The Nationals have announced that Stephen Strasburg will return to the major leagues September 6 at home against the Los Angeles Dodgers. It will be Strasburg’s first big league start since undergoing Tommy John Surgery on September 3, 2010. Most players who undergo the surgery take anywhere from 12-to-18 months to fully recover and then rehab before returning to the majors. Strasburg will take the Nationals Park mound exactly 12 months and three days after his surgery date. Some may wonder why the Nationals, who are 63-70 and 23 games behind the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League East, are risking his health by bringing him back for a few starts in September with Washington out of the playoff race. However, the Nationals are making the right decision by not shutting down Strasburg and instead, letting him pitch this year.
The Nationals’ decision allows Strasburg much more comfort in adjusting back to Major League Baseball. The Nationals are going to give their young minor league talent a look over the final month of the season to audition for future roster spots. Strasburg, who, after being the No. 1 pick of 2009 amateur draft went 5-3 with a 2.91 ERA, 1.074 WHIP, 12.2 K/9 ratio and 5.41 K/BB ratio in 12 starts last year, is clearly the future ace of the Nationals if healthy. Therefore, there is no pressure for him to try to earn a roster spot with his performance over the final month. He can shake off the butterflies from returning to the majors and readjust to big league hitters now, rather than in the beginning of 2012 when Washington figures to field a more competitive ballclub.
The Nationals only have to look to a fellow starter on their team and a division rival’s starting pitcher to know they are making the right decision. Washington is shutting down 25-year old starter Jordan Zimmermann, who underwent Tommy John Surgery in August of 2009, to limit his innings this season. Strasburg will easily slide right into Zimmermann’s slot in the rotation, but can also learn from his experience. After going under the knife nearly the same time of the year as Strasburg did, Zimmermann returned on August 26, 2010 to make seven big league starts and re-acclimate himself to the mound. Zimmermann struggled in those seven starts, going 1-2 with a 4.94 ERA and 1.323 WHIP. However, he was able to regain his strength, shake off the butterflies and learn how to pitch again at the major league level during that short stint. Zimmermann made what is presumably his final start of the season August 28, but finished with a very good 2011 campaign, his first full season back from the surgery. In 26 starts, he went 8-11 with a 3.18 ERA, 1.147 WHIP and 124 strikeouts in 161.1 innings. His brief return to the mound last season got out all of the jitters from the stigma of returning from Tommy John Surgery and allowed him to focus on what would ultimately be a very good year in the offseason.
Atlanta Braves pitcher Tim Hudson underwent Tommy John Surgery on August 8, 2008, close to the same calender date as Strasburg. Like Zimmerman, Hudson returned the very next season to make seven major league starts. Hudson’s performance, while not poor, was below his impressive career standards. He went 2-1 with a 3.61 ERA, 1.465 WHIP and 30 strikeouts in 42.1 innings over those seven starts. However, in 2010, his first full season back from Tommy John Surgery, Hudson was stellar, going 17-9 with a 2.83 ERA, 1.150 WHIP and 139 punchouts in 228.1 innings of work over 34 starts. Returning in meaningless September games (Atlanta finished the season 86-76 and in third place of the NL East) helped Hudson learn again how to pitch in the major leagues and helped him have one of the best seasons of his career on a 2010 Braves team he was instrumental in leading to the postseason.
There will be people who accuse the Nationals of bringing back Stephen Strasburg for the final month of the season just to sell tickets. However, Washington is making the best decision not from a business point of view, but from a baseball standpoint. Like how the Braves handled Tim Hudson and Washington handled Jordan Zimmermann, bringing back Strasburg now, rather than the beginning of next season, allows him to get the fanfare of returning from Tommy John surgery out of the way and readjust to pitching in the major leagues. If Strasburg follows the model of Zimmermann and Hudson, he will struggle slightly this September, but by next September may be enjoying the best season of his career.
The third and fourth hitters in a lineup, respectively, are traditionally the most feared batters on a team. There are obviously quite a few exceptions. The Yankees bat Curtis Granderson second when everyone is healthy, and he has 36 home runs and leads the majors with 103 runs batted in this year. Ichiro Suzuki (who, despite a down year, is still the most feared hitter in Seattle’s lineup) and Jose Reyes almost always bat leadoff for the Mariners and Mets, respectively. But for a pitcher, there is nothing worse than seeing a dangerous No. 3 batter step into the box and looking over to the opposing dugout to see another dangerous weapon lurking in the on-deck circle.
