Ask Boswell: Redskins, Nationals and Washington sports

Nov 04, 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

So it appears that Matt Williams will be the new Nats manager. Do you know much about his coaching philosophy (specifically about playing defense)? I read recent article on how growing number of teams (Pirates, Rays, etc.) are using advanced statistical analysis about where balls are hit to realign the positioning of the defensive players and having great results. This is what accounts for the now common occurrence of defensive shifts. It appears to be the new Moneyball theory, but it requires buy-in by the players and the pitchers (who are asked to change the way they pitch to accommodate the defensive shifts). I am wondering if you think this is something the Nats will begin employing. I could see it being too much for a new manager to try to implement or it could be a good time to introduce the new philosophy. What is your opinion? With Davey's strong statistical background did he believe in it or was he skeptical?

As far as I can tell this will be the first big immediate impact that Williams will have. He's bringing in a 7th coach -- a new one -- just to take care of this. Obviously, Rizzo agrees with adopting more radical shifts or he wouldn't have picked Williams. 

Matt talked about how pitchers have to buy into the idea and pitch in ways that help the shift work. Otherwise, you're messing with the pitcher's mind, making him wonder if he pitched well but got beaten by the unconventional positioning behind him.

I''m really looking forward to it. I think, if done well, it messes with hitters minds a lot more than pitchers. Whitey Herzog was doing his mild version of this -- keeping charts with multi-colored pens --  in the '80's. But defensive analysis has gotten much more sophisticated and better since then. 

Lets see if the Nats defensive BABIP -- batting average on balls in play -- improves next year.

Any thoughts on if MLB has thought about how to handle replay scenarios where the replay shows that they got the call wrong, but called it like they they always have. Like the ball got there before the runner, but the the tag was late; the neighborhood play at second; and so on. Are they going to have the Blues make calls using the rules as they are written?

That's fascinating and I don't know yet. In the playoffs Yadier Molina "missed" a tag at the play according to slo-mo replay. But it was a play on which the runner has been called out -- as Adam Wainwright said --  "since 1888."

I don't see how you can avoid applying the rules as they are written. The neighborhood play may be the biggest casualty. I suspect we can live with it for all the other good that replay may do.

But the 1st year will produce crazy stuff and a need to adapt/use common sense.

Although it almost certainly has no bearing on the random odds of a coin flip, I noticed what I consider to be an interesting oddity at the Skins game yesterday. As they were announcing the coin toss before overtime, the ref said the coin had two images on it, and that "heads" would be the Skins logo, and "tails" would be the NFL shield. Doesn't this almost obligate the visiting team to choose "tails" every time? I can hardly imagine choosing the side with your opponent's logo on it. Does any visiting team ever choose heads -- maybe as sort of a double-reverse-jinx? Just seems to me that this was an odd way to go with the coin images...but we won the toss so who cares!

Interesting. Every Redskin was paying a lot of attention to that coin flip because, even with the new rules about not being able to win on a first-possession field goal, both teams obviously want the chance to get the ball first, score a TD and end the game without the other team ever touching the ball.

In a high-scoring era, with new rules and interpretations of rules hindering the defense, the "call" on the flip is perhaps even slightly more important.

It sure would be tough to call "heads" when that's the Skins logo!

That's all part of why Sunday's game was such an unlikely escape-and-win. The Skins could have got the TD-reversal-on-replay, then made thier goal-line stand and STILL lost in OT without ever getting the ball if Rivers says, "Heads," then leads a TD drive. 

Haven't the Redskins been extremely fortunate so far in how few season-ending injuries they have suffered? None since the regular season started. It seems every Monday you read about other teams losing significant players for the season. (The Chargers Dwight Feeney a recent example.). This luck can't continue for the second half of the season, can it? Won't their lack of depth do them in then?

Shhhhh...

Yes, I've noticed this, too. They are a very thin team with little depth (partly because of the salary cap punishment). In some sports you can stay healthy all season. The Orioles regulars had as close to zero significant injuries as I've ever seen in '13. But they also got worn out and slumped at the end. So, the 162 games exacts a toll even if you are lucky.

But in the NFL good luck with injuries is just pure good luck because there is no down side to playing all 16 games. The Skins are at midseason and they are as close to 100% as you ever see a NFL team. Meriweather cost himself a game with his suspension.

