The Washington Nationals are less than 20 games into their season, so we probably shouldn't map out the parade route just yet. Still, the Nats are currently 14-4, sitting atop the NL East, and their pitching stats have been obscene. Check the year-to-date team numbers:
2.20 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 8.57 K/9, 3.20 K/BB, .200 BAA
Again, those are team totals through 18 games. Ridiculous. Four of Washington's five starters have ERAs below 2.00. The dude pictured above, Stephen Strasburg, has been brilliant, allowing just three runs over 25.0 innings, walking six batters and striking out 25. After four starts, his WHIP is a miniscule 0.92. (That ranks tenth-best in the NL among qualified starters, but only fourth-best on his team, incredibly enough). Of course the big question attached to Strasburg was never "How well is he going to pitch?" Everyone knows the kid is exceptional. Instead, the question has always been, "When will he shut it down?"
The widespread assumption is that Strasburg's innings will be capped at or near 160, but that isn't really tied to any specific statement made by the team. It's just reasonable speculation based on the fact that Jordan Zimmermann was limited to 161.1 innings last year, coming off Tommy John surgery. He didn't pitch at all in September, which made him a non-factor in the most important month of the head-to-head season. This year, whenever Nats general manager Mike Rizzo discusses Strasburg's workload ceiling, he routinely name-drops Zimmermann.
Thus, we've arrived at the idea that the Nationals won't push their 23-year-old ace too far beyond 160 innings — a fine plan, if this were a typical non-contending season for Washington. But this is clearly not a non-contending season. So the Nats probably need to find a way to limit Strasburg's post-TJ usage while somehow preserving him for the MLB postseason.
These were a few of Rizzo's recent comments on SiriusXM's MLB Network Radio, when asked about the Strasburg playoff dilemma:
"There will be a [workload] limit. I can't put a concrete number on what the limit is. We're going to use our eyes and our experience level to determine when he's had enough. When I determine he's had enough, we're going to shut him down, just like we did Jordan Zimmermann last year. And hopefully we'll have the depth in our rotation to absorb that.
"He's a terrific young pitcher, but after throwing 60 innings in 2011 we're certainly not going to let him go out there and throw 200 innings in 2012. I don't think that's in the best interests of Stephen Strasburg's long-term career. And what's not in Stephen's best interests isn't in the Nationals best interests."
When pressed for details about how and when and if the Nats will limit Strasburg's workload before the final month of the season — restrict him to five-inning starts? skip his turn in the rotation? maybe find an excuse to stash him on the DL? — Rizzo didn't offer anything specific.
"We don't want to really jumble up his schedule," said the GM.
OK, fine. I don't believe it, but fine. It's awfully hard to believe the Nats won't find a way to save a few of Strasburg's innings for September and October, assuming they remain in the playoff chase.
If you own Strasburg in a rotisserie league, you really don't care when the stats arrive. It's enough to know you'll eventually get 160-170 high-quality innings. But if you drafted Strasburg in a head-to-head format, you're clearly rooting for whatever scenario keeps him active in the final weeks of the season, when your league crowns its champ. So it's well past time to get on the Nats' bandwagon. Good seats are still available, but this thing is gonna fill up when Morse and Zimmerman get healthy. And we might need a bigger wagon when Bryce Harper gets the call.