Should the Nats Call Up Stephen Strasburg?

Less than a year after Tommy John surgery last September, Stephen Strasburg has returned to professional pitching. He threw his first rehab start Sunday in single-A, reaching 98 miles-per-hour on the gun — and his second start is scheduled for tomorrow night. Strasburg is among the most valuable players in the game, with a Yankee-like ability to draw attendance; Maury Brown estimated that Strasburg’s debut alone netted the Nationals an additional $1.5 million in revenue, and Brown estimated that his injury last year cost the Nationals up to $20 million in lost revenue. So the team is understandably eager to get him back on the field, shutting down opponents and rolling in the dough.

GM Mike Rizzo has wisely attempted to throw cold water on the excitement:

We are just looking for him to build arm strength, build up innings, build up stamina and we’ll monitor the recovery…. He is preparing to get to the ultimate level. We have to do it the right way.

But it’s hard to temper expectations for a pitcher of Strasburg’s ability and star power. So should the Nats call him up this year? Better yet, can they afford not to?

The usual recovery time for Tommy John surgery has declined over the past several years. As Will Carroll wrote in Sports Illustrated, “While most still quote the 12- to 18-month time frame after reconstruction, the fact is that using modern techniques and rehab has the real recovery period down to nine to 12 months.” The key is the rehabilitation, which can depend in part on the team’s performance. With the Nats fighting the Marlins for the cellar, there’s no standings-related reason to push Strasburg to the majors this year. It’s purely about money.

In just twelve major league starts, Stephen Strasburg had an extraordinarily noticeable affect on attendance. He pitched in six stadiums, and each home team saw an uptick in attendance over their non-Strasburg season average; all but the Phillies, who already averaged over 45,000 fans a game, averaged over 8,000 more fans at Strasburg’s starts.

Away games

Attendance Team total home attendance
(regular season)
Average attendance in
non-Strasburg games
June 8 Indians 40,315 1,391,644 16,892 23,423
June 28 Braves 42,889 2,510,121 30,840 12,049
July 16 Marlins 27,037 1,524,894 18,723 8314
July 21 Reds 37,868 2,060,550 25,284 12,584
August 21 Phillies 45,266 3,647,249 45,025 241

Home Games

Opponent Attendance Team total home attendance
(regular season)
Average attendance in
non-Strasburg games
Difference Average Strasburg home
June 8 Home Pirates 40,315 1,828,066 20,017 20,298 33,446
June 18 Home White Sox 40,325 20,308
June 23 Home Royals 31,913 11,896
July 3 Home Mets 39,214 19,197
July 9 Home Giants 34,723 14,706
August 10 Home Marlins 25,939 5922
August 15 Home Diamondbacks 21,695 1678

While Strasburg drew additional fans wherever he went, it is striking to note that Strasmania seems to cooled off by the end of the summer, as Strasburg’s last start at home drew barely half the number of fans that attended his debut. And the $1.5 million from the debut start was more of a one-time gift than a perennial return. As Bloomberg News wrote on the day of his debut:

With an average ticket price of $30.63, according to Wilmette, Illinois-based Team Marketing Report, and the Nationals drawing 20,760 fans a game this season, a sellout could increase the team’s ticket revenue by as much as $647,151 each time Strasburg pitches.

The analysis is still essentially valid, but Strasburg sellouts would likely net slightly less money, as the team is averaging 22,821 fans this year. If Strasburg were to come up at the beginning of September and make five starts, even if each game were a sellout, the team would stand to make no more than $3 million or so. And it’s likely to be even less than that, considering that Strasburg only drew 40,000 fans to his first two home starts, and drew fewer than 35,000 in five of his last six home starts.

Strasburg is a tremendously valuable commodity to the Nationals. But his in-season value this season is relatively low at the moment. Calling him up to pitch a few starts at the end of the year could be a good PR move for the Nationals, as they gear up for a 2012 campaign that could feature both a major league-ready Bryce Harper and a major league-ready Stephen Strasburg. But it won’t make a huge difference at the gate. It’s not worth jeopardizing Strasburg’s arm over a couple million dollars worth of attendance revenue.

Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times.

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10 years ago

You’ve gotta expect the ONLY way the Nationals let S.S. pitcher this September is if they are 100% confident he is fully healthy. No way they are stupid enough to let him come back at this point if there is any question his arm is not ready.

10 years ago
Reply to  Danny

But Strasburg is already pitching for Hagerstown. There’s not really any reason he couldn’t do his rehab with the MLB team.

He could still be cautious, and slowly build up his pitch counts. Just with a lot more fans ($$$) watching. The author is not suggested changing his routine or his pitch counts or his rehab schedule. Just the stadium.

It’s also worth noting that he’s on the MLB DL, and is thus collecting an MLB salary and MLB service time anyway.

10 years ago
Reply to  Yirmiyahu

As long as the pitch counts and pitch selection remained exactly the same, there’s probably no real difference. But it’s unlikely pitch selection would remain the same in a major league game…and if he really were just throwing the same stuff he would in a minor league rehab (calibrated not to over-stress his arm early), there’s a decent chance he could get lit up. Is that what Nats fans would be interested in?

Also, there’s a risk (I don’t know how significant) that a major league manager would feel pressure to leave him out if he were doing well. Whereas a minor league manager is more likely (perhaps) to keep exactly to pitch counts.

In theory, I agree with you. Venue doesn’t matter if the regimen remaining identical…but in practice, the regimen may not.

10 years ago
Reply to  Yirmiyahu

As a huge Strasburg fan, while I would love to see him get some MLB starts this year, I have do disagree somewhat with this.

Even though everybody knows the Nats are out of it in 2011, pitching in the majors places more pressure on him to do everything it takes to win. As a college athlete who has had his share of nagging injuries, I know that the pressure to play at 110% all the time can make you do stupid things if your body is not ready for that.

If the team thinks he can keep himself from overexerting his arm, or if he has truly returned completely from injury, then sure, run him out there for the big club in September. But if he’s not ready, for the sake of his own future, I say let him finish the year in the low-pressure environment of minors. As much as I would love to see him back in the majors ASAP, I do realize that he has plenty of baseball ahead of him and to risk that on some high-pressure innings before is ready would be foolish and irresponsible.

Even though the risk of what I am saying may be very small, with an arm like Strasburg’s, I say take away even that small risk. Wait until 2012.

10 years ago
Reply to  Yirmiyahu

I will add though, the other part of me says if he’s ready, let him make a few starts. Line him up to start game 162, and let the Nationals’ fans salivate for an entire offseason over what 2012 could be like. That’ll put some butts in seats.