Ask Boswell: Redskins, Nationals and Washington sports

May 13, 2013

Washington Post Sports Columnist Tom Boswell answered your questions about the Redskins, the Capitals, the Nationals, the rest of D.C. sports and more.

Past Ask Boswell chats

With the technology we have today, do we really need umpires anymore? Wouldn't MLB lower their expenses by utilizing this technology and receive a better "product."

I hope ball-and-strike calls by machine are the direction the game goes over the next 5-to-10 years. It would be a tough transition for the sport and take out some of the human element.

But right now I would prefer a lot less human element and a lot better ball-strike calls. And I bet any machine could yell "Sgtrike" faster than a couple of current umps.

I never thought I'd say this. Yesterday's Suzuki ejection was just the latest example of a bad ball-strike game (for both teams) by a young ump.

Maybe I'll change my mind back. But all season I've been thinking, "baseball can do better than this."

 

Tom, in your years of covering the sport, if Harper had been just a normal everyday player, coming up through the system, would that swing of his -- namely the left foot coming up and the seemingly wild attack at the ball -- have been beaten out of him by now by the coaches? Or is an ideal that many strive for but few achieve? Seems the consensus now is the two-footed balanced swing-and-let-the-top-hand-go.

There are many photos of Clemente, Aaron and many others completing home run swings with their back foot entirely off the gorund. Plenty of Charlie Lau-style hitters hit off their front foot. Some with their back foot off the ground. It's slightly unuasl but, no, it wouldn't have been beaten out of him in this era.

The "balance" (Ted Williams) or "weight back" (Harmon Killebrew) trend was strongest before the '70's. Since then there have been more varied approaches. But the "top hand off the bat" has been in vogue for a long time. That helps you stay through the zone longer, but costs some power. Harper seems to get both benefits.

But a combination of such fine form and almost perfect balance is a rare ATHLETIC gift (rather than technique). See Golf: Tiger Woods.

Is this the breakout season for Jordan Zimmermann? Is it the changeup? I've never seen him look so in control out there.

Z'mann has been in the Top 10 in ERA in the N.L. the last two years. He missed the qualifying number of innings by a couple of outs in '11, but he'd have been top 10 otherwise. So, this is just the continuation __taken to a higher level__ of an outstanding pitcher. 

The changeup has been a (slight) help. Hitters are starting to know he has it. But he has just gotten stronger and stronger since coming back from TJ surgery. He's throwing a little harder. Has a better feel for not leaving the ball over the center of the plate. BUT if he had had normal run support the last two years, he'd probably have won 13-14 games in '11 and 16-17-18 last year.

Would you offer John Wall a max contract?

Yes.

I wouldn't have at mid-season. But he really did have his "break-out" moment after his 6-point sulk-on-the-bencvh game vs Detroit on 2/27. His coach and teammates had some things to say to him after that. I've seldom seen a player respond better. His last 21 games were at the superstar level: 36.1 minutes, 24.3 points, 8.3 assists, 5.0 rebounds, 1.5 steals, 0.6 blocks, 2.7 turnovers (still a little high) and a .466 shooting pecentage which is FAR higher than it had been before.

Can he continue at that level? Not many ever have. That's better than Wade, all around. But I think you have to assume he can continue to play at his last-30-games of '13 level, not the frustrating level he played at earlier in his career.

Thanks for that question. I've been hard on Wall. Glad to have a chance to point out how much he suddenly improved. 

Lets go Caps! What are your thought on tonight's big game 7? Do you think the Caps can pull it off? And if they don't, what will it take for the franchise to ever get over the hump and start a winning attitude in the playoffs? Thanks.

Even though the three previous games at Verizon have been close __3-1, 1-0, 2-1__ it has still felt like the Caps were the better team and in some sort of control. The Rangers only scored two goals off Holtby in those games. How can they think they are going to have enough offense in Game Seven if they don 't have a huge power play advanatge. And they won't.

