No one can be faulted for wanting to see greatness. The desire to see excellence on the baseball field is a perfectly normal and understandable feeling. However, there is a difference between wishing to see a great pitcher in action and wishing to sell tickets.
Stephen Strasburg is coming off Tommy John surgery. I wrote about him and his rehab starts a few weeks ago, and you can read that here. Since that start, Strasburg has had five more, mostly good, starts. Last night was the last of those six total Minor League rehab starts. He is expected to join the Washington Nationals and pitch at least twice down the stretch. But why?
“I think the work isn’t done. I need to keep on grinding, finish the season strong here and go into the offseason healthy,” Strasburg said in an Associated Press article. “See what kind of pitcher I am in 2012.”
He is talking about the Major Leagues when he says “here,” but that is his competitive spirit coming out. He admits the work is not done. He admits he need to go into the offseason healthy and come back strong in 2012. Why are the Nationals, who are currently 25 games back of the Phillies, bringing Strasburg up?
There’s one simple answer to that question. To sell tickets.
I don’t dispute the fact that Strasburg needs more work to get back to 100%. He does need to face Major League hitters. But he doesn’t need to face them now. The Minor League season is coming to a close and I fully understand that Strasburg will not have the opportunity to pitch until the Fall, but that seems like a far less risky proposition than throwing him out on the mound in front of a sold out crowd at Nationals Park.
Sure the proponents of doing so will say, “he’s needs the work,” and “what’s the difference between pitching now and pitching in the Fall?” Those in favor of seeing Strasburg because he is amazing and they want a story to tell their kids and grandkids, fine. Those in the front office looking for a final boost in attendance should think twice.
Strasburg can participate in the Arizona Fall League after the Major League season is over. This has two benefits. It gives him some rest between his final rehab start and the start of the Fall League season. And it also keeps him from pushing his intensity level farther than it needs to go. When Strasburg hits the Major League mound, everything matters again. If he gets shelled in a Minor League rehab start, who care? If he gets shelled in any of his Major League starts this year, the questions start.
Is he fully recovered? Did he lose his touch? Will he be able to return in 2012 and be anywhere close to his 2010 self?
These are questions no athlete wants to face, especially a young one. So, Strasburg will be trying harder. He will be focused on making perfect pitches and throwing harder. He wants to be that same pitcher who struck out 14 in his debut. He wants that to happen immediately. No matter what is said in interviews about taking his time and making sure things are done right, this is still a 23 year old kid who wants to dominate with the big boys again.
So he will push himself. With him coming off surgery like he has, with him missing a full season of baseball when you combine the end of 2010 and this season, the risk is high. It seems there are just as many pitchers who have succeeded after Tommy John surgery as there have been ones who failed.
The risk is high. The reward is low.
All of this could be over-protective, paranoid fear on my part. But I’d rather be over-protective and paranoid of a pitcher like Strasburg than watch him blow out a shoulder or an elbow because he is trying to go too hard too fast. I want to see him pitch for years to come. I want to see the strike-outs pile up and the Cy Young awards roll in. I want to see him paired up with Bryce Harper and leading the Nationals toward the play-offs. I want him to have a long, healthy career.
Ticket sales are nice, but are two sell-outs in September worth the risk of permanently damaging a great young pitcher? Ask Kerry Wood or Mark Prior.