Can it continue? Probably not. The sunshine for the 2nd half of the season is that the Skins recovered, to some degree, after a horrible 0-3 start. The shadow is that they are 3-6 when as major a factor as near-perfect health -- by NFL high-attrition standards -- has been on their side.

During recent weeks there has been much discussion about the poor showing of the Redskins special teams. Do you think that poor special team performance may result from teams, in general, scouting and drafting players primarily for their abilities to play particular positions, not for running down the field on kickoff and punt returns? Since these players are among the very best on their college teams, pro scouts may not have a good opportunity to see them in these roles and can't be sure whether they have the mentality it takes to play special teams at the NFL level.

That's an interesting point. I've never seen that mentioned. And I assume it has some truth.

But the Skins special teams have been so bad that they fall outside those parameters, I'd think. No. 1 reason: Lost Lorenzo Alexander to free agency. He made Pro Bowl as a special teams player. No. 2: No money, because of salary-cap penalty, was "left over" to spend on special teams considerations after they had "gotten the whole team back" in terms of starting players on offense and defense. No 3: No more Danny Smith to criticize. New special teams coach Keith Burns has had a rough first eight games. A blocked 25-yd field goal on Sunday. That's mostly on Forbath for kicking it low. But it just adds him to the general trend.  

Still a work in progress, no? Batted balls, some inaccuracy, and he seems to target the first read most times.

Any second-year player should continue to get better. But I think "work in progress" implies more problems than Griffin is actually having. I'd say he's a very good NFL quarterback right now who can continue to get better.

I'd say "just relax" on Griffin. He was 23-for-32 yesterday even with the batted passes. Yes, he should stare down his primary receiver less. It's a flaw. But a common one in the NFL.

The biggest problem with the Skins offense is that they just can't seem to get it through their heads that they are a RUNNING team. They finally had 40 rushes to 32 passes on Sunday. But even then, in the second half, they didn't eat as much time as they could have when they were up 24-14. 

The Skins always defend their play selection by isolating individual plays -- like "hey, what was wrong with THIS call or THIS call." You can almost always defend one call just as, in baseball, you can always say, "We had a good reason to throw a fastball inside on that pitch." It is the multi-game PATTERN that you judge. And in the Redskins case it is ABYSMAL.

This year they have 323 passes-plus-sacks vs only 233 runs.  That's 39 percent MORE passes than runs. Last year, they had 519 runs to 475 runs-plus-passes. That's 8.5% LESS passes than runs.

Last year Morris averaged 24.7 carries per game as the Skins went 7-0. This year 16.6 carries even though his average per carry is BETTER -- up from 4.8 to 5.2.

The difference is NOT that RGIII is running a lot less. He is only averaging 1.9 less carries a game -- 8.0 last year and 6.1 this year.

They simply aren't doing what they do best as much as they obviously should. Morris finally got 25 carries on Sunday. What happened? 121 yards, a team total of 209 yards rushing and a 40:03-to-25:58 advantage in time of possession.

Let me make a comparison to pitch selection in baseball. If you had a team with gifted fastball pitchers but, halfway through the season, you discovered that they were throwing only 46% fastballs, when, the year before, they'd had success throwing 64% fastball (which would be a normal number for a hard-throwing staff) you'd say, "Wake UP! Don't justify individual pitch calls. The whole PATTERN of half-a-season is WAY off. Fix it."

That's what I say to the Skins. Their whole pattern of play calling is imbalanced for half a season and, given their personel, incorrect. They ran for 209 yards on Sunday without a single designed run for RGIII. Stop telling me how smart each individual call was. Fix the entire dumb ratio -- that's the problem.

And, yes, as you say, tell RGIII to stop staring down receivers when he's throwing out of his own endzone. On the TD interception his pass was so low that it hit #71 (some "Guy") BELOW his elbow!

Good morning Tom, Just before the credits roll at the end of 'Moneyball' a line flashes up about Billy Beane, '...he is still waiting to win the last game of the season' or something to that effect. John Henry obviously took what Billy did and figured out how to win the last game of three seasons in the past decade. What have the other GMs in the game learned from the way the Red Sox won it all this past season? Seems the John Henry and the Red Sox have figured out a way to develop winning 'team chemistry' via their roster make up. Or have they just been lucky?