In NYC, the PP ratio has been 15-5 in the Rangers fdavor, but "only" an 11-9 edge in DC. The Rangers are the NHL's least-penalized team, so don't expect them to take many penalties in any game. But I think the Caps will have very few penalties in Games Seven __especially after all the screaming about refs, some of it justified__  in the last couple of days.    

What do the PGA tour professionals think about hole 17? Valid test or silly gimmick? To someone who doesn't play very much golf, it looks like it belongs on a miniature golf course, not a professional event.

It's a wonderful hole. The pros like it. It is on THEIR course __"The Players Championship." If they didn't want it, they'd change it.

Also, most golf fans have no sense of how accurate the pros are. They can routinely land a short-iron shot in a space the size of a car. You always have the option to hit to the middle of the green and have a 30-40 foot putt. For them, that's an easy option. Sure, a few gag on that shot, but not many. Tiger played away from the hole on 17.

Sergio went for the "sucker pin" on the right side at a time when he didn't have to gamble at all __he was tied for the lead. Fundamental mismanagement.

My two-cent psychology is that, subconsciously, Garcia didn't want to face Woods in a playoff after bad-mouthing him. He wanted to "win it or lose it" right there at 17. Stick it close, as he did in his previous Players win and make birdie from short range. He's a poor putter. He wants to win with his high-quality ball-striking. That was his chance.

But it was STILL a foolish gamble because it brought all Garcia's previous chokes, pratfalls, misadventures, bad breaks and career full of excuses into play. He just disintegrated with another ball in the water at 17 and his tee shot at 18.

Fascinating implosion. Be interesting to see if Sergio recovers from it.

Asked about No. 17, Sergio said, "You've got to love it for what it is."

It's often said that "we say of others what would better be said of ourselves." In this case, I don't think Garcia was talking about the misunderstood and often criticized 17th hole but about himself. He WISHES that people would say of him, "You've got to love him for what he is."

Good luck with that, Sergio. He's burned a lot of bridges, including with the D.C. golf community which considers him the most ungrateful defending champion that the PGA Tour stop here ever had. He didn't want to play at Avenel the year after winning an Congressional. So, he had an "injury," didn't come at the last minutes after having his photo on all the buses in town, then managed to play Sat and Sun, if I remember correctly, in Europe in an exhibition. You can be sure than many people who helped put on events at Congressional and Avenel were slightly p;leased to see all three Garcia "splashes." 

He's not so much a bad guy as a total spoiled brat Alibi-Ike with a negative whiney attitude. Other than that, he's okay by me!

How concerned are the Nats about Zimmerman's shoulder? He was hitting roughly the same this time last year before the first cortisone shot, which led to a drastic improvement? The offseason surgery was supposed to fix this problem, but it looks anything other than fixed (both in the field and at the plate)?

His shoulder is supposedly okay. His bad-but-survivable problem with wild throws on routine plays is on the edge of turning into such an issue that....well, I don't know what you do. You HAVE to keep him at 3rd base. LaRoche is at first. You have to ride it out with him. But this has been a growing problem since BEFORE Dunn was the first baseman in '09-'10 because, at that time, everybody said that Dunn's "big targety" was helping Z'man cut down on wild throws on easy plays.

When a player has had a flaw that turns into a problem that tuns into something that's one or two stages below Steve Sax-Chuck Knoblauch syndrome, that's really sad. Right now, Z'man fielding % in 23 starts at 3rd this year is .899 with 7 errors. It's really bothering him. In Friday's game he risked hurting himself diving to try to compensate by making an amazing play on a =7 smashed over the third base bag. He was very slow getting up. Nats had a 7-2 lead in the ninth. No need to slam himself that hard. I haven't seen a fielding % under .900 for any everyday player since Butch Hobson with the Red Sox in the late '70's. Otherwise, Z'man has never been under last year's .950. You can live with .950. And I think he'll get back to that level. He has streaks of games when he throws perfectly. You can't live with .899 which is 45 errors a year.  Is it in his head? Of course. Is it ALL in his head? Probably not. New mechanics are part of it.

Worst case: he eventually becomes a very good 1st baseman who hits in the middle of the order. Best case: by mid-season we say, "Wasn't it wonderful that a great person like Z'man got over that scary throwing Thing."  