Perhaps there is no 3-4 punch in baseball history quite as feared as the Yankees’ Babe Ruth-Lou Gehrig duo was from 1926 through 1934 (Gehrig was the No. 5 batter on the 1925 Yankees). On the 1927 Murderers Row team, Ruth hit .356/.486/.772, Gehrig batted .373/.474/.765 and the pair combined to swat 107 home runs and drive in 339 runs. In 1930 Ruth had a .359/.493/.732 batting line, Gehrig hit .379/.473/.721 and the duo combined for 90 homers and 327 RBIs. The very next year, Ruth batted .373/.495/.700 at age 37, his final truly great season, and Gehrig hit .341/.446/.662. They smashed 46 homers apiece and drove in a combined 347 runs with Gehrig driving in 184 of them by himself, the most ever by an American League player in a season. In the nine seasons they batted third and fourth respectively, Ruth and Gehrig combined to drill 771 home runs with 2,748 RBIs. There has been no 3-4 combo that has been feared more or put up better numbers in all of baseball history.
A more modern example of the production Ruth and Gehrig put up from the three and four holes in the lineup, respectively, comes from the 2004 through 2008 Boston Red Sox. David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez did not have the same longevity of Ruth and Gehrig, but there were equally as feared by major league pitchers. In 2004, their first season as a 3-4 combo and the year the Red Sox broke an 86-year drought to win the World Series for the first time since 1918, Ortiz hit .301/.380/.603, Ramirez batted .308/.397/.613 and the duo combined for 84 homers and 269 RBIs. The next year, Ortiz had a .300/.397/.604 batting line, Ramirez hit .292/.388/.594 and they combined to whack 92 home runs and drive in 292 runs. In their four and a half years as a 3-4 combo (Ramirez was traded to the Dodgers on July 31, 2008), the duo produced 354 homers and 1,120 RBIs and helped win Boston’s only two modern World Series championships.
No 3-4 combo today comes close to the Ruth/Gehrig standard of excellence. Nonetheless, there are still some very good ones that are very tough to pitch to, despite injuries limiting many of baseball’s most dangerous 3-4 duos this year. Washington’s Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse don’t match up statistically (combined for 30 home runs and 106 RBIs) with the rest of baseball due to a Zimmerman injury that caused him to miss 58 games, but give the Nationals something to build around with their young and talented farm system. The Phillies have seen a similar problem with Chase Utley missing 51 games with an injury, and as a result, have seen their 3-4 duo combine of Utley and Ryan Howard combine for 36 home runs and 138 RBIs, well below what they normally produce together. The Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez has missed 46 games this year, but he and Mark Teixeira have still hit 49 homers and driven in 152 runs combined. Kevin Youkilis has missed 21 games for the Red Sox, but has combined with Adrian Gonzalez to blast 40 home runs and bring home 181 runs. The Rangers have lost Josh Hamilton for 40 games, but he and Michael Young have hit 27 homers and driven in 157 runs. Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday have missed a combined 42 games to injury, but have hit 50 home runs with 145 RBIs. Cincinnati’s Joey Votto and Jay Bruce have stayed healthy, each knocking in 84 runs and combining for 51 long bombs, but have been plagued by Bruce’s inconsistency all year long. However, healthy or not, none of these duos match the Milwaukee’s Brewers 3-4 punch of Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder.
Braun and Fielder have terrorized opposing pitchers together since Braun reached the big leagues in 2007. Their first year together, Braun hit .324/.370/.634, Fielder batted .288/.395/.618 and the pair combined for 84 home runs and 216 RBIs. The 2009 season was another remarkable campaign for the anchors of Milwaukee’s order, combining for 78 homers and 255 RBIs while Braun owned a .320/.386/.551 batting line and Fielder hit .299/.412/.602. In what is likely their last year mashing together in the lineup because Fielder is a free agent at the end of the season, the duo have smashed 53 home runs and driven in 187 runs together, the most production of any 3-4 duo in baseball. Braun is posting career-highs in batting average (.333) and on-base percentage (.404), and is also leading the National League in slugging percentage (.592). Fielder meanwhile, leads the NL in RBIs with 101, is fifth in slugging percentage (.547), and is close to matching career-highs in average (.298) and OBP (.413).
