Cooperstown Confidential: The Aaron-Strasburg connection

Other than the suspension of Melky Cabrera, it just might be the biggest hot-button issue of the month: When will the Nationals shut down the man who is arguably their best starter, Stephen Strasburg, who has thrown 139 innings as of this writing? Will they cut him off at 160 innings, or 170 innings, or 180 innings? Or will the Nationals be daring, forget about any supposed limits, and let him approach the 200-inning plateau?

These are all legitimate questions, but none of them are the most important questions to be asking. No, those questions have to do with the ethics of baseball, the ethics of sportsmanship. Are the Nationals doing the right thing in trying to protect the right arm of Strasburg, their most prized pitching possession, who missed most of last season after undergoing Tommy John? Or would they be doing something intrinsically wrong by removing their best pitcher from a pennant race and (potentially) the postseason, even though he is completely healthy.

In my mind, the Nationals would be setting a dangerous precedent if they shut down Strasburg in the middle of a race for the National League East title. This is a franchise that has won nothing since moving to Washington. If you examine the franchise’s roots in Montreal, you would have to go back 31 years (to 1981) to find the last time the Expos advanced to the postseason. How could the Nationals jeopardize their chances of winning an elusive division title, and making a strong run in the postseason, especially when there is nothing currently wrong with Strasburg’s right arm? Isn’t winning the most important thing in the major leagues? As young and talented as the Nationals are, who knows if they will be able to make another strong postseason push in the coming years?

Of course, this is not the first time that a team will shut down a young pitcher over concerns about an innings limit. But in most of the previous cases, the team in question was well out of contention, a rebuilding club looking toward the future. I cannot recall a situation where a contending club shut down its No. 1 starter at a time when he was not actually injured.

Well, there is at least partial precedent to the Strasburg situation, though it is not completely analogous. Let’s go back to the 1974 season. Hank Aaron had finished the 1973 campaign with a career total of 713 home runs, leaving him one short of Babe Ruth’s vaunted mark. The Braves wanted Aaron to both tie and break the record in front of the home fans at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium, but they faced an impediment: The Braves would have to open the 1974 season on the road, where they faced a three-game series in Cincinnati against a division rival.

In February, Braves president Bill Bartholomay had announced that Atlanta would bench Aaron for the season-opening series that was scheduled to take place at Riverfront Stadium. Under that scenario, Aaron would have a better chance of both tying and breaking the record at home. The Braves’ announcement drew rounds of criticism from the media. A number of writers contended that the Braves were threatening the game’s integrity by playing a lineup that did not feature their best starting nine. After all, Aaron had batted .301 with 44 home runs, a slugging percentage of .643, and an OPS of over 1.000. He was still the Braves’ best all-round player, even at the age of 40. Heck, he was still one of the best players in the game.

Longtime baseball writer Dick Young of the New York Daily News summarized the feelings of some naysayers when he wrote, “Baseball has gone crooked.” Young went on call for the commissioner to “come out with a blistering order to the Braves that Hank Aaron must play the first three games, under threat of forfeit.”

After several weeks of intense and vitriolic debate, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn decided to step into the rhubarb. In a carefully worded statement, Kuhn announced that he disapproved of the Braves’ decision to sit Aaron during the season-opening road trip. “Barring disability,” the commissioner explained, “I will expect the Braves to use Henry Aaron in the opening series in Cincinnati, in accordance with the pattern of his use in 1973, when he started approximately two of every three Braves games.”

Kuhn stopped short of “ordering” the Braves to use Aaron, if only because he technically had no power to tell a manager whom to play. Yet, he was clearly invoking the nebulous “best interests of baseball” clause, which he felt gave him the power to act. The message was clear to the Braves. Play Hank Aaron or else.

On Opening Day, the Braves reinstated Aaron to the starting lineup. Veteran Reds right-hander Jack Billingham provided the opposition on a Thursday afternoon at Riverfront Stadium. Watching patiently as Billingham pitched him carefully, Aaron did not offer at the first four pitches thrown. With the count now in his favor at 3-1, he unleashed his first swing of the new season. Billingham’s fifth delivery to Aaron landed beyond the left-center field wall at Riverfront Stadium. In an Opening Day instant, Aaron had tied Ruth as the all-time home run champion.

The Braves obviously did not want Aaron to break the record on the road, but Atlanta manager Eddie Mathews, Aaron’s friend and longtime teammate in Milwaukee and Atlanta, kept him in the game. Aaron grounded out in his first subsequent plate appearance, walked in his second, and flied out in his third appearance. Not wanting to take any more chances, Mathews finally removed Aaron from the game in the bottom of the seventh. He replaced Aaron with rookie flychaser Rowland Office, who later gave way to journeymen pinch-hitters Ivan Murrell and Frank Tepedino. Without Aaron, the Braves went on to lose in extra innings, 7-6.

What would have happened if Aaron had remained in the game? No one can know for sure, but Aaron was clearly a more dangerous hitter than Office, Murrell or Tepedino. If Aaron had kept playing in the later innings, perhaps the Braves would have scored an extra run, avoiding extra innings altogether.

