Sunday, August 12, 2012

On the Nats' Decision to Shut Down Stephen Strasburg

You probably know by now that the Washington Nationals, who currently have the best record in baseball, are planning to shut down Stephen Strasburg -- their ace pitcher -- before the playoffs start in order to protect his arm. Jason Stark of ESPN does a good job of laying out the pros and cons of this move here.

If Washington cared about the Nats as much as it cares about Redskins' pre-season football, this would be a huge deal. It would also be a huge deal if Washingtonians were as desperate to win the World Series as, say, fans of almost any other team on the East Coast. But they aren't. In fact, Washington -- a town with a very high percentage of left-brained bureaucrats who are frustrated that the average person prefers "common sense" to expert advice -- is the perfect place to sacrifice a baseball season in the name of medical expertise. In Washington, we're accustomed to the notion that you trust the experts -- even if their advice leads to a lot of short-term pain.

Personally, I don't believe in experts as much as most folks in Washington, and my common sense tells me that chances to win the World Series -- especially in a town that has experienced exactly one winning baseball season since 1952 -- should not be wasted. But I've lived in Washington long enough to know that in this town, exciting and highly-ethical theories will almost always prevail over common sense.

I also think one other factor is in play here. The mathematical theories that carry so much weight in baseball these days only make sense in the context of a large sample size. But the baseball playoffs consist of a tiny number of games in which very random results can happen. Last year, for example, the numbers plainly showed that the Yankees and Phillies were the two best teams in baseball, and neither of those teams even reached the League Championship Series. The Cardinals, who won the World Series, wouldn't have even made the playoffs if Atlanta had not collapsed. Given the randomness of the baseball playoffs, therefore, it's not clear that eliminating Strasburg from the starting rotation will make that much of a difference in Washington's chances to capture the World Series. In other words, the Nats will probably lose in the playoffs without Strasburg. But they would probably lose in the playoffs with Strasburg anyway.

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