rank in ERA)

  • Washington: Gonzalez (12), Zimmermann (8), Jackson (17), Detwiler (13).  Strasburg, btw, is 10th.
  • Cincinnati: Cueto (1), Latos (27), Arroyo (29), Bailey (37).  Leake, their #5 starter, is 43rd.
  • San Francisco: Cain (4), Vogelsong (9), Bumgarner (11), Zito (42).  Except there’s no way they’d go with Zito in a playoff series, so you’d be seeing Lincecum, amazingly ranked 50th of 51 qualifying NL starters in ERA this year.
  • Atlanta: Maholm (14), Hudson (25), Minor (46).  Their likely 4th starter would be Medlen, who in 6 starts has a 1.71ERA.
  • St. Louis: Lohse (3), Wainwright (32), Westbrook (33).  Their likely 4th starter would be Garcia over Lynn, but Garcia’s era would rank him 45th or so if he qualified.

San Francisco’s rotation looks pretty tough.  Until you remember that the Nats swept them at home and just beat them 2 of 3 on the road for a 5-1 season split.  In fact, of probable playoff teams here’s the Nats current season records:

  • Cincinnati: 5-2.  We beat them 3 of 4 in April, then took 2 of 3 in Cincinnati in May.
  • San Francisco: 5-1.  Swept at home, took 2 of 3 on the road.
  • Atlanta: 10-5 at current, with 3 critical games in Atlanta in mid September.
  • St. Louis: 3-1 in the series just concluded, with a 3 game set in St. Louis in late September.

Wow.  I didn’t even realize just how well the Nats have played against the league’s best until I looked it up.  This has to give any Nats fan some serious confidence heading into a playoff series, no matter who we may end up playing.

Here’s hoping the Strasburg shutdown doesn’t affect the team as much as pundits seem to believe.

15 Responses to 'Ewing theory and the Strasburg Shutdown'

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  1. Great article!!!

    Brandon Davis

    4 Sep 12 at 11:02 am

  2. I like it! It’s difficult to imagine them actually playing better than they already are, but I like the theory!

    My feeling is that the “Strasburg Shutdown!” story is vastly overplayed and largely the result of our 24-hour sports news cycle. Stras only plays in 20% of games. As a starting pitcher, let’s suppose that he is 50% responsible (a wholly made up number) for the outcomes of the games in which he plays, and the rest of the lineup is responsible for the other 50%. For practical purposes then, the Nationals owe at least 90% of their success to players who aren’t named Stephen Strasburg, and so the idea that the team will collapse without him is utterly absurd. He isn’t even a club house presence as far as I can tell, so all the team is really losing are his starts. In fact, Strasburg’s shutdown helps the Nats avoid the difficult decision of whether Jackson (the only starter with playoff experience, I believe) or Detwiler (who’s pitching amazingly right now) gets left out of the postseason rotation. I’m not convinced the Nats will be better without Strasburg, but I don’t believe they’ll be worse.


    4 Sep 12 at 11:55 am

  3. Largely concur. Three supplemental points:

    (1) The problem with the “holding Strasburg back/juggling the rotation” scenarios is that going with those likely means the team isn’t in first place by 6.5 games in September (less Strasburg = more John Lannan and – ugh – Chien-Ming Wang). And because of the one-and-done WC format, the Nats chances in the playoffs are better in this scenario [win NL East, no Strasburg in playoffs] than in the alternate scenario [wild card team, with Strasburg in playoffs].

    (2) Those scenarios also run the risk of the team leaving Strasburg innings on the table (due to minor injury, etc). This not only affects this season, but if Strasburg had only gotten in 135 IP or so, it might well have affected his innings limit next year.

    (3) Although betting “dollars to donuts” ain’t what it used to be (donuts now cost about a buck), I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Medlen is the #1 starter for the Braves in the playoffs, not the #4 starter. Hudson is the ONLY possible alternative. IMHO.

    John C.

    4 Sep 12 at 12:18 pm

  4. One thing I forgot to put into the article but which I looked up; Strasburg is generally dominant but has had several “meltdown” outings this year (i define meltdown as a pitcher who gives up as many or more runs as IP). I think he’s had 4 or 5 out of 26 starts. So that’s a 20% chance that the best pitcher in baseball gets blown out in a singular game. The point is; no pitcher is dominant 100% of the time. Last year Ian Kennedy was awesome all year and got obliterated in the playoffs.

