Loss of Strasburg Adds to Nationals’ Woes

The 2019 season couldn’t have gone much better for Stephen Strasburg, but his follow-up performance is already over. After making just two long-delayed and abbreviated starts, the 32-year-old righty has been transferred to the 60-day Injured List and is slated to undergo surgery to alleviate carpal tunnel neuritis in his right hand. He becomes the latest top-flight pitcher to land on the IL this season, and leaves the already-struggling Nationals just that much more shorthanded as they defend their title.

After averaging just 24 starts per season from 2015-18 due to a variety of ailments, Strasburg didn’t miss a single start in 2019. He struck out a career-high 251 batters in a National League-high 209 innings, received enough run support to notch an NL-high 18 wins as well, and finished with a 3.32 ERA, 3.25 FIP, and 5.7 WAR, the last of which ranked third in the NL behind Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer. He followed that stellar season with a dominant postseason performance, pitching to a 1.98 ERA with 47 strikeouts and just four walks in 36.1 innings, and won World Series MVP honors while helping the Nationals win their first championship in franchise history. After opting out of the final four years and $100 million of his contract, he signed a new seven-year, $245 million deal. It was a very good year.

Strasburg appeared to be on track to make his season debut on July 25, in the Nationals’ second game, but he was scratched from the start just hours before first pitch due to what was described as a nerve issue. He was replaced by Erick Fedde, and received an injection of cortisone. At the time, he admitted that he had been pitching through numbness in his hand for weeks. From NBC Sports’ Todd Dybas:

“Started out, probably, like the end of the first week of camp. I was waking up in the middle of the night and my hand was asleep. Kept falling asleep and I was getting these feelings, and it wasn’t really bothering me throwing. It seemed like once I tried starting to ramp up and stuff, the symptoms started to increase. It really’s something the last two [intrasquad] games was feeling it pretty regularly. Just something you try to throw through. After I got out of the last start problems, issues, just kept persisting. Saw that there was nerve impingement in my wrist. Got a cortisone shot to hopefully create more space in there to get it to calm down and get back to normal.

…”It got to the point where I didn’t have the same feeling in my hand holding the ball. It was affecting my ability to command the baseball the way I’m accustomed to. It’s something that I feel like if I take some time now to get that feeling back to normal, I can be out there much sooner than if I try to just gut it out at this point.”

As of July 30, Nationals manager Dave Martinez said that Strasburg was no longer feeling “the little nerve issue.” He eventually made his season debut on August 9 against the Orioles, whom he held scoreless on two hits for four innings before collapsing in the fifth, when he retired just one of seven hitters faced and was charged with five runs. Even before the Orioles rallied, there was cause for concern, as Strasburg’s four-seam fastball averaged just 91.7 mph in that outing, down 2.2 mph from 2019. He lasted just three batters in his return engagement, also against the Orioles, five days later, and was placed on the 10-day IL.

“I don’t think this is going to get better soon,” said Martinez. “So right now we’re just trying to see if we can get him healthy.”

Carpal tunnel injuries involve the compression of the median nerve, which runs from the forearm to the palm of the hand and provides feeling to the palm side of the fingers besides the pinky. The nerve passes through a narrow, rigid passageway of ligaments and bones at the base of the hand, but swelling of the tissue in the area can compress the nerve, leading to numbness, weakness, and pain. Such injuries are relatively rare for baseball players; David Price went through a bout in early 2018, but did not need surgery.

Such injuries are generally caused by repetitive motion. As Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo theorized, “You can only surmise that it’s from throwing breaking pitches and changeups throughout his lifetime and career, and I think it’s taken its toll on him in that regard. Again, we feel that it’s an injury that he should make a full recovery from and be ready for the season in ’21.”

While Strasburg told reporters that he understood that pitching wouldn’t lead to additional harm, the team had understandable concern that he would alter his mechanics to compensate, leading to fears of longer-term issues. Thus, he was said to be “very receptive” to the prospect of surgery to alleviate the condition. He’ll undergo his surgery and eventually begin rehabbing at the Nationals’ alternate training site, though the timeframe for that hasn’t been established.

Strasburg’s loss adds to the litany of top 2019 starters who are on the shelf for one reason or another. By 2019 WAR, he’s actually at the head of the banged-up brigade:

Top Starting Pitchers Currently Out
Rk Pitcher 2019 WAR 2020 Team Status Reason
5 Justin Verlander 6.4 Astros 10-Day IL forearm strain
6 Charlie Morton 6.1 Rays 10-Day IL shoulder inflammation
7 Stephen Strasburg 5.7 Nationals Out for Season carpal tunnel neuritis
18 Noah Syndergaard 4.4 Mets Out for Season Tommy John Surgery
20 Jake Odorizzi 4.3 Twins 10-Day IL chest contusion
24 Mike Soroka 4.0 Braves Out for Season torn Achilles tendon
25 Marcus Stroman 3.9 Mets Out for Season opted out
26 Eduardo Rodriguez 3.7 Red Sox Out for Season myocarditis
28 Chris Sale 3.6 Red Sox Out for Season Tommy John Surgery
29 James Paxton 3.5 Yankees 10-Day IL flexor strain
30 Jose Quintana 3.5 Cubs 10-Day IL thumb laceration
34 Joe Musgrove 3.3 Pirates 10-Day IL triceps inflammation
39 Madison Bumgarner 3.2 Giants 10-Day IL mid-back strain
44 Homer Bailey 2.9 Twins 45-day IL biceps tendinitis
51 Miles Mikolas 2.5 Cardinals Out for Season flexor tendon surgery
52 Cole Hamels 2.5 Braves 45-day IL triceps tendinitis
59 David Price 2.3 Dodgers Out for Season opted out
60 Sandy Alcantara 2.3 Marlins 10-Day IL undisclosed
Rk = 2019 MLB rank in WAR among starters with at least 100 innings pitched.

