Politics Adores a Vacuum: Stephen Strasburg and Election Policy


[Image courtesy of gettyimages via bleacherreport]

This weekend, the Washington Nationals announced that they were “shutting down” Stephen Strasburg, their 24-year-old star pitcher, for the season after 28 games and about 160 innings. The shutdown is part of the team’s plan for Strasburg’s long-term recovery from Tommy John surgery performed after he injured his elbow in 2010.

The shutdown decision has become the focus of a fierce debate, given that the Nats currently have the best record in Major League Baseball and are on track for D.C.’s first postseason appearance since the 1933 World Series. On one side, supporters of the team argue that Strasburg’s long-term health is more valuable to the Nationals; while on the other side, detractors argue that championships are sufficiently rare that it is foolish to deprive the team of one of its best arms on the eve of the playoffs.

What’s making the debate even hotter is the fact that there is very little evidence on either side. The Nationals have support from medical professionals but no actual proof that the shutdown will prolong Strasburg’s career or that he won’t get injured again anytime soon. Opponents, on the other hand, have no evidence that Strasburg’s absence from the rotation will cost the Nats a championship. The discussion has spawned endless discussions on sports pages, sports radio – even pro and con arguments in the Atlantic – about whether or not the shutdown is a good idea.

As a lifelong fan of Washington baseball, I have been mesmerized by the debate – but as an election geek, I have been struck by the parallel to current election policy debates on voter ID and other subjects. Each of these debates have a few things in common:

+ proximity to an event with “big consequences” (playoffs/World Series, Election Day);

+ plausible arguments on either side re: causation (injury vs. victory, fraud vs. disenfranchisement); and, most importantly

+ a near-total lack of data on either side.

Indeed, the lack of evidence creates a vacuum that is easy for partisans to fill with increasingly heated rhetoric, unfettered by data. In the end, the decision comes down to the people with the power to make it – legislatures in election policy, manager Davey Johnson and GM Mike Rizzo with Strasburg – and the wisdom of the outcome will not be known for a long time, if ever.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the Strasburg decision is anywhere near as important as election policy (though I’ll admit I feel pretty strongly about both), but I do think that we can learn something about our collective tendency to fight hardest about the things we know the least about. To the extent that we can use that awareness to commit ourselves to better data-gathering (whether about the effect of pitching on elbow ligaments or the impact of voter ID on voters) it gives us an opportunity to stop shouting and start learning something.

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