    Your 50%/20% argument reminds me of some research I did last year when Verlander won the MVP. The argument against SPs winning MVP is that they’re only relevant in 20% of a team’s games, while a batter plays in nearly 100% of games. But when you look at things differently, starters line up pretty well. Strasburg has pitched 27 games and faced 635 batters. Meanwhile, lets take Danny Espinosa as an example fielder (NOT that I think he’s MVP worthy, just that he’s basically played in every nats game). Espinosa has 556 plate appearances so far. But he’s also had 594 chances in the field. So that’s 1150 “at bats” on the year in which Espinosa has contributed to the game outcome, nearly twice what Strasburg has done. Now, a MI gets far more chances than an outfielder (by way of comparison, Harper has had 266 chances in 111 games, extrapolating out to about 320 chances had he played a full season in the OF, but that still adds up (with his PAs) to far more at bats affected than a starting pitcher.

    That was kind of off-topic, but I thought interesting nonetheless. For that reason i’d NEVER vote a starting pitcher MVP.

    The Nats would have faced a HUGE issue with #4 playoff starter, you’re right. Jackson is the worst of the starters by most measures conventional and sabremetric, but is also highest paid, longest serving veteran and only playoff presence. That’d be an incredibly tough decision. It also leads to a very interesting off-season question; do you re-sign Jackson? He’ll likely want something like a 3yr/$36M or 4yr/$50M contract; do you pay that much money for a back of the rotation starter? If not, do we try to fill from within? If so who? We don’t have hardly anyone in the minors looking ready to step in as a 5th starter. Do we dump Jackson’s $10M 2011 payroll and go after Zack Greinke, incrementally increasing payroll?

    Todd Boss

    4 Sep 12 at 1:56 pm

  5. Agree on “hindsight is 20/20” aspect of manipulating Strasburg’s starts and wondering if we’d be in 1st place. Baseball players are creatures of habit, and if you mess with their preparation, they’re not as effective.

    I’m doubting Strasburg has an innings limit next year regardless; the “Verducci effect” of increasing pitcher workloads by less than 20% year to year may be in play but I can’t see the team manipulating his innings again. 20% of 160 = 192 or so. Zimmermann this year will be an interesting test case; he’s at 164 now, probably has 5 more starts and probably easily gets to 195 before the playoffs. I don’t think they’re shutting HIM down too, so maybe we don’t have to worry. But you’re right; if he only threw 130 IP this year he’d be getting shutdown again in 2013.

    One thing I don’t think is said very often is this; I’m wondering if the Nats weren’t banking on a mid-season DL trip to manage his IP for the team. If he had strained an oblique or something and then missed 3 weeks, that’s 4 starts and that nearly takes you to the end of the season. Of course, you’d have to count his re-hab IP in the season total, but it seems possible.

    Oh, on the other teams, I just ran through the pitchers in order of ERA instead of trying to figure out a likely playoff rotation order. You’re right; the Braves probably burn Medlen in the WC game, which is great for the Nats since they’ll be missing him. Though. …. Freddy Gonzalez is pretty old-school; wouldn’t be surprised to see Hudson in a win-or-go-home game b/c of his veteran experience.

    Todd Boss

    4 Sep 12 at 2:02 pm

  6. I don’t think there’s anything novel about this opinion, but I would definitely like to see the Nats re-sign Jackson this offseason. He may be the “least” of their starting five statistically, but he’s been everything the Nats hoped he’d be, if not more. He’s a consistent innings-eater who’s capable of an occasional bullpen-saving complete game, he’s a popular clubhouse presence, and he’s a team player. Maybe a lot of guys would have done the same, but I really admired his willingness to pitch on short rest in that extra-innings game a while back, after Davey had used almost the entire bullpen. Numerous of his teammates have singled him out by name as a guy they’d like to come back next year, most recently Jordan Z’mann. And maybe that makes for a crowded rotation with no room for advancement from the minors, but you cannot rely on the kind of injury-free season the Nats had this year. If Stras or Z’Mann goes down next year, they’ll need a guy like Edwin Jackson. Based on his team-first attitude alone, I’d sign Jackson over Zach Greinke, and I’d use the millions I saved to add a bat.


