If there's one question I have about the Washington Nationals' plan to shut Stephen Strasburg down at some point in the next month (and no it's not, "How could they shut him down!?!?"), it's "Why are so many people so angry about the decision?" People with no ties to the team, writers and commentators who cover the sport, have been unloading on the Nationals and D.C. GM Mike Rizzo for weeks now, and though the Nationals' general manager knew it would be like this I wonder if even he's surprised by some of the vitriolic rhetoric? As far back as last September, while the then-23-year-old Nats' '09 no.1 overall pick was still working his way back to the majors for a series of starts at the end of the year, Rizzo explained exactly what would happen to Strasburg in 2012 in an interview with MLB Network Radio hosts Jim Duquette and Kevin Kennedy.
Strasburg would get a good base of innings on his arm in late 2011 in the minors and eventually the majors, he'd be ready to go full on in Spring Training and then eventually be shut down when he reached an innings limit similar to that which Jordan Zimmermann was on last year, though Rizzo didn't then and hasn't since stated exactly what that limit would be. As for the possibility of the team losing its no.1 starter if they were in contention late in 2012, Rizzo acknowledged that he'd considered that scenario.
"If we're lucky enough and improved enough to be playing meaningful games in September," Rizzo said, "and his pitch limits are up, just like Jordan Zimmermann this year, he will be done. We'll sit with our plan and we'll stick to it. If I'm the general manager here at that time, we'll certainly put the pitch and innings limit on him and we'll probably have our internal discussions and arguments, but at the end of the day just like Jordan Zimmermann this year, we're going to stay true to the plan and we'll have to find ways to replace him in our rotation."
That was, of course, long before the Nationals traded for Gio Gonzalez and signed Edwin Jackson (which Scott Boras said Friday was specifically tied to the plan for Strasburg). By Spring Training, Rizzo acknowledged that no one was going to be happy with having to shut Strasburg down, least of all the pitcher himself. Jordan Zimmermann hadn't been happy about getting shut down late in 2011 either as Rizzo explained in another MLB Network Radio interview from the Nats' Spring home:
"It upset Jordan last year because these guys are competitive, they want to play," Rizzo explained, "but I feel what's best for Jordan Zimmermann, what's best for Stephen Strasburg and any other of our young core players is what's best for the Nationals, so I have to do what's best for us and shutting down Stephen Strasburg is the prudent thing to do. It will be done no matter what, and we'll just take the heat as it comes."
The heat's been coming at the Nationals for weeks now. This past Friday on 106.7 the FAN in D.C., the Nats' flagship station, two separate interviews on the subject had commentators ranting as if the plan for Strasburg hadn't been put together since the right-hander had surgery to repair his injured elbow. Sean Salisbury, a former pro football player and one-time ESPN analyst, had this to say when he appeared on the FAN to talk to Chad Dukes and LaVar Arrington. (Note - "The following is from a produced/edited piece of the conversation played on air after the actual interview.)
"Mike [Rizzo] has done a great job building this team," Salisbury said. "Nobody would have thought that they'd get here this fast. Young, hungry. Strasburg is a full-grown man. I'm going to tell you what, I think it's a wuss move. I hate it."
"Really?" host Chad Dukes asked.
"You're doggone right I do," Salisbury said. "And forget the money, you're telling me it's all about the money, because if it's not about the money you know what you're telling me? That Strasburg is bigger than the organization? I can't believe Strasburg wants to shut it down? Like these old school [players]? You think Nolan Ryan would shut his guy down? It's ridiculous?"
Of course Strasburg won't want to shut it down. He's said as much, at one point stating that the Nationals would have to "rip the ball out of [his] hands," to keep him from pitching in a postseason game, and Rizzo acknowledged as much long before the season started. The plan's been in place since long before anyone knew how this team would do in 2012 and as for nobody thinking the team would get this good this fast, (Salisbury actually said, "They had no clue they'd be in this position," later in the interview) the Nats' GM entertained the idea that Strasburg would be shut down while the team was playing meaningful games in September 2012 last September and Davey Johnson, as far back as last Oct/Nov, was telling reporters that a pennant was the goal this season. The Nationals knew there was a possibility that they would contend this year, but they had a plan for Strasburg and were determined to stick to it regardless of their place in the standings.
