But the concern for Strasburg goes beyond simple wear and tear on his arm. The young hurler had reconstructive elbow surgery — the “Tommy John” procedure — in 2010 and spent all of 2011 rehabbing the injury. He has come back strong this year, posting All-Star numbers, and is at or near the top of the league in several statistical categories.
In the case of Chris Sale, the White Sox have not decided to shut him down completely after a set number of innings. Rather, they plan on going to a six-man rotation, as opposed to the normal rotation of five pitchers, thus giving their star an extra day of rest, or even having the option of skipping a scheduled start and having him rest 10-12 days. Whether Sale can be effective after that much rest is unknown. The concept has never been given a try in the majors.
Sale has experienced elbow tenderness once already this year and is currently being given a rest for “dead arm” syndrome. This is common to all major league pitchers so it is not a cause of concern. But the White Sox believe the extra rest will allow Sale to be effective from now until the end of the season — whenever that may be. The Sox currently find themselves in first place in the American League Central Division and, like the Nats, are in serious contention for the playoffs.
But fans and sportswriters in Chicago are asking: Why limit the young man in any way? At age 23, his arm is strong and he has the advantage of youth on his side. As long as he’s effective and not pitching in any more pain than usual, why put the team’s prospects for the playoffs at risk by pitching someone inferior when it’s his turn to go?
There are some knowledgeable baseball people who think both Strasburg and Sale are at risk for serious injury because of their mechanics. Strasburg uses an extraordinary amount of torque on his throwing shoulder, placing severe strain on the elbow when he snaps off breaking balls. This is a recipe for frequent and lengthy trips to the disabled list. Sale’s problem is that his delivery is disjointed — all arms, elbows, and legs that by the time they untangle, the ball is by the hitter. This may be extremely deceptive, but not conducive to a lengthy career.
But mechanics can be corrected — to a point. The promise of both pitchers is so exciting that one can hardly blame the ballclubs for being extra careful. Of course, shutting down a brilliant pitcher in the midst of a playoff race wasn’t even considered in the days before $100 million contracts. No doubt some old-timers scoff at the notion. It wasn’t all that long ago that pitchers would hide injury from the manager out of fear that if he was gone any length of time, he wouldn’t have a job when he was ready to pitch again.
But the economics of the game have changed at all levels. Player salaries, ticket prices, the value of a Major League franchise — all have reached stratospheric levels. And these economic changes have affected the competitiveness of the game. If Strasburg’s value to the Nationals is greater down the road than the value he has to the team today, the future will preserved at all costs — and that includes a chance at the postseason and a possible World Series appearance.
This is the way it is. It’s what the game has become. And those who decry the decision to sit Strasburg may be right from a purist’s point of view. But the green eyeshade executives who mostly run the game today aren’t interested in what the purists have to say.