    4 Sep 12 at 3:46 pm

  7. Good points, all. No question. From a player development perspective, I think the starters in our farm system could use another year anyway; there’s not one name that I can think of who is really ready to step in and compete for #5 starter. A short list of our upper-end starter prospects all reveals either guys who need more seasoning (Meyer, Karns, Pineyro, Mooneyham, Ray, Monar, Schwartz), guys coming off injury (Giolito, Purke, Solis, Jordan) or guys who just don’t seem to have enough to make the jump (Rosenbaum, Demny). The one guy who does interest me is Perry, though I find his inexplicable decline as a reliever at such a young age troubling. Either way, the Nats need either Jackson or his replacement on the FA/trade market. We have nobody like Zimmermann, who cleaned up in AA in 2008 and was starting in the majors the next year.

    I wonder how much salaries play into things. Gonzalez signs a longer term deal that pays him less than jackson’s one year deal, and he completely outpitches him. How would it play on the team if Jackson signs a big contract and is the biggest paycheck on the team? I read an interesting story once about Mike Mussina doing his own contract negotiations; he went into Cashman’s office, looked at the offer and said one sentence; “You can’t pay me less than X.” Where X was a notoriously bad Yankee Signing. I believe it was Carl Pavano in 2007 (that’s when he negotiated his last salary). And Cashman basically said, “you’re right” and offered him a deal paying slightly more. Of course, I’ve read that Mussina was kind of known for being a (word that rhymes with “Rick”) in the clubhouse, so maybe that’s the exception, not the norm.

    One way I think this team may move money around this off-season: decline Laroche option, move Morse to 1B, install Moore as the starting LF. Moore’s numbers project to almost exactly the homer and RBI production as LaRoche if he had 535 atbats instead of 145. Then that clears LaRoche’s salary to go towards either re-signing Jackson or towards his replacment.

    Todd Boss

    4 Sep 12 at 4:07 pm

  8. Great post and comments, thanks to all.

    I think for a good perspective on the entire timeline you have to refer to Werth’s comment this weekend: while Thom Loverro brought this up WAY earlier in the season than most, the Nats have been thinking about this from a very practical perspective LAST YEAR. And that actually isn’t event true, they were thinking about this probably two days after he blew his UCL. They knew exactly what his timeline would be from the most favorable timeline. They knew how many innings they wanted to get him last year. They knew two years ago how many innings he could pitch THIS year. They have the “big picture” in mind with his innings increases from all seasons.

    The 160’ish innings is based on the injury, innings thrown in the past, his natural progression, and all other factors. National talking heads who chime in solely with “this could be the only year” don’t see the big picture that the franchise is looking at. They see a huge investment (though in comparison to Werth it is paltry, but the upside is totally different). And I think they are also banking on some goodwill in the future where they can say to Strasburg/Boras “Who loves ya’ baby?” because they’ve always had his back and best long-term interests at heart.

    Hell, if you’re being callous they should have thrown him 230 innings this year, hoped his arm fell off before his contract was up and could lock him up in a team favorable deal. But no, they have his career in mind.

    Also lost on most national media: we’re a year ahead of where we thought we would be, we’re going to be really good next year, and we’re all just damn lucky to be having a “how will this impact our World Series chances??!?!?!” at all.

    I’m fully behind the team, in all capacities. I endorse the decisions (I know Rizzo will rest easy at night knowing this) they have made about this year and the future.

    @Todd, I’m hoping you’ll do a year end post on the Nats arms, as well as minor league arms.


    4 Sep 12 at 5:30 pm

  9. PS Todd: If there are any WordPress add ins to allow subscribing to the comments of a specific post I’d love to see that. I click through on the RSS feed to read posts, but after I comment I’d love to get a reminder that someone might have bothered to respond to my drivel 😉


    4 Sep 12 at 5:32 pm

  10. hey Chris; i know you asked me for this before and I totally forgot to do it. I just installed the plugin; if you reload you should now see the “Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to ‘Ewing theory and the Strasburg Shutdown'” at the very bottom of the article but before the comments. Sorry it took me so long.