Drew Storen looks like a different pitcher this year. ERA is up to 4.73, and for the first year since his debut I'm nervous when he takes the mound. What gives? He seems to be playing down to reliever status, instead of challenging Soriano for the closer spot.

The idea in sports is NOT to prove your critics right. Some around baseball thought the Nats were wise to get Rafael Soriano because it would be hard for anybody to bounce back completely from Game Five. 

Storen's stuff is still PLENTY good enough to be a set up man or close. He seems to be in love with his 2-seam sinker. When he was pure fastball, wipeout slider and good command, he was very, very good. Now, you sometimes see four pitches, including a changeup, in a 15-pitch outting. Johnson wants him to stop thinking and blow people away with power pitching.

Short version: Storen is young, really gifted, really smart and ultra-competitive. He'll get back up and have a good season. He's also given up some seeing-eye hits (including the four-hopper up the middle that tied yesterday's game).

It's fortunate for all the struggling Nats that they are still 20-17 and the Braves just look awful right now. After a 12-1 start, they are 21-16. Their starting pitching, that was getting raves, has totally fallen back to earth.

How would you rather have for this year or for the rest of their career?

1) Strasburg-Hudson. 2) Gonzalez-Maholm. 3) Z'mann-Medlen. 4) Detwiler-Minor. 5) Haren-Delgado.

I'd take all five Nats for this year and all except Haren-Delgado for the future. And most baseball people would, too, imo. Also, as many problems as the Nats have, the Braves have to look at B.J. Upton (.153) and think, "We gave this guy FIVE years!???"

Starting to look like neither Nats nor Braves are quite as good as they were last year. But Braves have fallen more in what may not be a very strong N.L. East.

This is very much subject to revision!

Bos, When errors occur or a bad call is made, Strasburg appears to have a difficult time making the necessary pitches to get out of an inning. Is this just an example of him being 24 and still learning or is there a bigger long term issue?

I wrote an entire column about this about 10 days ago. The Saturday game was a perfect illustration. Espinosa made an amazing relay throw to third base to throw out a runner for the second out in the 5th of an 0-0 game. Then Zimmerman made his routine error. The 8-9 hitters were up. An ace picks up his teammates by blowing away one of those two hitters. Strasburg issued a walk, got ahead of Edwin Jackson 0-2, then went 3-2 and gave up a two-run double. Then he walked another and ended up giving up four unearned runs.

Aces give up LESS unearned runs than the average. In his career, 15.4% of the runs off Strasburg have been unearned. That is about TWICE what it should be. Small sable size, but not that small (300 IP). 10% is poor. That was a minor Jim Palmer problem his whole career. Some other O's starters only had 5% unearned runs. Justin Verlander has allow 7.9% unearned runs in his career.

I assume that this is just part of Strasburg growing up and he'll move past it. At the same age, many fine young pitchers go through the same progression. They just aren't watched as closely.

Is the NHL using replacement refs in NY? Your colleague Tracee H. commented on the penalty disparity in her column today. I'd like to break it down somewhat differently: According to the Caps' own Gametracker- In 3 games at Verizon, 14 penalties for Caps, 11 for Rangers. In 3 games at MSG, 16 penalties for Caps, 7 (!!) for Rangers. Like her I am loath to blame refs if the play is truly dirty. But that inequity cannot be ignored. What is going on? My team doesn't play THAT dirty. They just get called for it. What do you say?

Rangers avoid penalties very well, Caps are careless, easily provoked and refs have stunk. It tales all thtree for this big a disparity.

I went by power plays (26-14 for the series) in a previous answer rather than straight penalties.

3P on Sunday was interesting: One key call was whether Dorsett provoked Green's retaliation penalty __cross-check to the face while Dorsett was on his knees against the boards__ with what Holtby called "a dirty slew-foot." I'll leave it to those who played competitive hockey to discuss whether that taking-the-legs-out-from-behind was a slew foot. But Oates seldom gets that irritated about anything.

I will note that 4:42 into the third period just before the net got knocked loose to stop play, the Caps had six men on the ice and the refs didn't see it. Caps TV crew called it a big break that this penalty was NOT called on Caps. So it hasn't been ALL one way. And that was a 3P call in a 1-p0 game.

Complaining is as essential/integral to the NHL as fighting/enforcing. And New York teams in sports with seven-game series __including MLB and NBA__ have a remarkably long history of having fortuitous things happen to make a series go longer whenj it looks like they lose. But maybe this is partly ANTI-NYC bias!

Here's what matters: The Caps need to get 100% of their excuses OUT of their heads before they take the ice. This was predicted to be a long even series. So, here is game seven. It is at Verizon. So, go out, get a fast start __not the traditional Caps early disaster in a Game Seven__  and win it.

Hendricks had it right, imo: "It was a combination of playing on the road, tough environment, not getting the calls we thought we should have been getting. But we're not that hockey team...We're a disciplined hockey team. We need to stay disciplined."

But the Caps are right to underline the point made by Brouwer: "We deserved some. We didn't deserve some...But I can't believe they didn't get (even one) penalty." Any team in the hours before a Game Seven should and will harp on that in hopes it will gets in officials heads. All part of pro sports.

To answer you directly, the Caps problem isn't that they are dirty but that, sometimes, they are dumb. You take penalties in long regular season that you absolutely cannot allow yourself to be suckered into making in the playoffs when the stakes are far higher and one goal can change a season.

Is he not mentally tough? After the Zimmerman error, he mentally fell apart with walks and leaving the ball up over the plate.

There are various kinds of mental toughness, aren't there? Strasburg has MANY of them. Hard work. Desire to be great. He gets DISTRACTED. In situations of high competitive stress you need to be able to focus at your highest level. That's what "clutch" is. Against St. Louis in October, Gio and Storen needed better focus. Now Strasburg needs it in the face of what __for him__ is a disappointing start with zero wins since opening day. This is all part of the normal process for going from contender to champion. Some make it, swome don't.

The good news on Saturday was that for the first four innings I thought Strasburg had his best three-pitch stuff__fastball touched 99__ since his pre-injury rookie seasons. His mechanics looked fixzed __only a slight falling off the mound to the first-base side which is normal for him. Almost every fireballer who has ever pitched has had to learn to cope with overthrowing when their heartbeat or intensity goes up. What's ironic is that Strasburg seemed to have this trait when he first came to the majors. Where did it go?

If he gets it back, watch out, because he has had a lot of frustration in the last three years and would love to take it out on other teams. Right now, maybe he wants to take it out on 'em a little too much.

Is discipline to avoid penalities teachable? Is Caps jail time problem curable in 24 hours? What do you attribute the lopsided time served in box?

Playing in the Phone Booth will get it back to normal in a hurry. According to our chart on page D12 this a.m. the disparity in power plays in DC is only 9-11 in favor of NY.

The Caps have not had a PP advantage since Game One (5-4) which they won, 3-1. As excellent as the Caps PK has been and as low-scoring as the Rangers are, if the Caps have even a slight edge in PP chances tonight, I think they'll win.

But the X factor is still Mr. Henrik Lundqvist.

Which team will be hurt worse by back-to-back games? Rangers have more players playing more minutes __Girardi, McDonough.

I'll never forget how impossible it seemed for the Caps to score in Game Seven vs Monteral a few years ago. If they can just play, understand that this was SUPPOSED to be a tough series, and let it fly __not think when they're shooting__ I think they'll win. Past Caps coaches have often mentioned the similarity between a hitting slump in baseball and a scoring slump in hockey when you grip the stick too tight, try to do too much. Both teams have only scored two goals each in the last two games. I'll admit that the Caps, with their history, may be bothered more by that draught. The Rangers think they have done a great job just getting back to 3-3 after being down 0-2.

No, I don't believe that the Caps will lose a NINTH playoff series in which they led 2-games-to-0 or 3-games-to-one. (Four of each, no overlap between the two categories.)

The franchise history has been that when they LEAD by two games, they think they are staring into the abyss.  I'm tired of watching that movie and don't expect to watch it again tonight.