Yikes. The list is far from comprehensive, as it doesn’t include starters who were less effective or injured in 2019, nor does it include relievers. Not all of the injuries are arm aliments that might be traced to the shortened summer camps; some, such as Soroka’s tear or Odorizzi’s contusion, are just freak occurrences. Morton, Bumgarner, and Quintana are among those who should be back by month’s end, barring setbacks, but there are no guarantees some of the other pitchers on the 10- and 45-day ILs will return; the clock is working against them in this shortened season.

Strasburg’s injury comes at a time when the Nationals are underachieving, having won just 11 of 25 games thus far. The team is in fourth place in the NL East, 3.5 games behind the Braves and just 0.5 games ahead of the Phillies. The Nationals can use last year’s comeback from a 19-31 start (and 22.2% Playoff Odds) as their rallying cry, though the situations are hardly parallel. They have a smaller portion their season remaining this time around, as well as an expanded playoff field to give them a cushion. They’re currently 11th in the NL by winning percentage and 10th by Playoff Odds (37.4%).

And deservedly so, at least if their rotation is anything to go by. The unit ranks 11th in the NL in FIP (4.94), 12th in ERA (5.19), and dead last in home runs per nine (2.31, 0.44 ahead of the 14th-ranked Pirates). While both Max Scherzer (4.31 ERA, 3.75 FIP) and Patrick Corbin (3.99 ERA, 3.41 FIP) have been solid but unexceptional, everybody else who’s started for the team has been below replacement level. Aníbal Sánchez did get his first win of the season with a seven-inning, one-run effort against the Marlins on Sunday; that lowered his gaudy ERA to 6.48, and his FIP to 5.94. Austin Voth, a 28-year-old righty who won the fifth starter job during summer camp after Joe Ross opted out, is carrying a 5.00 ERA and 6.58 FIP.

Fedde, a 27-year-old righty who lost that fifth starter job to Voth, will take Strasburg’s spot for now. A 2014 first-round pick out of UNLV, he owns a 5.40 ERA and 5.57 FIP through 133.1 innings in 28 career starts; batters have hit .309/.393/.561 with 19 homers in 327 plate appearances when facing him for the second, third, or fourth time in those games, strongly suggesting that he just doesn’t have the stuff to survive in that capacity. The next in-house alternative to him appears to be Wil Crowe, a 2017 second-round pick out of South Carolina who was added to the 40-man roster with the Strasburg move. He started the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader against the Marlins, but was cuffed for four runs in 3.2 innings.

With the trade deadline just one week away, the Nationals can look outside the organization for better rotation help, but the competition for available starters could be intense. Every NL team besides the Pirates is within one game of at least a tie for a playoff spot, for example, and so it’s not hard to squint and pretend that any of those teams has a shot. For the Nationals, it’s not as though starting pitching is the only problem, either, not with closer Sean Doolittle sidelined due to right knee fatigue, fill-in Daniel Hudson carrying a 6.30 ERA and 4.74 FIP, and second baseman Starlin Castro recovering from surgery to repair a broken right wrist. The Nationals know about overcoming long odds to reach the playoffs, but that’s not to say that pulling off the feat again is going to be easy.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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HappyFunBall
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HappyFunBall

Also, the Nats don’t have a whole lot in the way of prospects available for trade. Their best bet might be in taking on a contract, but ownership has historically been very reluctant to do that. With ownership’s money all coming from commercial real estate, now is probably not the best time to expect them to make exceptions on cash flow.

MikeS
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MikeS

There are a lot of reasons I think the deadline will be very light this year.

There is much less revenue. Even though pretty much every owner could afford to add payroll, that’s a hard sell when there is so much less money coming in than they are used to.

8 teams get in instead of 5. Maybe you don’t need to add somebody?

Based on Fangraphs Playoff odds, the AL field is pretty much set – 7 teams with a > 95% chance of making the playoffs, 6 teams <10%, 2 in the middle. Are the Blue Jays willing to unload some prospects to improve their odds of holding off the Orioles? Is anybody willing to mortgage the smallest part of the future to come in first in the division instead of second in this wacky year?

Anywhere a team wants to improve, the guy they are evaluating to be replaced still only has a small sample size. Maybe he will get hot on his own? You only have a month of data on him this year so nobody is getting written off as "done." Same for the guy you are acquiring. Are you getting a good player? Or did he just have a good month?