After the traditional off day following the opener, the Reds and Braves resumed their series on a Saturday afternoon. Given the parameters of the commissioner’s spring training “recommendation” that Aaron play “two out of every three Braves games,” Mathews believed that he was within his rights to sit his venerable superstar on the bench. Clearly, Mathews did not believe that Aaron needed a rest because of fatigue; the Braves had played only one game, which was then followed by an off day. Aaron needed rest about as much as he needed to be hit with a beanball. Furthermore, the Braves were not trying to keep Aaron away from potential injury, as the Nationals are attempting to do with Strasburg. No, this was all about increasing the chances of Aaron hitting No. 715 in Atlanta in front of a sellout crowd.

So Mathews moved Ralph Garr from right field to Aaron’s spot in left, with Murrell taking Garr’s place in right. Murrell went 1-for-2 in Aaron’s absence, but the Braves lost to the Reds, 7-5.

Mathews’ decision to “rest” Aaron did not sit well with the commissioner’s office. Concerned that the Braves were reading his declaration a bit too literally, Kuhn “requested” that Mathews return Aaron to the lineup for Sunday’s game. Mathews asked the commissioner if he was giving him a direct order. According to Mathews, Kuhn responded that it was indeed an “order.” He added that “serious” consequences would result if Aaron did not play.

When a reporter asked Mathews to clarify what Kuhn meant by “serious,” the manager did his best to explain. “The commissioner has unlimited powers to impose very serious penalties on individuals and the ballclub itself,” Mathews told the Associated Press. “For the first time, I realized that these penalties are not only fines, but also suspensions and other threats to the franchise itself.”

In other words, Mathews was likely looking at a suspension for defying the wishes of the commissioner. And perhaps Kuhn was threatening to impose forfeit losses on the Braves each time that Aaron did not play.

Some observers applauded Kuhn’s stance, while others claimed that he was using powers that didn’t belong to the commissioner’s office. Yet, for the most part, the Players Association remained silent on the matter.

Mathews returned Aaron to the lineup for the series finale. Aaron failed to play one of his vintage games, perhaps distracted by the dispute between his good friend, Mathews, Kuhn. Aaron struck out twice—each time on three pitches—and bounced weakly to third base before being lifted for “defensive reasons.” Aaron remained one short of breaking the record.

When the Braves played their next game, a home affair with the Dodgers on a Monday night, Aaron delivered the record breaker on cue, making everyone happy from the Braves to the commissioner. And the playing time that Aaron missed had no great impact on the Braves, who finished a distant third in the NL West, 14 games back of the division-winning Dodgers.

So did Kuhn do the right thing? I think his intentions were good; he did not want to see the Braves needlessly play games without their Hall of Fame outfielder. But Kuhn should not have gone as far as to mandate that Aaron play; he should have made a strong suggestion, a not-so-subtle recommendation, but stopped there. The ultimate decision about who plays and who sits should rest with the manager. If the manager is not allowed to make that decision, if the manager doesn’t have the chance to play whom he sees fit, then something has gone wrong with baseball’s chain of command. The integrity of the manager is threatened, allowing too many outside forces (such as agents and owners) to influence the composition of the lineup.

As much as I would like to see Strasburg pitch, that theory should be applied to the Strasburg situation. The decision should not lie with general manager Mike Rizzo, or Commissioner Bud Selig. They might offer advice and try to persuade, but the final decision should not be theirs. The decision should ultimately rest with manager Davey Johnson, who coincidentally was one of Aaron’s teammates with the 1974 Braves.

Johnson, who has been involved with Organized Ball since 1962, has plenty of experience watching top-flight pitchers, from Jim Palmer and Mike Cuellar to Dwight Gooden and David Cone to Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez.

The Nationals thought enough of Johnson to make him their manager. They ought to let him make this decision, and if they did, I suspect that Davey Johnson would let Stephen Strasburg continue to pitch.

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  1. Paul said...

    Bruce, it would appear from some news accounts that Strasburg’s agent Scott Boros is advocating that he be shut down.  This is another example of agents and others putting the individual player ahead of the needs of the team.  The fact that the Nats’ GM is buying into this idea is ludicrous.  Will it cost the Nats a pennant?  Hard to say, but using Commissioner Kuhn’s edict as a point of reference, it would seem that Commissioner Selig should follow suit and issue a similar edict.  I’m betting that won’t happen, however, given how Selig is a former owner himself. 

    I can tell you this:  if my beloved Royals ever get close to a pennant and a similar decision is made, it would cause me to lose my interest in the sport.  I’ve hung in through free agency, strikes, and the lack of financial parity.  This one would be the straw that broke this camel’s back.

  2. Bruce Markusen said...

    I hear you, Paul. I think the Nationals are sending a very bad message to their fans—and their players—if the concept of winning runs second to “protecting” a pitcher who is currently healthy.

  3. marc said...

    Good column, thank you.

    I think the difference here is the question of a team “trying to win”. However much I can understand the poetic outcome the Braves wanted for Aaron, Kuhn had a point. With Strasburg, shutting him down is “trying to win” as the idea is that he will be more effective in the long run, i.e., the Nationals will win more games, albeit over a period of years.

