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Extremely Depressing Report: Stephen Strasburg’s Body Is A Wreck

Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals, looking sad
Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images

You could have forgotten that Stephen Strasburg, in strict terms at least, remains a big-league ballplayer. Waylaid by various neck, shoulder, and nerve problems, and surgeries to address them, the 34-year-old Washington National has pitched a grand total of 31 and one third innings since winning the World Series MVP award in 2019, and none since June 9 of last year, when he got shelled in a 4.2-inning appearance against the Miami Marlins.

Now, according to a harrowing Saturday report by Jesse Dougherty of the Washington Post, Strasburg hasn't been able to do any rehabilitation work in "more than a month." He isn't even doing lower-body stuff now, to say nothing of, y'know, throwing a baseball. In brief, his body seems deeply and perhaps irreparably fucked-up, and the contours of his daily life sound miserable.

He tried to ramp up three different times this past winter, progressing to multiple bullpen sessions. But after throwing one in late January, he felt discomfort on his right side and couldn’t continue. The surgery, which he underwent in 2021, removed a rib and two muscles from his neck. As recently as last summer, Strasburg couldn’t stand for long before his right hand went numb. He often had to lie down and press his hand against his chest to be a warped version of comfortable.

Washington Post

Dougherty's sources describe "severe nerve damage"—pain, tingling, and numbness, accompanying virtually any physical activity. In 2020, Strasburg underwent surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome in hopes of alleviating these same issues, and again for thoracic outlet syndrome in 2021. The latter is the surgery referenced in the blockquote up there, involving the removal of one of his ribs and two neck muscles. None of that has brought him any closer to playing baseball, which after all involves quite a bit of standing before you even get to all the other stuff. At this point, getting Stras through a day of normal non-baseball life without pain seems a more urgent and infinitely more reasonable goal than getting him onto the mound again.

For all that he has accomplished in a remarkable career—1,470 regular-season innings pitched, 1,723 strikeouts, a career WHIP of 1.096, three All-Star teams, the World Series MVP, all with the team that drafted him first overall in 2009—Strasburg seems to have been battling his own body for nearly the entire time. His stable, healthy stretches always seemed like pleasant surprises, like a weekend of cool dry air in August. He tore a ligament in his throwing elbow before he'd completed his first big-league season and underwent Tommy John surgery back when that hadn't yet become a pro forma part of any young pitcher's developmental schedule. In 2012, his first full season back in the majors, he performed brilliantly—but under the infamous innings limit that caused the Nationals to shut him down for the postseason; when they lost in the NLDS that fall, Strasburg's unavailability made for an obvious explanation. He was one of the NL's best pitchers in 2013 and '14, in the latter cresting 200 innings for the first time in his career, but could manage only 127.1 innings in 2015. In 2016 he missed time with back and elbow problems. In 2017 he abandoned his windup, pitching solely from the stretch to reduce stress on his arm; in 2022, attempting to make his way back to steady availability for the first time in two years, he tried pitching out of the windup again.

Dougherty's reporting paints an incredibly bleak picture: The closest thing to optimism in it is a vague hope that Strasburg can "manage the nerve issues enough to make another attempt at pitching." Here is the precise point in the Post story at which I groaned aloud:

If he gets the green light to rehab again, it would be because they decided another attempt wouldn’t affect his long-term well-being more than his health issues already have.

Though it seems kind of irrelevant, and ghoulish to care about, in light of Strasburg's experience of a body wrecked by baseball, it's probably worth noting that when the Nationals signed Strasburg to a seven-year, $245 million contract in 2019, the club declined to take out insurance on the deal, a decision (or oversight, given Strasburg's injury history to that point) that looks disastrous now that Strasburg seems highly unlikely ever to pitch again. Had the organization insured the contract—assuming someone would have been willing to cover it for a somewhat reasonable price—that insurance might be paying Strasburg's salary now, freeing the club to seek quality replacement pitchers with the savings. Then again, given that the Nationals have run off every other prominent figure from that World Series-winning team in the name of cheapening the payroll in advance of finding new ownership, to assume they'd do more with Strasburg's salary than to bury it in a salt cavern is to do them an unearned kindness.

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