Week In Sports: The Nationals And Steven Strasbourg

Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon speaks with Howard Bryant about sports this week and the Nationals' plans for star pitcher Steven Strasbourg.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. I wait all week to say: Time for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: When the going gets good, will the Washington Nationals tell their best pitcher to take a seat? And the third perfect game of the baseball season; have pitchers gotten better, hitters gotten worse or something else going on there? Howard Bryant of ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine joins us.

Howard, thanks so much for being with us.

HOWARD BRYANT: Good morning, Scott. How are you doing?

SIMON: I'm fine. Thank you. The Nationals defeated the New York Mets 6-4 last night. Michael Morse hit a grand slam home run. I will explain to my fellow Chicago Cub fans. That's when a guy hits a home run when the bases are loaded. The Nats - we don't see a lot of that.

The Nats are in first place by four games. They have the best record in baseball, but they say they'll tell Stephen Strasburg, their best pitcher, to sit down once he's gone between 160 and 180 innings, because he's just two years removed from elbow surgery. They don't want him to throw his arm out. What do you think?

BRYANT: Well, I'm not for it. I don't understand it. I understand the idea of being cautious or giving the appearance of being cautious. And the Nationals argument is that the pitcher, Stephen Strasburg, who had Tommy John surgery a couple of years ago, his arm is simply not conditioned enough to throw a full season.

My issue with that is that, sure, throwing a baseball is not a natural motion. This is the reason why in the 1800s pitchers used to throw underhand before they changed the rules and made them throw overhand, because you're going to hurt yourself.

However, what I don't understand about their logic is the long-term effect. They're saying that by shutting down Strasburg, they are protecting his long term future. But there's never been any evidence, to my knowledge, that shutting a pitcher down for one year is going to extend his career if he pitches a full season the next year and the year after and the year after.

It would strike me that if you want to reduce a player's workload and therefore a risk of injury that you would reduce his annual innings over the course of his career. So next season, if he throws 230 innings, then I don't understand what shutting him down this year was for.

And on top of that, you're the Washington Nationals. Your franchise, your city, has not been to the playoffs since 1933. And if I'm a season ticketholder I would like to see some - I would like to see my best pitcher have a chance to pitch. I think it's a very, very interesting approach by the Nationals. Some teams have done it. No team has ever shut down their best pitcher heading toward the playoffs with a chance to win the World Series.

SIMON: He's 24, not 19. Should he have the chance to make his own decision? I mean, there's no guarantee you'll ever get back to the playoffs and he's devoted his life to being a pitcher.

BRYANT: That's right. And there's no guarantee that shutting him down this year is going to prevent him from getting injured next year. I mean, let's face it. When he got injured the first time he'd only thrown under 50 innings. He'd thrown, I think, 44 innings. And so therefore there's no rhyme or reason as to when you can get hurt.

I think what this is also is that it's kind of what we're trying to do is it's a GM's game. The executives run the game now. It's not the manager in the dugout anymore. It's now the guys in the suits who try to act smarter than the rest of us. And I think it's a very, very difficult dodgy thing to believe that you can preemptively prevent injury. If you could do that then we would all be much, much better off. But that's not what happens. And it's certainly not what happens in a violent position such as throwing a baseball. Throwing a baseball 97 miles an hour is not a natural motion.

SIMON: The minute we have left, Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners pitched a perfect game against the Tampa Bay Rays. Always amazing, but this is the third perfect game of the season. What's going on here? Is it because the steroid era is over?

BRYANT: Well, we had this conversation when Phil Humber threw his perfect game earlier in the season against the Mariners up in Seattle. And, yeah, you have to look at this and you have to say that there is some correlation. I don't know what the correlation is in terms of fact, because I don't think you can do that.

The 50, 60, 70 homerun seasons are gone. Therefore, you do have to assume that pitchers are starting to take over a bit more dominance. I think it's still simply kind of an anomaly. I think it's just one of those special weird things that happen in baseball, because in the 1970s and '80s before players were using steroids in big numbers, you didn't have all these perfect games being thrown then.

So I don't know what it is. I think that steroids have something to do with it, but I really couldn't say. I just say sit back and enjoy it. It's great stuff if you like pitching.

SIMON: Howard, thanks so much. Howard Bryant.

BRYANT: My pleasure.

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