• Listen to the full interview with Salisbury, Dukes and Arrington here:
Then there's Rob Dibble. Rob Dibble. Get the yawns and ughs out of your system. The former MASN Nationals tv announcer's recent rants were transcribed by the Washington Post's Dan Steinberg in the D.C. Sports Bog on Friday morning and later in the afternoon the former major league pitcher appeared on 106.7 the FAN in D.C. where he was asked to explain the thinking behind some of the things he'd recently said. One quote in particular was mentioned in which Dibble stated that Mike Rizzo, "who’s never won a championship," was going around, "And he’s telling everybody, he knows more than orthopedic surgeons, pitching coaches, everybody,":
"He knows the answer to how you can keep a guy from getting hurt. It’s a wonderful concept. I hope it works. And if you’re hurt, go on the disabled list. If you’re not, then pitch for your team and try to win a world championship. It’s that simple."
Asked about his assertion that Rizzo was telling everyone he knows more than "orthopedic surgeons, pitching coaches, everybody," the talk show host said he wasn't interested in defending what he said on his show. "I've talked to every general manager in major league baseball," Dibble said, "And my opinion is based on... I can go back to every first pick in the draft from David Clyde to Gerrit Cole in 2011." The tone was contentious from the start of the interview, but Dibble told the hosts he just had a simple question:
"I'm just asking you why you think Mike Rizzo is the only one who knows about pitching? Why don't you ask Steve McCatty and Davey Johnson the guys that are doing a fantastic job guiding this team towards the championship and you only have one person, [Rizzo] is the only person I know about... I had Tommy John on my show yesterday. Tommy John explained how he came back a year after his initial surgery in 1974. He went on to win 170 games. So my stuff is based on as much fact as you think Mike Rizzo's is."
Davey Johnson has, of course, been asked for his opinion on the matter repeatedly. "'That decision [on limiting Strasburg's innings] was made by people a lot smarter than me,'" Johnson told reporters during a mid-July series with the New York Mets, "'I'm not fighting it. When that time comes, he's done.'" The decision is not being made by Rizzo alone, it's reportedly based on doctor's recommendations, historical data and the GM's experience dealing with similar issues. Strasburg's agent, Scott Boras, is on board with the decision as he's explained recently. So why is there so much anger or heat aimed at the Nationals and GM Mike Rizzo in particular? When Dibble was asked if it had anything to do with his own well-documented history with the team it ended the interview fairly quickly. But Sean Salisbury has not ties to the organization. No rooting interest in the outcome. Is it simply that as former athletes they know how rare an opportunity the Nationals have this season?
Like Rizzo acknowledged, "these guys are competitive, they want to play," but that's why the decision isn't left solely to the players in this or really any case where injuries are involved. If Strasburg was asked I'm 100% sure he'd want to keep pitching, but even he acknowledged, in an interview with ESPN980's Thom Loverro and Kevin Sheehan, that he knows why the team is approaching things the way they are this year. "I know that [the Nationals] have my best interest at heart," Strasburg said, "And, obviously, you ask [Mike] Rizzo, you ask anybody in the organization, we're not playing for one year."
The people you'd expect to be upset, Nationals fans and the players, have expressed little anger about the situation. Maybe they're simply more aware of the details, maybe they've followed the story all along so they know what the plan was from the start, or maybe they just don't want to dwell on the impending shutdown when there's so much else to enjoy following the team this season. It's likely going to get worse as the year goes on and Strasburg's shut down and everyone tries to determine how that affects the way the rest of the season goes, but the anger being expressed about the decision makes little sense outside of a cynical view that it is in fact all ratings based and a result of a desire for attention. You mad, bro? Why exactly?