Sunday, August 26, 2012

"Shutting Down" Stephen Strasburg is Ethically Right



Why are sports commentators and players so upset over Stephen Strasburg? The Washington Nationals long ago decided to limit the total innings of their prized pitcher Steven Strasburg. Strasburg, who is one year out from a Tommy John surgery, will end his first year of pitching after180 pitches. Now he has ended it even earlier after a three inning stint where the psychological costs of being the center of a firestorm finally got to his concentration.

Even locked in a pennant race, the Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo decided to protect Strasbug’s healing and avoid arm fatigue that has derailed the career of many fine pitchers. The decision has unleashed a firestorm of criticism for “shutting down” Strasburg. The criticisms come from an old school mythical view of sports and ignores the science and economics of what the Nationals are doing. We should be proud of a team that is putting a player’s welfare before winning at all costs. In a world where coaches risk the health of players to eek out a win, we should celebrate the courage of this action, it is the right thing to do.

Baseball pitching is one of the most notoriously inhuman actions performed in sports. 50 percent of major league starters will end up on the long term disabled list in the normal course of their career. We have ample empirical evidence of the costs of over pitching. We know managers like Billy Martin who road pitchers to championships only to have them ruined for the rest of their careers.  Jason Stark who has been the most reasonable commentator on Strasburg from the beginning has it pretty much right on the pros and cons of the decision to limit pitches one year out from surgery.

The Nationals consulted with a large number of medical personnel and have gotten almost universal respect from the medical and training community for their brave decision. The medical community has been trying to introduce a much stronger emphasis upon pitch count and sophisticated accounting for years, and the Nationals’ decision represents the high water mark of this attempt. This becomes increasingly important given the unique inhuman nature of pitching and the size and strength of modern pitchers who easily average 94-98 miles per hour.

The decision resonates with me because managers, coaches and general managers have traditionally been willing to risk careers of individuals to win championships. Too many incidents exist of players pushed by peer pressure, coaches or collaborating trainers and doctors to play when they should not. I’ve talked to doctors who ultimately left professional service because of the pressures they felt upon their medical judgment. Yet Rizzo very flatly stated, “We want to do what’s best for Stephen in the long run.”

In a world where athletes are treated as disposable commodities deployed to win at all costs, we should celebrate this decision, not vilify it.

I want to emphasize the players want to take this risk too. Most of the pressure to play through pain and risk comes from the internal drive of players to compete as well as the powerful almost ecstatic feeling of dominating performance when you are on. Players also feel strong obligations not to let fellow teammates down. When Manteo Mitchell finished running the first leg of the Olympic 800 meter hurdles on a broken leg, he knew the leg broke but kept running. As he put it, “You don’t want to let anyone down.”

The senior leadership of the Nationals is trying to set aside this type of pressure and romanticizing of pain. They have two strong justifications:


1.     1)          The team wants to protect the pitcher’s health. They already know that he can be injured and oversaw a model rehab. The decision flows from the desire to protect his long-term ability and lower the risk of career ending injury. The team has no certainty but has done its best to think about the dangers and stresses to a young strong power pitcher in his first year of recovery from ulnar collateral damage.


2.    2)             Economically the Nationals have made one of the major investments in the history of pitching in signing Strasburg (Thank you Scott Boros). The team has built carefully for the long run as witnessed by how they carefully husbanded another injured star pitcher Jordan Zimmerman as well as picking up veteran catcher Kurt Suzuki to work with them. The Nationals have every reason to want their economic investment to pay long-term dividends.


Strasburg is not 37 like Chris Carpenter for St. Louis last year. Carpenter went on a roll and and gladly risked what remained of his career to win a World Series. Nor is he Orel Hershiser in 1988 having one of the great seasons of modern baseball who showed no signs of stress or strain on the way to a World Series win and in the middle of 5 250 inning years. At 32 he blew out his arm and never had the same career. Strasberg is 23 and already severely injured. The Nationals do not have certainty but they know the heightened risk and have examples like the almost great career of Kerry Wood.

Ethics has a principle called the precautionary principle where individuals and institutions should prefer the outcome that generally avoids the maximum amount of damage. As the probabilities of the damage rises, the imperative of the principle rises. Yes the  Nationals are acting on probabilities. The have amassed and studied good information supported by an emerging science among doctors about how to protect and nurture the arms of modern power pitchers. They might be overly cautious but they are not wrong; they are much more humane, thoughtful and statistically sensitive. They are acting on the precautionary principle.  This is how teams should think of athletes, not as interchangeable parts.

Left to his own Strasberg would make the Achilles Choice I often write about. He is upset and angry about this decision. He would risk his long-term success to win all the glory of the World Series. We do not know he would win, but he would risk it. The Nationals will be competing for years, but this year looks special and he would do it. So would the Greek Chorus of fans and commentators and self styled old school players attacking the Nationals.

The attacks on Mike  Rizzo and the Nationals are many and varied but they all reduce to one narrative—athletes play to win. Athletes risk physical injury and that is their job. So let him take the risk and gain the glory.
Behind the critique lies the facile and wrong claim by the smaller, weaker, and slower ex-veterans that somehow this “shut down” (versus pitch control) indicts the coddled and pampered modern athletes compared to the tough guys of old. You see the same resentful logic among football veterans who attack efforts to minimize head trauma in football. To them, this decision defiles virtues of courage and overcoming adversity that gives sports narratives so much appeal in the USA.

These images evoke a bloodied Rams’ linebacker Jack Youngblood playing the Super Bowl on a broken leg. It conjures Kerri Strug with a torn ankle vaulting the US to Olympic gold in 1996. Strasburg’s “shut down” shatters this tale of courage and triumph.

I mean Strasburg is not even injured yet!!! They are taking him out before he is injured, and that makes no sense to the narrative of sport, to fans desperate for a victory or to players invested in their own self-image of warriors and gladiators.

The reality is different. Those unique heroic moments can occur because physiologically and psychologically athletes and humans can muster immense physical resources and surmount pain for short periods. High stakes, huge stress and strong loyalty amplify this power. We see acts of superhuman bravery and physicality during accidents, disasters and exceptional moments.

Most athletes and humans, however, do not achieve through pain. Their performance degrades, and the longer they stay in the worse they become and their teammates suffer for it. Injury and hurt degrades performance, and serious injuries can destroy careers in a nanosecond. Unless masked by painkillers or adrenaline, pain undermines performance quickly and radically. The realities in the broken lives and foreshortened careers-pitchers who lose their speed and delivery and end as journeyman because they were mismanaged and overused during their early careers.

The Nationals know the reality; they see through the myths we collectively embrace which are confirmed just often enough to reinforce its influence.

The average fan gets the moral and practical side of the decision to shut down Strasburg. They approved the decision by a 4-1 majority. They understand the fairness and risk with far more clarity about the issue than the commentators and ex-jocks. They know how teams usually exploit and toss off players to win.

The Nationals are right; this is ethical progress, not failure.

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