The Red Sox were INCREDIBLY lucky.

They also did smart things.

But, did I say, they were INCREDIBLY lucky. Almost every move worked. They acknowledge it, in a backhanded way. They don't want to diss the great year their players had. But they know that Uehara, as Farrell said, was "fourth" on the depth chart as their closer. And ended up being the best closer in baseball. Buchholz went 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA, about half of his career ERA. 

I thought giving Victorino $39M/3yrs, even though that is not a big FA contract and about half of the $$$ that BJ Upton and Bourn got, was an awful waste. WRONG. RF in Fenway is a huge field. Shane, a former CFer, played the hell of of it. His defensive WAR of 2.2 is a very big number.

So, yes, they certainly illustrate and underline the importance of chemistry. BUT this is not an example of brilliant engineering as much as it is an opportunoty for everybody in MLB, including the Red Sox, to try to REVERSE ENGINEER their '13 to see how the hell that chemistry happened. Work BACKWARDS from the spectacular results to see what might have caused it.

Teams are now starting to study "how many super-rich players is optimal in one clubhouse." How do huge gaps in salary influence performance? Is a $13M-a-year Victorino okay, but a $20-to-$25M player who underperforms causes resentment? Nobody knows, yet.

You give credit to world champs. But what are the odds that you "hit" with as-good-or-much-better-than-hoped performance on so many players: Napoli (past injury history, but plays 139 games), Stephen Drew, 13 homers and 51 RBI in 312 abs from Gomes (!), big post-season hits from backup catcher David Ross, a 3.59 full-season ERA from Lackey and then World Series heroics, again, from LACKEY -- just about the most-hated chicken-and-beer guy!?

Gotta luv baseball. You just never know. Good luck with "quantifying human chemistry."

 What next, chemistry questions modeled on eHarmony?

Tom, your very thoughtful column on DH and games 6 and 7 of the world Series carefully did not suggest getting rid of the DH difference during the season (or during the WS). Why not have one set of rules all the time? Is that a lost cause, in your opinion? Nothing was said this past year as we had an entire season of interleague play. Is Bud totally opposed to solving this? For me, one solution is to let each team decide what it wants to do in each game. One team could use DH, the other choose not to, but they must keep the same rule throughout the game. I think you are right on WS games 6 and 7, but the same principle applies in every game.

It's going to be tough ever to get the union to agree to abolishing jobs when you abolish the DH. Going "all DH" might help minimize the WS advantage.

BTW, since '80, the home team has a .634 winning percentage in ALL Series games -- an astronomical edge. That's like a 103-win home team playing a 103-loss road team in every Series game. The 23-4 record for home teams in Games 6 and 7 -- and the 2.5 runs-a-game edge, which is off any chart -- is just the culmination of the trend when the pressure increase even more and the stakes are highest. 

 

That's two head coaches down in one weekend. It's not just the players pounding each other. These coaches consume stress, coffee, and junk food for 100 hours a week.

They sound like baseball beat writers.

(Plenty of MLB managers don't works as many hours in a whole year as the beat writer(s) who covers him. In some cases, it's not close. It's not that managers work less than you think, it's that current beat writers, with 24/7 deadlines and multiple platform, work more than you may be able to imagine.)

As you were hanging around in World Series press boxes, any talk at all about the complete improbability of the Sox even appearing in the Series? I can't imagine too many of your colleagues had them going anywhere this season.

Good point.

But we need a rethink on how hard (or not) it is to go from a losing season to a Series. (Or at least I do.) As I wrote in one column last month, in the last 30 years almost 30% of all Series teams had losing records the year before. (I think it's 29%. I stumbled on it. I assumed the BoSox were a rarity. When I went to figure out "how rare" I realized I had it backwards.).

The Red Sox are extremelu even within that group because they improved by 28 wins. But there have been a TON of 20-win turnarounds. In the NFL you see a lot of teams make the turnaround from loser to playoff team (in a 12-team playoff field). But they almost never make it to the Super Bowl. In baseball, they not only make the playoffs but a lot of them make the Series. And slightly less than half of those -- like the Sox -- WIN the Series.