    As a fan, I don’t want him shut down, but this is not throwing games – whether they’re right or not, it’s intended to win games. It’s a gamble either way, however.

  4. Marc Schneider said...

    In Aaron’s case, it’s not like he was going to play every game at 40.  He was going to miss some games so it was just a matter of when.  He probably would not have missed games early in the season but he certainly would not have played every day.

    People are making much ado about nothing. The Nats are making a long-term judgement about what will benefit the team in the long-run.  As for the “integrity of the game” look at the playoff set up, which allows good teams to face a one-game playoff.  What’s so ethical about that?

  5. Steve I said...

    I was looking at Aaron’s splits at Retrosheet and noticed his SB data.  He was 179-40 when batting #3, and 59-30 when batting #4, a pretty big disparity in both rate of attempts and rate of success.  I wonder why that was.  Just for grins I looked at Mantle and the gaps weren’t nearly as large.  (To be clear, I’m comparing Aaron to Aaron, not Aaron to Mantle.)

  6. Bruce Markusen said...

    Marc, the one-game playoff is irrelevant to this issue. The Nationals have no control over MLB’s playoff format, but they do have control over the usage of their ace pitcher.

    Much ado about nothing? This is a huge story, almost unprecedented in baseball history, about a contending team shutting down a healthy ace pitcher during a pennant race. This is much ado about EVERYTHING, at least from a baseball standpoint.

  7. Paul G. said...

    Compare/contrast the Joba Chamberlain saga.  In an effort to convert an A/A+ reliever into a quality starter brought about the infamous “Joba Rules.”  Unlike the Nationals who are letting Strasburg to pitch as much as he can and then shut him down, Joba was allowed to be a starter at the start of the season and then halfway through was more or less turned into a long reliever that happened to start games.  The long-term result was a mediocre pitcher both as a starter and reliever, though there are other circumstances to consider (drinking too much, injuries, wayward trampolines).  On the plus side he was available for the 2009 post-season and pitched relatively well out of the pen.

    So at least the Nationals are not going down that route.  It could be worse.

  8. Hank G. said...

    “Isn’t winning the most important thing in the major leagues?”

    Perhaps for your next article, you could write “Sandy Koufax Should Have Pitched For A Couple More Years.”

  9. kds said...

    The Braves in 1974 wanted to put a worse team on the field to increase profits from home attendance.  Pete Rose was kicked out of baseball with just the possibility that his betting on baseball might lead to conflicts of interest and cost the Reds some games.  (And lying about it.)  While there are strong reasons to avoid gamblers, and strong rules against it. What the Braves wanted to do was more egregious as an attempt to make money by trying less than usual to win games than just about anything in the last 93 seasons.

    Since baseball is played almost every day for six months it is completely normal to rest players and put less than your best lineup on the field every day.  Much more so with pitchers.  It is completely normal in baseball to reduce your chances of winning today in order to improve the chances in the future. What is unusual about this situation is that the future is next year, not later this season or post-season. 

    The Nationals claim they have medical/performance data that strongly suggests that his usage be limited in the first full season after TJS.  They did this with Jordan Zimmermann last year.  By br-WAR (including fielding and batting) J-Zimm has been the best pitcher in the NL so far this year. 

    The Nats were not expected to be very good this year, much less have the best record of all.  Especially with all the injuries they have had it is a surprise.  They are a young team with expectations of doing well for many years to come.  Rizzo put this team together, seems to have done a great job and deserves the benefit of the doubt in planning what is best for the team in winning championships in the long run.

  10. Eugene in Oregon said...

    Absolutely no connection/relationship between the two cases.  The Nats are following medical protocol; the Braves were making a decision based on—depending on how you view it—selling tickets at home games or respecting their home fans.  If you haven’t read Tom Boswell’s recent column in the Washington Post on the reasoning behind the Nats’ decision, you should.  But this isn’t about ‘disrespecting’ fans or the game; it’s about following the best medical advice the team has been given.  And we’ve all know that this would happen since the beginning of Spring Training—actually since the end of last season.  It’s what the Nats did with Jordan Zimmermann and what they’ll do with any future post-TJ surgery picture.  It’s not a conspiracy to lose ballgames.

  11. phoneybone said...

    While I agree that a player shouldn’t put his own interests ahead of the team’s, I do understand Strasburg and his agent not wanting to risk destroying his arm, and thus his entire career.

  12. Randy said...

    Nice article Bruce—wasn’t aware of the Kuhn-Aaron controversy.

    I disagree, however, with your assessment of who in the Nationals organization should make the decision to sit or start Strasburg.  It simply starts at the top—Strasburg is a multi-million dollar asset owned by the Lerners.  Ultimately it’s their decision how to handle that asset, based on whether they believe it’s more profitable to gamble on the present or the future.

    If they choose to delegate that responsibility, which they apparently have to Mike Rizzo, then that’s also their prerogative.  But nobody, not the Lerners and not Rizzo, is obligated to delegate that further to Davey Johnson.  Let the manager manage the roster he’s given.  If the GM or owner changes that roster, that’s how it works.

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