Stephen Strasburg is one of the first names that comes to mind when people think of the Nationals. He’s thrown a total of 31 ⅓ innings since he signed his 7-year megadeal with the Nats back in 2019, but the 34 year old former ace has been with the organization since 2009 and was a big reason why the Nats won their first World Series title back in 2019. That doesn’t mean that signing Strasburg to a 7-year $245 million contract following the 2019 season was the right move, however.
See, coming off of their first World Series title in franchise history, the Nats were in a precarious spot during the 2019 offseason. The roster was aging, the farm system was depleted, and two of their homegrown superstars were set to hit free agency. Anthony Rendon, coming off of a career year where he placed 3rd in MVP voting, was set to cash in. And Stephen Strasburg, coming off a career year himself where he had just thrown 245 ⅓ innings between the regular season and postseason (by far the most in his career), was also set to cash in. Both players had substantial injury histories, but the Nats knew they couldn’t let both walk at the risk of backlash they would’ve received from both the fanbase and media. There really was no right answer, since signing either player was going to come with tons of risk. Actually, with hindsight 20/20, the right move was letting both players walk, just like the club has done with almost all of their other superstars.
Instead, we’re entering year 2 of a full rebuild and still have 4-years and $140 million left on Strasburg’s megadeal. At this point, it’s entirely possible that he won’t throw another pitch for the team in that span. I’ve been lectured on a medical retirement option for Strasburg. But he would have to want to retire, and he hasn’t shown that he wants to do that. In fact, it’s quite the opposite based on Davey Martinez’s quote the other day saying that Strasburg “knows in his heart that he wants to pitch”. The Nats can’t force him to medically retire. So, we’re not quite there yet. Maybe 2 years from now we will get to that point, but not now. One thing is for sure: he’s not going to outright retire and leave over $100 million on the table. And I don’t blame him.
It was always a matter of “when” and not “if” Strasburg would finally break down. Strasburg’s mechanics have always been in question. The “Inverted W” has been a talking point since Strasburg was in college. On top of that, data shows that the career of a player who has undergone Tommy John Surgery is shorter (by 2-3 years) than players who have not undergone Tommy John Surgery. It also shows those players typically start to see a decline in performance between years 9-11 after undergoing surgery. With a history of arm issues and a violent delivery it’s not shocking that Strasburg started experiencing issues in 2020, which was 10 years after he underwent Tommy John Surgery. That’s why the 7-year deal that Strasburg signed in 2017 was risky, but understandable. The 7-year deal that he signed in 2019 was borderline reckless.
Now, it’s true that the TOS issues that Strasburg is experiencing now are probably unrelated to his Tommy John Surgery. But, the Inverted W and TOS issues are very related. The Inverted W puts a ton of strain on the elbow and shoulder and quite frankly can be directly attributed to such injuries. Stephen Strasburg, Mark Prior, Joba Chamberlain and Michael Fulmer all have an Inverted W delivery and all have had significant elbow/shoulder injuries as a result. Of that group, Strasburg has actually managed to have the longest and most successful career. Fulmer, who just signed with the Cubs, transitioned to the bullpen after having Tommy John Surgery in 2019. With the amount of strain that technique puts on a pitchers arm and shoulder, it’s not entirely surprising that Strasburg is unable to throw without feeling some discomfort even after TOS surgery. In 2017, Strasburg attempted to simplify his mechanics by ditching the windup which made his delivery more repeatable. The problem was, it didn’t really fix the Inverted W. His arm and shoulder have been a ticking time bomb for years and his body might’ve finally given out in 2020.
As Strasburg’s career likely winds down, I think it’s important to recognize his career for what it was: marred by injury, but arguably on a Hall of Fame trajectory when healthy. If Strasburg retired today, he would finish his career with a 36.6 fWAR and 32.3 bWAR, a 3.24 ERA over 247 starts, 1,470 innings pitched, 10.5 K/9 and a 1.096 WHIP. Not to mention one of the gaudiest postseason stat lines in MLB history: a 1.46 ERA over 55 ⅓ innings pitched, 71 Ks and a 0.940 WHIP. When he finally calls it a career, Strasburg will deservedly have his #37 jersey retired by the Nationals. He’s a big reason why the Nats were competitive for the better part of a decade and without him there likely wouldn’t be a 2019 World Series title. But everyone will always have that one tiny thought in the back of their mind: what would’ve happened if Stephen Strasburg could’ve stayed healthy for his entire career?