The pair also has the longevity factor, as they will have been placed as 3-4 batters, respectively, in the Brewers’ lineup for five seasons by the end of this year. They have combined to pound 343 home runs and drive in 1,052 runs in their time as a 3-4 punch. Their production together is the closest baseball has had in a 3-4 duo since Boston’s Ortiz/Ramirez combination, and they are dangerously close to the numbers that Ortiz and Ramirez put up together in the four and a half years they spent destroying opposing pitching in the middle of the Red Sox order. The one thing the Ortiz and Ramirez were able to do together that Braun and Fielder have not is consistently win. The Brewers hold a 9.5 game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central, and if they hold on, it would be the first time Milwaukee’s 3-4 punch has won a division and only the second time they visited the postseason. In comparison, the Ortiz/Ramirez 3-4 duo won one division but also two World Series titles together, going to the playoffs a total of three times. While it may end this offseason because Fielder is expected to sign elsewhere in free agency, the Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder 3-4 punch is the most feared in the majors today – and the best in baseball since David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez bludgeoned opposing pitching in Boston’s order from 2004 through the middle of the 2008 season.
Look up the National League’s batting average leaders and Michael Morse’s name appears third behind perennial All-Stars Jose Reyes and Ryan Braun. Morse is behind only Lance Berkman, Braun and Matt Kemp in slugging percentage. The Washington Nationals’ first baseman/left fielder is in the top 15 in the National League in both home runs and runs batted in, and is in the top ten in OPS.
Michael Morse never had more than 266 at-bats in a season. From 2005 through 2010, he appeared in only 237 games, batting .291/.353/.456 with 33 doubles, 21 home runs and 88 RBIs, which is an average of 15 homers and 61 RBIs over 162 games. Not discouraged by his lack of experience, the Nationals penciled the 6’5″, 230-pounder into the Opening Day lineup in left field. Washington expected Morse, along with Jayson Werth, to help make up for the offseason losses of Josh Willingham (traded to Oakland) and Adam Dunn (signed with the Chicago White Sox). It took him a while to adjust to his new role, but Morse has responded by becoming one of the best hitters not only the in the Nationals’ lineup, but in all of baseball.
An everyday player for the first time in his career, Morse started off the season just 2-for-20. It took him 12 games before he had a multi-hit performance. Batting in the middle of the lineup, Morse didn’t hit his first home run until April 24, the same day he had his first multi-RBI day. In 23 games during March and April, Morse batted .211/.253/.268 with just one double, one home run and nine RBIs. Washington’s gamble that the physical specimen Morse would hit now that he was finally given consistent playing time in the majors was not looking like it would pay off. Morse slipped into a platoon role with Laynce Nix.
However, as soon as the calender turned to May, Morse suddenly morphed into a different hitter. During one stretch in May, he hit a home run in four consecutive games. In 85 games from May through August, Morse has batted .349/.400/.635 with 28 doubles, 20 home runs and 62 RBIs, which over a 162-game average, translated to 54 doubles, 39 homers and 119 RBIs. With Adam LaRoche out of the season with an injury, Werth struggling mightily and Ryan Zimmerman finally starting to come into form after an early-season injury that caused him to miss 58 games, it has been Morse who has shed the platoon role to become in Washington’s lineup and carried the Nationals’ offense. It looks like it could be the way for the foreseeable future.
The Nationals have never had a winning season since they moved to Washington, D.C. before the 2005 season. However, with Morse, Zimmerman and hopefully a rebound performance by Werth next season, Washington has some pieces in the lineup they can build around with their wealth of young talent. Twenty-three year old Wilson Ramos has done a solid job in his rookie season behind the plate. Up the middle, the Nationals have two young pieces in second baseman Danny Espinosa and shortstop Ian Desmond, although both have had their share of struggles this season. Top prospects Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon and Chris Marrero also figure to reach the majors in the near future. Combined with Washington’s young pitching nucleus that consists of Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, John Lannan, Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and Henry Rodriguez, the Washington Nationals look to have a very bright future.
The Nationals placed a lot of responsibility on Michael Morse at the beginning of the season by asking him to help fill the shoes of Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham. Initially, Morse struggled with the pressures of being an everyday player for the first time in his major league career. However, he has settled down at the plate to carry Washington’s offense for most of the season and become one of the National League’s best hitters. At 29 years old and finally given the first opportunity of his career, Michael Morse has made the most of it, becoming a bat the Nationals can build around with their young talent to finally build a winner in D.C.
Follow this link to download and listen to my first podcast: Summer of Scott First Podcast
I will be doing multiple podcasts all summer long. This first one talks about the both Stanley Cup and NBA FInals, as well as some midseason baseball talk. I close it off with the 25th anniversary of the death of Len Bias.
The name for the podcast was inspired by this Seinfeld episode: