Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 11/16/14

I defended the Nationals’ decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg before the end of the regular season and prevent him from pitching in the postseason. Few outside the team were defending the decision publicly then, and even fewer are doing it now, with the team on the brink of elimination — they could be eliminated from the playoffs this afternoon, with Ross Detwiler pitching against Kyle Lohse. On Wednesday, Ken Rosenthal quoted an unnamed Nats player as saying, “If we had ‘Stras, we’d be up 2-0.”
So there are two questions being asked. The overt question is, would the Nationals be in a better position in the playoffs if they still had Strasburg? But that assumes an affirmative answer to this question: would the Nationals be in their current position in the playoffs if they had treated Strasburg differently — either skipping his starts, pitching him every sixth day, or simply holding him in extended spring training and starting him later in the year?

If the answer to the second question is yes, then the answer to the first one is too, though the effect might be smaller than you’d think. (In the 2009 World Series, Andy Pettitte outpitched Cole Hamels. It’s one game.) But the answer to the second question is unclear. As Dave Cameron wrote a month ago, when the Nationals decided to shut down Strasburg and put Ross Detwiler in his spot in the rotation:
[T]he Nationals chose something like the most conservative usage path possible, but given how little is known about keeping pitchers healthy, their decision is certainly within the bounds of what one could consider reasonable… The starting pitcher is an important factor in the end result of a ballgame, but it isn’t the deciding factor, and it’s certainly possible that the decision to use Detwiler instead of Strasburg ends up not having much of an effect on the Nationals playoff chase at all, simply due to outcomes that have nothing to do with the quality of each pitcher.
As a Braves fan, I’m well aware of the ease with which a very good team can lose in the Division Series to an inferior Central Division team despite the presence of a potential Hall of Fame pitcher. The Braves have lost in the first round of the playoffs in each of the past six times that they’ve advanced to the playoffs. A case study is qualitative analysis rather than quantitative analysis, but I think it’s still an instructive comparison.
The 2012 Braves had Kris Medlen coming back from Tommy John surgery in much the same way that Strasburg was, and the Braves took the opposite approach: they put Medlen in the bullpen to start the year, then only moved him to the rotation in late summer. Medlen finished the season with 138 innings pitched, and his 3.9 fWAR were just a tick below Strasburg’s 4.3 — but the Braves lost the Wild Card game as Medlen gave up four runs (two earned) in 6 1/3 miserable innings.
Different processes can lead to different outcomes, but there’s a lot else that’s simply up to chance. If Strasburg pitched against the Cardinals the way he pitched against the Marlins on September 10, his last start of the year, the Nats might still be down 2-1 in the Division Series.
Before 2012, the Braves lost their last five appearances in the Division Series, from 2002-2005 (as division winners) and 2010 (as Wild Card). Those teams won an average of 96 games a year, and lost the first three series 3-2 and the last two 3-1.
In 2002, the Braves had Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux in their rotation and John Smoltz as their closer, but the team lost to a Wild Card Giants team that advanced to the World Series. In ’03, the Braves had Maddux starting and Smoltz closing, but lost to an 88-win Cubs team with Mark Prior and Kerry Wood.
In ’04, Maddux was gone but Smoltz was still closing, and the Braves lost to a Wild Card Astros team. In ’05, Smoltz was back in the starting rotation, and the Braves lost to the Wild Card Astros again. And in 2010, the Braves’ only Hall of Fame-caliber pitcher was Billy Wagner, and they lost to a division-winning Giants team that eventually won the World Series.
(The Braves also lost in the Division Series in 2000: Smoltz was out for the year with Tommy John surgery, but Maddux and Glavine were in the rotation as the Braves got swept out of the NLDS by the division-winning Cardinals.)
Wild Card teams experienced extraordinary success in the first 17 years of the Division Series, from 1995 to 2011. In 17 years, 68 Division Series were played, of which 34 involved a Wild Card team. By my count, the Wild Card team actually won 18 of those 34 series, 53 percent of the time.
Through no fault of the Wild Card planners, it appeared that division winners were if anything disadvantaged by the time they got to the postseason. That extraordinary success is a big reason for the creation of the Wild Card Game, which was meant to make it a little harder for Wild Card teams to march through the playoffs. The Braves certainly experienced that firsthand this year.
But if we run the counterfactual, in order for Stephen Strasburg to have been able to pitch at least six starts in the postseason — at least two between the Wild Card game (if necessary) and Division Series, at least two in the NLCS, and at least two in the World Series — then the Nationals would have needed to account for that extra 35-40 innings in their plan for his season. They would have needed to skip around six of his regular-season starts.
Since his season was worth 4.3 WAR, that means that they would have essentially lost a win. And considering that they didn’t clinch the division until two days before the end of the season, that would have put the division in jeopardy — so they might have had to play in the Wild Card game, too. And anyone can lose the Wild Card game. Even the two-time defending American League champions. Or the Braves. (Although, in fairness, the Braves have never met a playoff format they couldn’t lose.)
It’s easy to understand why the players are grousing. Believe me, I know how much it sucks to lose to the Cardinals. The Nationals may have not picked the optimal strategy with Strasburg, though I happen to think it was a defensible one. But even if they picked a completely different strategy — as the Braves did with Kris Medlen — the Nationals would still have a good chance of losing in the playoffs to an inferior team. As they say, “That’s baseball.”

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