The answer takes a long time. It includes decades of statistics on rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery and how annual “innings load increases” have led to disastrous re-injury in the past.
It includes the view of the surgeon, Lewis Yocum, who’s performed all the operations on Nats pitchers in recent years. It is Yocum’s belief that pitchers who break down from premature returns from elbow surgery — sometimes ruining their shoulders, and their whole careers, rather then their new elbows — don’t usually do so during the first big stress year but rather the following season. That would be 2013 in Strasburg’s case.
In the end, Rizzo gave Strasburg’s father a list of all of the smart people who disagreed with his innings shutdown limit. “Even my dad says, ‘Let him pitch,’ ” said Rizzo, whose father, Phil, is a lifelong baseball scout.
Then Rizzo said he told Strasburg’s father that the decision to shut his son down was “mine and mine alone.”
“It’s not on Davey Johnson or Mr. Lerner. It’s on me,” he said. “I know it may stain my reputation or my career. There’s no way it can ever be proved if I was right. The easy thing for me is just to do nothing. But I’m hardheaded. The decision was made five months ago because it was the best decision for Stephen and the Nationals. And nothing is going to change it.”
What was Jim Strasburg’s reaction? “He said, ‘That makes a lot of sense,’ ” Rizzo recalled.
With that ice broken, Rizzo told the senior Strasburg that the two worst days of his career were when he had to tell Jordan Zimmermann and Strasburg that they would need career-threatening Tommy John surgery and, best case, each would miss a full year. “Your son’s tough, but he cried like a baby in Philadelphia when I told him,” Rizzo said. “I promised you when I was in your house trying to sign your son that I would take care of him. And I’m going to do it.”
Under cover of the Strasburg shutdown controversy, the true story of the Nationals is being missed. The real narrative, which the Strasburg fuss illustrates, is that the Nats are an organization with enormous self-confidence and, when necessary, defiant indifference.
One reason the Nats have come so far, and so fast, is the same reason they will shut down Strasburg when Rizzo decides the day. The Nats do things their way — or, rather, Rizzo, Johnson and Lerner’s way. They act in line with their best baseball, medical and philosophical judgment. Then, they don’t care what anybody thinks — as they’ve proved time and again in recent years, though few notice.