Because all I have are questions after the Flyers-Caps game: So, if you want, once two guys start fighting, you can skate down the ice and start a fight for no reason? That's "part of the game?" The league has admitted they didn't suspend the Flyers' goalie because he didn't violate a rule that warrants a suspension in response to his actions. Really? There's nothing in the rule book against that? The Caps' goalie didn't want to fight, tried anyway, and was getting pounded on the head, just barely avoiding really getting nailed. But the ref decided that was okay and that his teammates can't step in to help him. So, he was going to wait for Emery to really nail him and THEN he'd break up the fight? That makes sense, how? How much leeway will the league give the Caps to retaliate? Because under the "old school" rules, it sure seems they have a right to go after Emery. You know, because. Does any of this make sense to real hockey fans? Because it doesn't make any sense to me.

It's the NHL. It doesn't have to make sense.

That's the first "goalie fight" I can remember seeing. But it is a "part of the sport."

Completely insane, IMO.

I assume the expiration date on evening the score with Emery is "forever." But then there may be an unwritten rule about that of which I'm unaware.

So the Wiz are already off to an "exciting" start. Think Ernie lasts the entire season or will Big Ted finally see the light and cut ties with a GM who's been here a decade and the best he's accomplished is a few 2nd round trips in the playoffs. His bad far outweighs his good, no?

The 2nd half of the home opener was so sickening that I couldn't believe it. No wonder Randy Wittman looked like a building had fallen on him afterwards. Wittman: "(We've) got to respect the game...Over & over & over again...We're NOT okay...I gotta find out if we've got the heart."

Can't hold a lead against a 76ers team projected to win 16 games this season. Waiting to lose. They look SAD! Like, what will go wrong next? And they have some good vets with good attitudes. It's a mystery. But, unless you're Ted Leonsis, I'm not sure it's one that's worth much of your time trying to figure out. And, yes, how Ernie stays employed is beyond me. I'd have said goodbye after he assembled the All-Knucklehead All Stars, then acted like he deserved credit for breaking 'em up.   

Heraclitus said, "Nothing is permanent except change." He didn't coach the Wizards. That home opener is the SAME GAME, same loss, for 33 years in a row.

If the situation changes, I promise to take a different tone. That is "IF."

Whose off season surgery was most serious and will have the greatest impact in 2014? Didn't Stephen have regular MRIs on his elbow after his Tommy Joh surgery? Why were bone chips all of sudden discovered at the end of this season?? Was Dr. James Andrews too busy to adequately review Steven's MRIs???

Strasburg's bone chips were a surprise to me. The bad news is that bone-chip surgery isn't a tiny procedure. The good news, if they went in and that's all they did then presumably nothing else is wrong and he should be ready for spring training.

Harper's surgery was his final gift from the Dodgers wall and his own stubbornness in trying to come back too soon (three times). Lets hope it's educational. I think it already has been. 

Speaking of odd defensive alignments, ever since I was a kid I had a pet theory that, with two strikes, a team could pretty much ensure a strikeout if all four infielders charged the batter just as the pitcher started his delivery. The batter would be so confused by the motion that he would have little chance of hitting the ball. Do you know whether this idiotic strategy has ever been tried? My inner 12-year-old is curious.

Well, it might work the first time you tried it! Doubt it would be much of a surprise the 2nd time.

I would suggest that we will never truly know whether RG can succeed as a pocket passer till the Skins bring in offensive linemen talented enough to create an actual pocket. Seems to me the interior of the line has got blown up so bad in recent games that the QB is running for his life almost from the moment the play begins. Many observers are calling for the Skins to bring in better WRs next year, but I'm thinking, without an O-line, what's the point? What's your take?

He's a fine play-action and bootleg passer now. Straight drop back and pass, pass, pass, he's not that now -- as  shown in results in the games where he threw 49, 40, 50 and 39 times show. He's only been sacked 14 times, so the protection hasn't been a big problem. He's a mobile QB IN the pocket, but that's a necessity in today's NFL. Rivers must have flushed and reset the pocket -- with good results -- about a dozen times on Sunday. I watched the replay last night and was surprised how much time he bought himself even though he can't run at all.

BTW, Shanny built a good run-blocking line out of Trent Williams, plus linemen nobody much wanted. They did lead the NFL in rushing last year.

