No baseball player has generated as much interest or excitement this season as Stephen Strasburg, the hard-throwing rookie pitcher whose presence in the major leagues has captured the imagination of baseball fans. Only 22 years old and with a fastball that routinely registers at 100 miles per hour, Strasburg has been watched and monitored and scrutinized — right down to the number of pitches he was allowed to throw in a game.
All of the monitoring done by the Nationals coaching staff didn’t prepare them for the news that Strasburg’s season is over and that he may not pitch again until 2012. After suffering a significant tear in the ulnar collateral ligament of his right elbow. He is expected to have the surgical reconstruction known as Tommy John surgery and will need 12 to 18 months to recover.
The injury is likely to reopen the debate on whether the Nationals rushed the young star through the development process too quickly. It will also affect everything from hot dogs to jerseys. Attendance at Nationals games increased by a third for the games Strasburg started this season, and local television ratings doubled when he pitched. Those types of things aren’t remedied by a team currently in last place in the National League East who are currently sit nearly 20 games out of first place.
“There’s no words that I can put in place here that would indicate we could possibly replace Stephen.” – Jim Riggleman, Nationals manager.
All of those problems aside, the Nationals shouldn’t be the ones to blame for this. There isn’t anything they could have done to prevent this from happening. The coaching staff carefully put together a plan to shield him from overuse; monitoring everything down to the exact number of pitches he threw. The only thing the Nats could have done was make the choice to shut him down after his first trip to the disabled list. But with all the hype surrounding him and the way he was performing, there was no reason to do that unless it was a major injury.
There is a silver lining to this Nationals tragedy however. In a survey of nearly 1,300 athletes at all levels who had the operation over the past 10 years, 83 percent of all participants and 85 percent of major leaguers reported that they had resumed pitching at the same or a higher level than they had attained before being hurt. Chris Carpenter, Tim Hudson and A.J. Burnett all had the same procedure down to their arms and each has returned to success. Carpenter and Hudoson currently have two of the top ten ERA’s in the National League. Burnett hasn’t been a slouch either and has been clocked at over 100 mph several times.
The Nationals now shift their focus on how they will approach his rehab. They must also address his mechanics. Former Yankees pitcher Al Leiter believes that the stress Strasburg put on his arm made this type of injury predictable, but that if Strasburg agrees to change his mechanics he should be fine.
Leiter’s theory is worth considering, however I present the following tidbit as a reason that this could have been predicted. If you look at a breakdown of Strasburg’s pitches this season, you find that over 83% of the pitches he threw were either a fastball or a curveball, 58% of which were fastballs. Furthermore, the average velocity on his fastball was over 97 miles per hour.
Some have already begin labeling Strasburg the next Kerry Wood or Mark Prior, but only time will tell how true those comparisons are. All fans can do now is wait.