 

So Bryce has cooled off some, but what concerns me more is that even when he was scalding hot, he was hitting LHP. Should we be concerned? His OPS against LHP is .502.

Harper has been playing hurt ever since he ran into the wall in Atlanta, then got his toenail problem. He'll get sorted out. His jump now is to minimize a mild slump, plus hitting some balls hard in recent games with no luck. 

I wouldn't be surprised if his slash line ends up close to where it is now for the whole season, though with a lower slugging average: .297/.387/.619. Knock the slugging down 50 points and I could see ~.290/.380/.560 as a 20-year-old. That would be amazing. And I wouldn't be surprised to see him have a lot of yeares over .300. That's what's been underestimated about him, rather than his obvious power __all fields hitter, fouls off lots of pitches to extend at bats, "spreads out" well with two strikes and has speed to beat out infield hits. His 18-23 W-K ratio in 113 at bats is very encouraging. Especially at 20!

I recently read two articles that said that sabermetics considers a strikout to be no better or worse than any other out. This fact does not seem to make sense because missing the ball completely with two strikes eliminates any chance for productive outs, for foul balls leading to another chance, or reaching base due to normal batting average on balls in play. Also, psychologically, a strikeout has to be more deflating to the individual and team than another out. Comments?

But you also can't ground into a double play on a strikeout.

Nobody is "deflated" any more by a strikeout. Times change. But there are some players, like Danny Espinosa, who really need to cut down their strikeouts because their power isn't quite good enough to justify the risk-reward ratio. Espinosa, even though he is hitting .189, is on pace to cut his Ks from 189 to ~130. That's a lot of improvement and, in time, should get his average to ~.250-.260. That, plus exceptional defense and 50+ extra-base hits is a good second baseman. We'll see if that's how it works out. 

Is hole 17 actually an easy hole if you shoot left? In other words, was it a bad shot or a bad strategy that doomed Sergio?

It was bad strategy and a bad shot. Part of stratgey is knowing what shot suits your game. Sergio thought that he "had that shot" under pressure. He didn't __twice. The second one didn't matter. His chances were dead. But it sure felt like we were on the verge of a Tin Cup moment.

I only played 17 once long ago. I had a decent, average round for me. My best shot of the day was at the 17th __to six inches for a tap in. Well, a tap-in 8. Yes, after three in the water. 

Has there ever been 2 golfers that dislike each other as much as Woods and Garcia? It seems like "back in the day" - when golfers weren't making 10's of millions of dollars in endorsements and top 20 finishes and there was real pressure on winning to make a good living - you never heard about any animosity between players.

Oh, there have been plenty of players who disliked each other more than these two. Tiger barely knows Sergio exists (except in Ryder Cup).

Woods said on Saturday: "Not real surprising he's complaining about something." Sergio has reached the point where he is easy to dismiss. It's Garcia who seems to think that Woods is aware of him: "We don't enjoy eachother's company. You don't need to be a rocket engineer to figure that out."

There have been times when even Tiger and Phil probably disliked eachother more __like the Ryder Cup when Hal Sutton paired them together and they barely spoke. Lost every match. Following that around was just a head-shaker. Worst Coaching Decision in the History of Any Sport? 

I'm a Blackhawks fan living in DC so I couldn't care less who wins tonight. But is it possible to play 60 minutes of NHL playoff hockey and not have a single penalty called against a team? Does this ever happen? This just smells like the Sacramento / LA Lakers playoff series of 2002.

You're right, "zero" is a very unusual number in such a setting between roughly equal teams!

Caps are fortunate that they have the 2nd best PK in the playoffs this year, after your Blackhawks.

Yesterday's game was as strong an argument as I could make for the National League to use the Designated Hitter. Gio should have been allowed to finish the game with his low pitch count and excellent throwing, but he was pulled for a batter (who did nothing). Forget tradition! If we had the DH, we could have kept Michael Morse! And we probably would have won yesterday.

That game is probably on Davey Johnson. He's a student of a lot of percentage baseball and I suspect he made that decision based on Theory of the Game, not observation of that particular game.

