Washington Nationals All-Star pitcher Stephen Strasburg is at the center of a major debate swirling around the Washington area and among baseball analysts around the country. Rather, his right arm has. Nationals’ management plans to follow medical advice and take him out of the starting rotation next month as part of his recovery from Tommy John surgery. Many baseball analysts are scratching their heads at that decision when the Nationals have a legitimate chance of winning the World Series this year. Considering the Nationals have never even made the playoffs and currently sit atop the N.L. standings, it’s a really big deal.
This sportswriter has enough experience dealing with injuries to know to shut it down when it’s time to rest. That’s not to say I agree with shutting down Strasburg altogether. The kid wants to play, and considering the opportunity, who can blame him? Any smart manager has to know how to leverage all of his talent. Strasburg is one of the most talented pitchers in the league, but in the National League he’s not just a pitcher, he’s the best batter at his position in the major leagues.
The Washington Nationals should use Stephen Strasburg as a pinch hitter.
The numbers bear it out, too. Strasburg is hitting .293 this season in 41 at bats. By comparison, the only other pitcher batting above .250 with more than 24 at bats is Jason Marquis (.290, 31 AB). Strasburg leads all pitchers with 12 hits, 4 doubles, and 7 RBI. He’s in the top ten in walks (3), runs (4), and is one of only 13 pitchers with a home run this season. His on base percentage of .356 (in 47 plate appearances), slugging percentage of .463, and batting average are higher than any pitcher with more than 9 at bats. He’s got the most extra-base hits, the most total bases, plus two sacrifices and one hit-by-pitch. Yes, he has struck out 11 times, but there are 56 pitchers who have struck out more often than him.
Enough about the pitchers, how does Strasburg compare to other pinch-hitters? First of all, only two players have more pinch hitting at bats than Strasburg, and only two have more hits (two tied at 14). Only the Braves’ Reed Johnson has a better batting average than Strasburg among pinch hitters with more than 23 at bats. Sure, there is more range among the pinch hitters in terms of power, base-running, and working pitchers in their counts, but few have the solid stat line of Strasburg all the way across.
So Strasburg stacks up well with other pinch hitters, do the Nationals really need him as a pinch hitter? The Nationals do have Chad Tracy back from his rehab stint. Tracy is hitting .304 (7/23) as a pinch hitter with 2 doubles, a homer, and 9 RBI. He’d almost certainly be the go-to guy when the first pitcher comes out. When the Nationals go to the bullpen late in games, they may want to use another pinch hitter, and with all the regular batters in the lineup, that’s where Strabsurg would be useful. He is, quite simply, the best pinch hitter the Nationals would have after Tracy, and he’d be 9th in the batting order, anyway.
Somewhere along the line, major league pitchers went from being baseball players to a separate species. The American League even has a designated hitter rule, but nearly every other baseball league in existence, including all the ones Strasburg grew up in, makes all their players play both sides of the ball. Like Roy Hobbs in “The Natural,” this kid can do it all. Sure, he may only get into the lineup once every 5 games, but he does that now, anyway. Let him play.