I think RGIII has already gotten through the worst of his return from surgery. As long as the Skins remember that Morris, even though he's a mid-round draft pick, is almost as good a player as RGIII and build around the run, they'll be okay on offense. Special teams? Defense? Harder questions. If Skins had lost 28-24, as they probably "should" have, we'd be talking about the defense collapsing in the last two drives.

The Skins have not had two good WRs in 20+ years. Usually, they don't even have a true No. 1 WR. But they may have done a really good job in identifying Garcon. He's only 27. He never had more than 947 receiving yards in his 3 seasons as a starter in Indy, even with Manning. And that was his only year over 784 yards.

This season: 684 yards on 54 catches in half a season!!!

Sure, that's exaggerated by a 172-yard day. But that's a pace for 108 catches and 1,368 yards. I never thought he'd be close to that good. Wrong again? We can hope. Garcon, Morris and Reed (TE) are becoming a good group of weapons. 

Hi Tom-- I suppose I should take internet comments with a grain of salt, but I do read them, and one theme that comes up time and again is the supposed selfishness of the area's sports stars. RGIII, Byrce Harper, Jayson Werth -- I've seen them all repeatedly characterized as selfish, me-first jerks. But that hasn't been my perception of them. I see them as gamers, and especially in the case of RG and BH, talented young guys who play with exuberance and passion. You actually spend time around these guys. What's your take on them? Entitled, spoiled, selfish egomaniacs, or something ... better?

Don't read the "comments" unless you want to become depressed about the state of the human race. There are plenty of smart comments. That's the irony of "comments." BUT you have to realize that it is also a forum that is GUARANTEED to attract 100% of the saddest, meanest people who have no information, don't care and want to vent.  This is true in politics, too, and in all papers or "comments" sections that I've seen on the internet the last 15+ years. You can spot it in a few words, so just jump to the next one. As soon as you see character attacks, not based on analysis, facts or any personal contact, just stop reading. That's the "garbage in, garbage out" moment.   

In other words, the "character" issues are usually in the eyes of the beholders. "Every day and every hour we say things about another that we would more properly say about ourselves."

RGIII, Harper, Werth do not strike me as selfish or any of those other terms. "Gamers" would.

Dave Dombrowski recently said he would only hire people with managerial experience and whom he has worked with - then he hires Brad Ausmus - a huge decision with a lot of risk. What evidence is there to support that what Metheny and Ventura have accomplished (in only two years) will project out to a 10-20 year trend?

I'm rooting for Ausmus. He has a ton of experience, just not as a manager -- 1971 MLB games, 1938 of them at catcher with 3 gold gloves and an all-star game.

He has the most amazing Catcher ERAs -- with MANY pitchers, including Nolan Ryan -- that I have ver seen. He got FAR more out of many pitchers of all types than any other catcher I can find.

Many of us (me) are guilty of finding it interesting that he's a Dartmouth grad and that his dad Harry Ausmus is a philosopher. One of his books: "A Schopenhauerian Critique of Nietzsche's Thought: Toward a Restoration of
Metaphysics."

At the Series, Richard Justice said that he once talked to Ausmus who said, "I'm going home for a visit. I better read some Nietzsche (to talk to his dad.)."

Justice then quoted some Nietzsche but added, "I know that because it was in 'Blazing Saddles.'" Baseball writer joke.

So the Smart Family angle is always (and correctly) persued. But when you are 7th IN HISTORY in games caught, you are a very tough guy. He will be universally respected. He retired in '10, knows the current players, is 44. It's possible he'll even be a great manager. Everybody in the game knows how smart he was as a player -- about baseball. Will it translate?

If he succeeds, it's a big plus for baseball. He's a gamble. But a great gamble to take.

That's it for this week. Going to take a little time off. See you in a couple of weeks. Thanks again for all the sharp questions. Cheers.

Any chance MLB will find some way to shorten the season so we don't have a Thanksgiving World Series in the snow?

It's locked where it is now. Not going to change. They got lucky with good weather this season. The last five Series games were fabulous. They won't always be so lucky, flirting with Nov. 1.

I guess it wouldn't kill me to spell "Dartmouth" correctly in the Ausmus post. Sorry.

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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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