Shutdown Theory

Ligament Replacement Surgery—known better by the moniker “Tommy John Surgery”—is almost a foregone conclusion for Major League pitchers today. Teams practically build their rotations and, many times, entire seasons around when, not if, a certain pitcher will need to take a year or two off for an elbow rebuild. In 2012, the most famous case is that of Stephen Strasburg of the first place Washington Nationals. But the St. Louis Cardinals may have a similar case to review regarding their ace Adam Wainwright.

Saturday, the Nationals announced Strasburg will be shut down for the rest of 2012, including any postseason games the Nats might play. Strasburg underwent his procedure on September 3, 2010—two full years ago. Conventional wisdom suggests a pitcher needs anywhere from 12-18 months of rehab before he is truly ready to return to form on the mound, and most hurlers don’t feel back to 100% until two years after the surgery. Technically, Strasburg should be hitting his stride right about now. Imagine the boost the Nats would be getting from that, assuming they were close to where they currently are. Instead, they’re forced to go the rest of the season without their de facto ace. Arguments and hindsight from both sides are numerous: should he have rehabbed at all in 2011…should he have started 2012 late…the Nationals are doing this to protect his and their futures…this is just another power flex from Scott Boras…how can the Nats do this to their fanbase…how can they not do it…etc.

The Cards are in a somewhat similar situation with Wainwright, though the scales are vastly different. The righty underwent his procedure February 28, 2011, and was in training camp less than one year later. Wainwright started the Cards’ home opener—albeit to little success—and hasn’t missed a start yet. As the 2012 season progressed, Wainwright seemed to get stronger. Aside from the occasional hiccup, he looked to be inching closer to pre-surgery form right before our eyes. Cardinal coaching and front office eyes, however, were no doubt laser-focused on his health the entire time. And while the Cardinals also have to ponder the future, their perspective is quite different: coming off a World Series victory that punctuated perpetual success under Tony La Russa, followed by a complete sea-change with the transition to Mike Matheny…losing Chris Carpenter at the start of 2012…could Wainwright have rested a few more months and joined the team mid-year…only having Wainwright under contract one more season, with designs on trying to re-sign him…the Cards are still in a dogfight for a return to the postseason…etc.

Ironically, the two pitchers’ last few outings have been similarly bad. Strasburg pitched well against the Cards last week, but that start was bookended by giving up five earned runs in each of two outings—one of five innings, one of three. Wainwright’s last two starts have been even worse: six earned runs in less than three innings and five earned runs over five innings. Under normal circumstances, these events could be looked at as a slump or even just a radar blip for two pitchers so obviously better than the numbers they posted. But is it more than just irony that Strasburg’s stumble came as he inched closer to the 160 IP limit the Nats originally discussed, or that Wainwright seems to be losing gas as he hits 18 months since his surgery?

Wainwright has said that failing to repeat the proper arm slot has led to his bump in the road, not soreness or fatigue. But fatigue is sometimes just as much a symptom of mechanical issues as anything else. And even if he cannot perceive something being off—or simply can’t fix it—Wainwright runs the risk of injuring himself in other areas.

That’s not to say the Cardinals have to shut down Wainwright like the Nationals are doing for Strasburg. Even with all the similarities, the two cases have differences too: namely, Wainwright being a veteran, being older, not being as much of a power pitcher, etc. But the situation definitely bears watching, especially if Wainwright’s starts continue to go badly. And if Carpenter ends up able to pitch at all in 2012, perhaps that’s a scenario where Waino can at least get some extra rest.

Every pitcher is different, so it’s tough to assign hard numbers and come up with the right answer every time. And any ill effects for these two teams either way are still weeks to months away from being truly known, if they ever are at all. No team should ever give up on a season, especially one that includes a legitimate shot at postseason play. The Nationals know what price they were willing to pay regarding Strasburg, and they believe they just hit their limit. Do the Cardinals know their price regarding Wainwright? Will they know when they’ve hit it?

Chris Reed also writes for InsideSTL Mondays and Bird Brained whenever he feels like it. Follow him on Twitter @birdbrained.

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