Afterward he said that, in such situations, he always plays to "add on" runs. "It's just the way I manage. Chalk it up to me. You don't like it, chalk it up to me. Didn't work out."

It wasn't "bad managing." It was a decision. But my first guess __at the time__ which I can't prove, is that, with 86 pitches, Gonzalez should have gone out for the 8th inning (but not the 9th). Storwen has been shakey. So work around him with Gio dominating. Soriano has been excellent. Give him the 9th. They both allowed runs. So maybe it wouldn't have worked out that way either. 

What a dreary morning to be a D.C. fan. Though the weather is glorious, the Nats and Caps weren't victorious and there's a lot of blaming the officiating. So the ump had a huge strike zone. It reminded me of Storen's tantrums during the top of the 9th, game 5 against the cards when the ump wouldn't call the low strike this staff depends on. So the Rangers are the least penalized team in hockey. You still can't cross-check an opponent in the face (Green) or into the net (Ward) wtih a ref right there and expect to get away with it. Holtby was great. Lundquist was perfect. Do you think either the Nats or the Caps (or both) have taken a dangerous detour on the path to becoming winners by blaming the men in blue/stripes?

Excuses are for losers __right before they lose again. Never fall into that trap.

But almost everybody does sometimes. Just get over it as fast as you can.

Nats left runners everywhere vs Feldman. Never should have been 1-0 in 8th from their perspective. I found myself pulling for the spunky no-talent Cubs while watching the game. Classic case of "waiting to lose."

Note: On Sunday, the Nats drew ~39,000 and, in something I never thought I'd see, they pulled ahead of both the Red Sox and Cubs __the two "darling" franchises__ in attendance. Now ahead of Boston --Boston!!__ 32,654 to 32,516. I suspect that will widen because Fenway has less capacity and is not selling out most week night games anymore. Nats are 9th in MLB and 4th in N.L. I doubt the upward trend has stopped.

Hi Tom, Is Zim still among to the top 5 or top 10 3rd baseman in the majors in your opinion?

No. Not defensively.

If he gets back to .950, his bat will put him in that group.

 

One point I don't hear much discussion about is the face-off inequity in Game 6. Look at the stats vs. Game 5 where Ribeiro was an amazing 70%. Last night seems like the Caps primary FO man got tossed from the circle every time. Something about away team having to be first stick on the dot maybe hurt them? But more FO wins = more possession. Maybe just related to the penalty inequality too? Does tonight's crew consider the horrible work by last night's crew? The Hillen and Ward penalties were absurd.

Good point on FO. Thanks. I'll watch for that tonight.

No doubt that Jayson Werth is a phenomenal locker room presence and his home run in the playoffs last year was one of the highlights of the year, but he missed half the season last year and is on the DL now. He turns 34 next Monday and the Nats have him on contract for 4 more years. What do you think they can legitimately expect from him?

About what they've gotten last year and this, but with less injuries because the level has been abnormal. But they need fourth outfielder depth, like Tyler Moore, because Werth has a history of injury __not a lot but enough__ before he came to DC. He plays hard and he's going to get banged up periodically. 

Based on what Tiger did at TPC Sawgrass, how do you think he will do at the U.S Open?

The Players showed that Woods is almost certainly going to win more majors. I don't see how anybody can think that, after his fastest start ever to four wins in his career, that he won't get over that hump.

But five more is going to be a ton because, like his ball in the water at 14th to open the door to three other players, he's no longer a "lock," even with a two-shot lead with five holes to play. He apologized for that shot to his "Mom" on Mother's Day, saying it might have "given her a heart attack."

Is Denard Span the best centerfielder we've had since Clyde Milan? I don't recall seeing a smoother Washington centerfielder.

Pay the man, Shirley!

Clyde Milan...no, I'm not that old!

Thanks for the great questions. See you next week.

 

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Thomas Boswell
A Washington Post columnist since 1984, Thomas Boswell is known for the many books he has written on baseball, including "How Life Imitates the World Series" and "Why Time Begins on Opening Day."
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