By 2012, Stephen Strasburg was a highly-touted MLB phenom with a 103 mile-per-hour heater. The 6-foot-5, 235-pound hurler who went from chubby high school pitcher to No.1 overall draft pick, was one of the most hyped pitching prospects in decades and remains one of the greatest talents in Washington Nationals history.
At the age of 23, Strasburg went 15-6 with 197 K’s in 159.1 innings in his first full season in the majors and General Manager Mike Rizzo let it be known that they were going to treat Strasburg — who was coming off Tommy John surgery in 2010 — with kid gloves. The team implemented an innings limit in his first full season.
Protecting The Future At All Costs
Rizzo’s poker face was immediately tested when Strasburg pitched masterfully and helped lead Washington to its first postseason berth since 1993. Instead of allowing his ace to pitch in the playoffs, Rizzo stuck to his guns and yanked Strasburg from the rotation before the first playoff game.
Fans, sports media, former players and even politicians were critical of the 160 innings limit as the franchise’s first legitimate shot at a World Series was torpedoed by their own GM.
“It’s a good conversational piece, it’s a good debatable subject,” Rizzo said at the time. “But most of the people that have weighed in on this know probably 10 percent of the information that we know, and that we’ve made our opinion based upon.”
Rizzo said he was protecting the golden arm of his franchise hurler. He believed that there would be other opportunities in the near future for Strasburg to introduce himself to playoff baseball. The Nationals lost a 5-game NLDS to St. Louis and were sent home bitterly wondering what could have been.
That 98-win regular season is still a franchise record to this day and despite his extensive injury history, Strasburg’s been as important as any player in Washington’s slow rise to National League supremacy.
From managers Davey Johnson to Dusty Baker, the Nats have consistently been a perennial playoff team, but never much more.
The Future Is Now
Fast forward to 2019 and Rizzo’s decision to shut Strasburg down in 2012 has probably led to some sleepless nights. Thankfully, those nightmares will come to an end with Washington’s unprecedented World Series appearance.
Rizzo, who now serves as President of Baseball Operations and GM, made an organizational decision that was unpopular. However, he was entrusted with the fate of the franchise and decided to go for the long-term play, instead of seeking immediate gratification at the expense of a young All-Star pitcher who could anchor the staff for the next decade. He didn’t become a prisoner of the moment.
Despite multiple playoff appearances, the Nats haven’t been serious contenders since 2012 season. They were especially bad at the start of this season, as they recovered from Bryce Harper’s free-agent exit and then staggered out to a 19-31 start through the first 50 games. The slump had fans and media calling for the head of second-year manager Dave Martinez.
Then all of a sudden, a switch flipped and the baseball Gods were finally on their side. The underdog started kicking ass and taking names, eliminating the Brewers 4-3 in the Wild Card game, then edging the heavily-favored Dodgers in the NLDS and then shocking the baseball world and sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals out of the playoffs to earn the franchise’s first trip to the World Series.
Life and baseball are strange like that.
Stephen Strasburg’s MLB Moment
Now at 30 years old, Strasburg has managed to compile a112-58 record with a 3.17 career ERA. He is a three-time All-Star who has won double-digit games every full season of his career except 2013.
By taking it slow with Strasburg, instead of having a declining pitcher, the Nats have a force that is stronger than ever. Strasburg had only pitched more than 200 innings once in his 10-year career, prior to the league-leading 209 innings that he logged this season.
Toss in career-highs in wins (18) and strikeouts (251) and you can easily call this Strasburg’s best season.
He’s also 3-0 in these playoffs, including a strong relief outing.
With his free agency looming, this might be the last dance for Strasburg and the only team he’s ever known. Nats fans hope not as he seems to finally be in a healthy groove.
The addition of Max Scherzer and then Patrick Corbin, has also allowed Strasburg to settle into that secondary ace role that very few teams have. Strasburg’s pomp and circumstance arrival seems like another lifetime ago, but the effectiveness of his MLB career can’t be ignored.
When it’s all said and done, Rizzo played long-term chess and he’s four wins away from a checkmate with a healthy Stephen Strasburg finally getting his moment in the sun.