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Best of BP: One of The Ones About Labor (They’re All About Labor)

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Image credit: © Ray Acevedo-USA TODAY Sports

This article was originally published September 27, 2023.


What does Josh Hader owe the San Diego Padres?

On Monday night, Giants manager Gabe Kapler sent up lefty Michael Conforto as an eighth-inning pinch-hitter with the bases loaded against Padres setup man Robert Suarez. Kapler did so knowing that the best left-handed reliever in the sport was in the opposite bullpen—and knowing he was very unlikely to enter the game. Hader has not been asked for a four-out save in the regular season since August 2020, and his reluctance to pitch in “up/down” situations is long-standing and well known. Suarez stayed in the game, Conforto knocked in two runners, Hader never got in, and the Padres lost, a virtual death blow to their extremely outside chances of making the playoffs.

After the game, Hader reiterated his dislike for multiple inning appearances due to workload concerns and correctly implied that San Diego needed a miracle to make the playoffs win or lose. Embattled manager Bob Melvin didn’t seem thrilled with his closer, although he avoided directly criticizing him. It’s certainly difficult to divorce Hader’s reluctance to pitch more from the broader issues plaguing the Padres, from poor bullpen depth to clubhouse concerns and everywhere in between. But most or all of those issues are on management, not on individual players; the Padres lack of trustworthy relief options is not at all Hader’s fault. He’s done exactly what San Diego could’ve reasonably expected from him when trading for him (and then some).

It’s also difficult to divorce Hader’s call from his place in the broader baseball world. He’s under a week of baseball away from picking his own team for the first time as a professional, and his new contract will likely be worth around triple his career earnings to date. Early in his career in Milwaukee, he was used extensively in multi-inning situations, and Hader stated at the time that usage cost him money in an outdated arbitration process which relies heavily on saves as a counting stat. Why should teams he never chose to work for get to wring every cent of expected value out of his left arm before he can, himself? Was Bob Melvin or A.J. Preller or Peter Seidler going to write him a check for the $100 million he’d lose if his elbow or shoulder went out on Monday night?

Pitchers are frequently asked to go above and beyond their norm for the sake of the team. If the pitcher is a star and everything works out, they might get a bit of positive press. If they’re a fringe big leaguer, they often get sent down for a fresh arm at the end of the night. If they say no, it’s too much work for my arm, they’re usually vilified by the team and media. And this is one instance where even normally pro-labor fans side with ownership.

A few weeks ago, Mariners’ starter George Kirby revealed after a game in Tampa Bay that he did not want to pitch a seventh inning of his start with a 4-2 lead. It was his 166th inning of the season, far eclipsing his previous career high of 130, and he knew he was going to continue to pitch afterwards. After a stellar first half, he’s been shakier since mid-August, and while correlation is not causation, Occam’s razor suggests he’s probably running out of gas. He gave up the lead and the Mariners lost the game.

The public reaction to Kirby’s comments was swift and harsh. He apologized the next day and gave the right quotes about how Seattle’s management usually has to pry the ball out of his hands. He’s continued to pitch, and has, until last night’s superlative outing, continued to look like he might be losing steam. But why did he apologize to begin with? He was right on strategic merit—he pretty obviously wasn’t Seattle’s best option going deep the third time through the order, already far deeper into any season than he’s gone before—and every excess inning he throws is another drop in a fatigue bucket that could bust open at any second.

How many innings does Kirby actually owe the Mariners for his league-minimum salary? Is it 180? 200? 220? Are the Mariners going to use his inflated ERA at the end of this year against him in a future arbitration case? Probably! Will they pay him the $30 million his performance has retrospectively been worth instead of under the $800,000 he’s contracted for as a pre-arbitration player? Absolutely not!

Once upon a time, Stephen Strasburg was the best starting pitching prospect ever. For his first dozen starts in the majors he looked every bit as good as touted and then some, right up until he tore his UCL and had Tommy John surgery late in the 2010 season. In consultation with his medical team, the Nationals decided that he would have workload restrictions through the 2012 season. Washington vaulted into pennant contention that summer, Davey Johnson and Mike Rizzo shut Strasburg down in August anyways, and the Nationals gave up 29 runs in their three NLDS losses to the Cardinals. The Nats’ decision to end Strasburg’s season was castigated pretty much everywhere—including these pages—and is still something of baseball shorthand for penny wise, pound foolish decision making.

Three years later, the Mets and Matt Harvey faced a similar quandary. Another young ace coming directly off Tommy John surgery, Harvey’s medical plan called for a shutdown at 180 innings, similar to Strasburg’s. The 2015 Mets were also pennant contenders. In the wake of Strasburg’s decision and a Sandy Alderson-led pressure campaign in the media, Harvey ultimately decided to keep pitching for the sake of the team. The Mets won the pennant and Harvey came within just a few pitches in Game 5 of the World Series of joining the ranks of the immortal gutsy pitchers who carried their team by shoving when they shouldn’t have been throwing. Did he owe the Mets those innings?

From a 35,000 foot view, what happened next to Strasburg and Harvey looks like a parable about the futility of it all, doesn’t it? Both of them ended up having career-derailing thoracic outlet syndrome, after all. But was it really?

Strasburg was mostly healthy and mostly great for seven more seasons in a Washington uniform. Because his career as an effective pitcher outlasted his team control years, he signed two top of the market contracts: A $175 million extension with an opt out during the 2016 season and a $245 million free agent contract after utilizing that opt out three years later. He got Cy Young votes in three more seasons. The Nationals won the World Series in 2019 and Strasburg was named World Series MVP. Those 2019 playoff innings turned out to be the last bullets in his arm; he started having nerve and shoulder issues the next spring that ultimately turned out to be career-ending thoracic outlet syndrome—after he’d gotten paid twice, after he’d had a career better than 99% of his peers.

Harvey ultimately threw 216 innings in 2015. His thoracic outlet syndrome came the next summer. He threw 539 ⅓ innings of 5.92 ERA baseball in the majors from 2016-2021. He never signed a contract longer than one year and never made more than $11 million in a season.

Whatever the Mets believed Harvey owed them in September and October 2015 was a debt they never repaid. They designated him for assignment the minute they decided he couldn’t help their rotation anymore. He’s now a commercial realtor and often shows up at Citi Field—in the luxury boxes.

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