Stephen Strasburg & the Washington Nationals – Long Term vs. Short Term


Principle #1 of the Toyota Way management system says: “Base your management decisions on a long-term philosophy, even at the expense of short-term financial goals.”

The current situation with the Washington Nationals and star pitcher Stephen Strasburg  creates the perfect situation to test this choice – even thought it's baseball, not Lean manufacturing (or Lean healthcare… although there's a health-related aspect to the story.

For those of you who aren't baseball fans, Strasburg was one of the most hyped rookies when he broke into the big leagues in 2010. He struck out 14 batters in his debut and often topped 100 MPH with his fastball.

In late August of that first season, disaster struck — he required the famed “Tommy John surgery” and would miss the next 12 to 18 months, as is normal with that reconstructive procedure. After the surgery, Strasburg was out for the entire 2011 season.

Strasburg returned to the majors at the start of the 2012 season, with the team being concerned about his long-term future with the team (they have a $15 million investment in guaranteed bonuses and salary paid to him over four years).

It was well known at the start of the season that the Nationals would limit the number of innings he would pitch, to avoid undue wear on his reconstructed arm. The idea was to have him pitch in a normal rotation (interval between starts) rather than spread his innings out over the season (being better for a pitcher's arm and conditioning to be on the normal routine). The rumored limit would be 160 to 180 innings.

The big surprise is that the Nationals are, after a history of failure, in first place and have a good chance of winning it all – the World Series – this year. But, the team announced that Stasburg will be shut down on September 12 and will NOT pitch during the playoffs.

For a team based in a city not known for responsible, long-term decision making, it's really noteworthy to see what the Nationals are doing. I'm sure many of their fans would rather see the team win NOW. There are no guarantees for future seasons — Stasburg could be healthy on a mediocre or bad team.

There's going to be endless debate about this decision on sports talk radio, ESPN, and the other broadcasters during the playoffs – for as long as the Nationals are in it and even after (if) they lose. There will be second guessing if the Nationals don't win the Series without Strasburg.

Some opinions:

The short term factors (arguments for letting him pitch):

  • You have to try to win NOW – you might not get another shot. Many great players retire without having had a chance to win a Series.
  • Fans might get upset at the lost opportunity and cancel their season tickets next year (lost revenue for the team).
  • If rested, he could still blow out his arm in the future, say next May – baseball is a funny game and pitching puts a lot of strain on the human body.
  • The Nationals franchise would make a lot more money this year and in the future (based on ticket sales and TV contracts) if they win a World Series – meaning higher profits or the ability to have a higher payroll and be good for a long time.

The long term factors (arguments for shutting him down):

  • It's the responsible thing to do and gives them a better chance to be good for the next 10 to 15 years if they protect Strasburg's arm

I'll give the Nationals A LOT of credit for sticking with their guns — and doing what they said they would do to protect the arm and career of their “big gun,” Strasburg. Would most businesses make that decision?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Excellent example of the alignment of the first Toyota Way principle to something outside of traditional industry.

    Baseball is an interesting industry. It’s like you’ve got all these production lines (teams) vying to be the best production line of them all, and the chance to win happens once per year. Every year production line components (players, coaches) get swapped out or replaced by a whole new series of components that may or may not be reliable over the long term, and used components are sold off to the highest bidder. Production efficiency is nowhere close to guaranteed. At their genuine max, line components have an average life of ~3 years, with an absolute maximum of ~20 years.

    So here’s what bothers me about the Strasburg situation. So few players get the chance to make the playoffs, let alone the World Series. Out of 30 teams in the majors, only two play in the Series. Heck, the Cubs haven’t been there since 1945. Lots of players have come and gone, and have had long careers without even getting a sniff of the Series (just point to any lifelong Cub – Ernie Banks, Ron Santo save one year) so when you are in a great position to do so you need to take advantage.

    Not to get all baseball-ey here, but Strasburg hasn’t just pitched for two years. He pitched in high school. He pitched 4 years at San Diego State. He pitched in the minors. In addition, lots of players have Tommy John surgery now and many end up coming back stronger after the surgery because it repairs a lot of the damage done to ligaments over many years.

    I’m no medical expert, nor would I claim to be. But what I don’t understand about these innings limits is…what does the player think? How does he feel? Why are major league teams capping his innings and not his pitches? Maybe he throws 155 innings and he struggles a lot, having to throw a lot of pitches per inning. Does he still get an additional 5 innings? What about 160 innings where he’s overall very efficient (as he has been this season) and hasn’t thrown a lot of pitches per inning (he’s a strikeout pitcher, so this probably isn’t the case) – is he done?

    In baseball (and in life) nothing is guaranteed. Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. Next year isn’t. Strasburg’s health next year, next decade isn’t. What is guaranteed? A really strong Washington Nationals’ 2012 season where they’re crushing the NL East and are on their way to the playoffs. You can’t get to the World Series without making the playoffs. The goal is to win the World Series. In April 2013 standings are reset.

    The Nationals might be thinking about the long-term health of their player and their investment in him…but there is no way to guarantee the completion of the goal of winning the World Series in future years, and their chances of winning right now are likely higher than they’ll ever be.

    • Great comment, Chad.

      You raise an interesting point about why “innings” is the measure of wear and tear, not pitches. Maybe the measure is the number of curveballs thrown, if that pitch puts more stress on his arm. But, the Nats claim there wasn’t a hard-set innings limit, as had been rumored. So why shut him down Sept 12? This can’t be a precise, scientific calculation.

      It’s not like a factory machine tool that we KNOW will break if you let it go beyond 1000 cycles… a situation where you might have consistency and repeatability.

      As healthcare people say, “every patient is unique,” so I guess (also) every pitcher is unique?

      Also, Strasburg is not a 12 year old Little Leaguer who is being protected. He’s a grown man, a free man. He must be on board with this plan (or, if not, he’ll bolt the Nationals as soon as he can and then so much for the Nats long-term plans and aims).

  2. If we are taking it back to Lean, Chad and you did hit on it…respect and trust.
    Respect the work, respect those doing the work and definitely be at the Gemba and watch, listen, and ask about the work. Trust those doing the work. Make sure that you have provided them with all of the information, knowledge, tools and training to make informed decisions and respect his decision. He may have a voice, does he have a vote? Who decides tie breakers?

    That he has lived through the surgery, he has had many months (years?) to consider the consequences, yet, somewhat paternalistically (materialistically?) the management has made a decision. If he disagreed, what would the repercussions be? He knows his livelihood clock is ticking loudly. And concretely, innings pitched sounds arbitrary with some less respectful ROI undertones and appears based on a set point in the past sans current information.


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