    Todd Boss

    4 Sep 12 at 5:46 pm

  11. Every time I come across a chat or an article that questions the Nats, i pose my “cardiologist” example. Havn’t had anyone counter it yet. It just gets annoying after a while. In today’s espn baseball chat with Shoenfield he repeated his questioning oft he decision over and over. I guess he has his mind made up.

    Ironically, your extreme (throw him 230 innings) example is almost exactly what the Cardinals are doing with Wainwright. So why are we cautious and they are not? Probably exactly for what you said; the Cards know they have limited time with Wainwright, he’s a FA in a year, so you push him and get all the production you can. The nats know they have Strasburg for at least another 4-5 years, so you protect your investment.

    Absolutely planning a big blow out review of the minor league arms … kind of like I did last year. Do need to be somewhat productive this week at work though :-)

    Todd Boss

    4 Sep 12 at 5:50 pm

  12. I think you’re right about LaRoche, Todd. He’s been great this year, and I hate to see him go, but there’s just not room for him, Morse, Moore, and Lombo. But I actually think he might decline the option next year instead of the Nats doing it (a mutual option, I believe) because he stands to make more money for more years as a free agent than he’d make under his option year with the Nats. But you prioritize it right: extend Jackson, thank LaRoche and bid him adieu. As far as Jackson’s hypothetical extension, I’d offer him more years at less dollars per year than he’s making now. I’d love to have him, but I doubt we’ll be the highest bidder for his services.


    5 Sep 12 at 9:40 am

  13. Totally agree on LaRoche; If I was LaRoche and I was coming of a 32 homer, 106 rbi season (his current projections ROS) where i had an OPS of .836, there’s zero chance i take a one-year option and I hit the FA market. He’s 32; this is probably his final shot at getting a big, multi-year contract and he has to test the market. He also has almost no FA competition on the FA market; shows that there’s really no other marquee 1B who isn’t either 35+ (Carlos Lee) or injury ridden (Lance Berkman) hitting the market, so he’d be the leading guy. So, it may not matter what the Nats want to do; the decision may be made for them.

    I say this to my philly fan friend all the time; constructing a baseball team is about making financial choices. No one, not even the Yankees, can put together a core 14-15 set of players (8 fielders, 5 starters, a closer and a DH if applicable) entirely of free agents. You NEED to develop players and depend on pre-arbitration or arbitration-controlled guys for a good chunk of your roster so that you can splurge on FA contracts or extensions for your key guys. So, if you think you can replace LaRoche’s production with a pre-arb guy, you have to do it. Because that $10M salary can basically buy you a bench, or buy you two relievers, or buy you a 5th starter on the FA market.

    Jackson’s not going to take anything AAV less than what he’s making now ($11M/year with $2M deferred). He’s another one that can look at this FA competition and say, “I’m one of the best options out here and I can hold out for a 4 year deal.” 4yrs $50M sounds right for him; that’s a slight raise AAV versus his $11M now and gets him the life-setting contract he seeks. He’s 29 right now; if he pitches through it he may have another shot at a similarly valued contract at age 33, if he stays healthy (which he has).

    I’m looking at the 2013 FA starter market and the list of guys who I think are more valued than Jackson is short. Greinke, Maholm (a one-season wonder?), Marcum (injury issues), McCarthy (injury issues). Peavy (he seems back, but he missed a ton of time). Haren maybe (injury issues). Tim Hudson (but he’s 37). Guys like Anibal Sanchez, Ryan Dempster, and Ervin Santana have shredded their FA value with crummy seasons. Did you know Carlos Zambrano is only 32?? He seems like he’s been pitching for-ever. There’s nobody out there who is as consistent, as young and as injury free as Jackson. I’d take advantage of that…

    Todd Boss

    5 Sep 12 at 10:37 am

  14. I’m hoping during the debates, both Obama and Romney get asked for their opinion on the Strasburg shutdown.


    5 Sep 12 at 10:40 am

  15. I’m guessing Romney the conservative candidate supports the shutdown plan.

    Todd Boss

    5 Sep 12 at 10:49 am

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