by Joe Giglio
The debate about Stephen Strasburg’s innings limit has reached a fever pitch. Every baseball fan has an opinion on how to handle the arm of one of the most gifted 23-year-old pitchers of all-time. That’s right -- of all-time. Strasburg isn’t just great right now. Considering his age, he’s historically great.
When comparing him to other pitchers that threw enormous inning totals, it’s unfair to use examples from different age groups. The amount of innings that Curt Schilling or Jack Morris threw at ages 28-31 have no relevance to what Strasburg is doing at age 23.
While attempting to correlate workloads between former Tommy John surgery patients is a valuable exercise in this case, the idea is flawed because of age as well. A 30-year-old -- such as Adam Wainwright -- coming off Tommy John is different than Strasburg’s plight.
Why? Arms need to be built up over time. Innings must accumulate in order for a pitcher to be able to handle big increments during great seasons. The following is a list of the greatest pitcher seasons by 23-year-olds over the last 50 years sorted by Baseball-Reference.com and Fangraphs WAR, respectively.
Dick Ellsworth, ‘63: 9.1 WAR
Dean Chance, ‘64: 8.9 WAR
Roger Clemens, ‘86: 8.6 WAR
Rich Gossage, ‘75: 8.1 WAR
Frank Tanana, ‘77: 8.0 WAR
Mike Mussina, ‘92: 7.9 WAR
Bret Saberhagen, ‘87: 7.7 WAR
Bert Blyleven, ‘74: 7.5 WAR
Jim Abbott, ‘91: 7.4 WAR
Dontrelle Willis, ‘05: 7.0 WAR
Bert Blyleven, ‘74: 8.7 WAR
Roger Clemens, ‘86: 8.0 WAR
Greg Swindell, ‘86: 6.8 WAR
Clayton Kershaw, ‘11: 6.8 WAR
Felix Hernandez, ‘09: 6.8 WAR
Dontrelle Willis, ‘05, 6.2 WAR
Jeremy Bonderman, ‘06: 6.1 WAR
Frank Tanana, ‘77: 5.9 WAR
Dwight Gooden, ‘88: 5.9 WAR
Bret Saberhagen, ‘87: 5.8 WAR
Considering that Clemens, Tanana, Saberhagen, Willis, and Blyleven were consistent on both lists, their respective 23-year-old seasons can be used as the main example here. The following is a list of the prior season and total MLB innings pitched for each of those arms before the phenomenal year listed:
Blyleven: 325 IP in ‘73, 1000+ MLB innings prior to ‘74
Willis: 197 IP in ‘04, 350+ MLB innings prior to ‘05
Saberhagen: 156 IP in ‘86, 549 MLB innings prior to ‘87
Tanana: 288.1 IP in ‘76, 840.2 MLB innings prior to ‘77
Clemens: 98.1 IP in ‘85, 231.1 MLB innings prior to ‘86
Aside from Clemens -- who actually had a shoulder scope in ‘85 -- all of these great young pitchers were healthy enough to build up their innings in the majors prior to their “breakout” 23-year-old seasons.
|Strasburg has 145.1 IP over 25 starts in 2012|
Picture courtesy of US Presswire
How does Strasburg’s situation contrast with these former stars? First, his 2012 season is as good as or better than any of the names listed above. His K/9 of 11.33 is third best ever for a starter 23 or younger, behind only a 21-year-old Kerry Wood in ‘98 and 19-year-old Dwight Gooden in ‘84. If he was allowed to complete the season -- meaning seven or eight more starts -- his projected FanGraphs WAR would be around 5.7. That would put him in the ‘87 Saberhagen range and in range of one of the ten best seasons ever for a pitcher of that age.
He belongs with these names -- except for his workload build up. Despite what your eyes are telling you, Strasburg’s arm simply isn’t built up enough to exceed 220 IP -- a number he would easily blow through if allowed to finish the regular season and the Nationals made a likely deep October run. Strasburg had a total of 92 IP under his belt on the big league level before 2012.
The Tommy John surgery cured what ailed Strasburg last time. It’s up to the Washington Nationals to help him avoid injury down the line. Asking him to go from 44.1 IP in 2011 -- rehab and MLB games combined -- to 145.1 IP right now isn’t outrageous for an athlete of his caliber. However, asking him to throw close to 100 more IP from now through October? That simply can’t be done. Look at the starters above -- research more if you are curious -- and try to find a star pitcher this young and this great that made a 200 IP leap from age 22 to 23.
Former young stars may not have been coddled by their organizations, but they had luck on their side. Their health allowed them to develop quickly through their early 20’s. That allowed their magical 23-year-old seasons to take place. Just because Strasburg looks or feels as good or better than they did then doesn’t mean he’s as strong.
Odd are that Mike Rizzo and Scott Boras have much more information on these arms -- listen to Boras’ comments on ESPN Radio last week -- and have designed a plan to get Strasburg on that 225+ IP benchmark soon and efficiently.
As devastating as it may be to baseball and the Nationals hope at a World Series title, odds are that they are right when acting with caution on Strasburg.
Joe Giglio is a sports talk host at WNST in Baltimore, co-host of the Just a Bit Outside podcast on iTUNES, former intramural coordinator at DeSales University, husband, and baseball fanatic willing to argue Jeff Bagwell's Hall of Fame candidacy at a moment's notice. Follow him on Twitter @JoeGiglioSports and check out his blog at joegiglio.blogspot.com.