Protecting those golden arms is a top priority

Uproar over rotating the player who wins games with the ball is not just an Australian phenomenon. When Mitchell Starc was angry at being left out of the Australian side for the Boxing Day Test after his Hobart heroics, he might have found some empathy in the United States.

The Washington Nationals' decision to stand down its young pitching star, Stephen Strasburg, during the 2012 Major League season sparked furious debate across America. On one side were those not wanting to risk long-term damage to his golden right arm; on the other were fans demanding he play.

Even as the Nats got the scent of a World Series berth, they left Strasburg in the dugout, given he had undergone surgery the previous year to have a ligament in his elbow replaced.

New York mayor Rudy Giuliani called for Strasburg to pitch and so did a legion of Washington fans. But the Nationals stuck firm, banking that at 24, their No.1 draft pick from three years ago, will one day secure them a maiden World Series.

The debate over the "Strasburg Shutdown", as it became known, is more of an exception in professional baseball.

While Australian cricket fans are just getting used to the concept of fast bowlers being left out of Test matches for their own safety or rested when their workload gets too high, baseball has been rotating its pitchers for decades.

Phil Dale, a former Australian pitcher who carved out a 10-year career in the American minor leagues while aligned with the Cincinnati Reds, can remember pitching rotations being commonplace when he began playing there in the early 1980s, so he and the other starting pitchers could get some rest in a crammed schedule.

Now the head coach of the Melbourne Aces in the Australian Baseball League, and a talent scout for the Atlanta Braves, Dale said everyone - fans, players and the clubs paying them - accepted rotations as part of the game.

"The top surgeons are saying it, when it comes to the breakdown period you've got to have this much rest in the year when you're not throwing. The harder you train, the more injuries you're going to get," he said.

"You drop a couple of miles per hour on a baseball field it can be the difference in giving up a lot more runs. If you've got a pitcher who's throwing 96 miles [154 km] per hour and then he drops down to 93 because of wear and tear, that can have a huge impact on how much he plays in the season."

Major League franchises have a platoon of pitchers on their rosters: five starters to kick off games (between 80 and 110 pitches a game and four days off between games), relievers, closers, specialists for seventh and eighth innings and even some for when a game cannot be salvaged. "You're not going to sacrifice your best horse if you can get away with someone less," Dale said.

ABL clubs are the same. On the Aces' roster is Zachary Arneson, who arrived from the New York Yankees with instructions: handle with care.

"They want him throwing one innings, then one day off and so on," Dale said.

"If he throws two innings it's two days off. They're very specific instructions from the organisation. He throws 97 miles per hour and is a prospect and he needs pitching time. But they're the rules and you have to report it every time to them."

Dale can appreciate the stresses on both fast bowlers and pitchers. As a teen fast bowler, he made the Victorian schoolboys side, before the Reds called. He recalls how fast bowling put more stress on the lower body, but concedes pitching is tougher on the arm (now 50, he cannot straighten his arm).

In the Strasburg case, he understood how Washington fans were bitter at seeing their best weapon put on ice just out from the playoffs.

But he said fans were so used to rotations, attendances would fluctuate depending on who was on the mound that day.

"The fans know which starter is going to pitch on any day so they become used to it. Even with the cricket, once the fans become used to it, when they know Peter Siddle is bowling, it might be a bigger drawcard.

"That's what happens over there. When one of the top pitchers pitches, it's a full house," he said.

Bowling rotations are yet to be adopted across the cricket world. While Australia has shuffled its pace pack differently for the past four Tests (sometimes injury has forced its hand), England recently played James Anderson in four Tests in a month in India despite him having bowled more Test overs than anyone this year, bar spinner Graeme Swann.

Dale envisaged a day when rotating bowlers might be as commonplace as shuffling starting pitchers.

"They wouldn't be adopting this strategy based on a gut feel. They'd be doing it on statistical basis and from the sports science people saying 'The injury rates are high, we don't want this guy to break down'," he said.

"You don't want to beat up his back if we can get another five years out of him. Australian cricket will be all the better for it and so will the career of that player."

This story Protecting those golden arms is a top priority first appeared on WA Today.