Ask Boswell: Redskins, Nationals and Washington sports

Apr 21, 2014

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

Indiana stinks, the Wizards own the Heat, and we don't even need to talk about the Chicago series any longer. So, who's a better matchup for the Wizards in the NBA finals, OKC or San Antonio?

Luv it. Can't believe it but the same silly thought crossed my mind in the last five minutes as the Wiz played with such composure. They've played better against the East (16-5) in the last several weeks than anybody. But the Bulls are tough and have much more playoff experience as a unit together.

But the Wiz looked very mature last night -- because most of tem actually are! Nene (now rested by his injury) and Gortat really play beautifully together -- both vets, smart and tough. Ariza, Webster are vets and fine 3-pt shooters. It gives Wall and Beal a comfortable context in which to play.

But this will be a long hard series, I assume. After last night, I like the Wiz. Duh. A 1-0 lead and break through on the road will do that. My only small concern off last night is that the Wiz got decent to excellent games from all five starters. Wall and Beal didn't shoot a good percentage, but they played okay. Randy isn't giving his sixth, seventh, eighth men much playing time. Will they be OK if a starter has a really bad game?

We'll see. Lots to go in this series. I hope everybody who likes basketball even a little bit (I've always loved it) will buy into watching these Wiz. They are not like many previous years. They play as a team, are smart and experienced.   

Do you think this was appropriate? Harper had a bad quad and grounded out to the pitcher. Who cares?

Within the team it is certainly seen as appropriate.

The team was specifically told several days ago that the next guy who doesn't run out a ball is coming out of the game. As to the quad, Harper missed a game on Weds that happened to be against Jose Fernandez. Other players always look for "coincidences." The next game, he laid down a bunt against Wainwright, flew to first and looked fine. After he went 0-for-4, he threw his helmet. Turns out that 0-fer snapped a nine-game hitting streak. Not much of a streak. But teammates noticed. I assume his quad really did hurt him. But the Nats, over the last year, have certainly narrowed their eyes in looking at Harper's motivations. The enormous benefits of the doubt -- on whether he's really more about the team or about himself or about both -- that he got when he was 19 are not going to obtain  when you are in your third full year in the big leagues.

Remember, no manager would do this -- it's dramatic, unequivocal and got national attention -- unless 1) the player involved had a history of similar behavior, 2) the organization supported the move and the manager knew that he would get full backing and 3) the team had been "refreshed" on the need to run balls out.

Have you noticed during slo-mo replays that Anthony Rendon closes his eyes at the point of contact? Would Ted Williams approve?

The Nats saw he narrows his eyes as if focusing. Maybe he shuts them at the last instant. What matters is that his haed is "on" the ball. No pulling out. No hitter can see the ball the last couple of feet anyway. The human eye isn't that good. But you still TRY to see it hit the bat, even though you can't.

Rendon is hot right now. I don't want to start overvaluing him too quickly. But he was a huge college star, one of the best college hitters of his decade, and would have been drafted higher, probably 1-2-3 overall if he hadn't had injury problems (broken ankle) his senior year at Rice. Right now, he's in the Top 20 in MLB in several categories -- OPS, extra-base hits. But lets go easy. Everybody always he looks like a natural. And he does. But he's also very natural at third base. Second is job folr him. But he does it well enough. At third, he may be well above average defensively.  On the other hand, it helps a team more if they have a significant bat at second base because almost every good team has a third baseman who can mash it. Either way, looks like Nats were correct in their enthusiasm with drafting him. Long term, he makes the Z'man throwing problem a non-problem. If Z'man's arm cuts short his days at third, Rendon can clearly do it. If Z'man can stay there after his finger injury lets him rest his arm, then that puts Rendon at second and gives you your best offensive lineup.

Hey Tom, I liked your piece on Harper; I think Williams brings a new perspective for Bryce. However, are you concerned that Harper's response may be to go to the other extreme where he's hustling so hard that he perhaps re-injures himself?

No.

When he hustles, nobody hustles harder. He couldn't hustle harder in those instances if he tried.

But when he doesn't hustle it's always because he's in a mood because of a failure. In those situations he's just being asked to run out a ball with a reasonable effort, not a fanatical effort.

The win covered it over, but in the sixth inning Harper came up with the bases loaded and two outs. He hit abouncer back over the mound. At first glance it looked like it might either be a fcorce at second or, maybe, the ball might sneak through into CF. But the Cards SS didn't have a play at second and had to throw to first. He got Harper by a stride. But Bryce wasn't running full speeed and looked like he'd bellied out as he approached the bag as if he thought it was a single to center. At any rate, he sure wasn't hurting himself by running too hard to first base in a crucial situation. I wish I'd asked him afterwards but I'd forgotten it and nobody else asked either.

I know the Nats lost, but it looked to me that Zimmermann was able to hold his own against a team that previously owned him. Even though it doesn't show up in the wins-loss column, that's progress. And speaking of progress, how about Danny Espinosa?

Everybody knows you have to pound the Cards in the fists to set up your other pitches away. The Nats finally seem to be realizing it or at least executing it better. Z'mann certainly did. A big step for him. Gio should be ideally suited. Against RHers, he loves to pound in, then go fastball up and away or curveball even further down and in or changeup low away. All of that works together. If Strasburg can command his fastball -- meaning get it IN on RHers -- he should be really tough on the Cards. His three different breaking balls really can make many of them look silly. He didn't even use his slider on Sunday that I could spot. But fastball command is now going to be the key for Strasburg. His fastball, even at 94-95-96 doesn't get many swings and misses. It must be fairly straight. But as long as he doesn't leave it over the middle of the plate, he's fine. His bad innings this year have been fastball location mistakes.

Right now Strasburg is fourth in baseball in K-per-start behind King Felix, Tanaka (28-to-2 K-to-W ratio!!!), Cueto at 8.4-a-game. Assuming >30 starts, looks like a 250-K season may be coming. He is REALLY ticked at all the criticism he had taken around the country in the last week after his bad start in Miami. Good, if he makes use of it to add focus. I assume he doesn't give much weight to TK but ESPN, MLB TV, FanGraphs and you name it have been all over his lower fastball velocity and the bad ERA. As long as his arm is healthy, I think he's getting a better feel for how to set up big-league hitters and use his best pitch -- his changeup (which might as well be called a 90 mph screwball because that's how it acts) -- to get out RH batters, too. That changeup under the hands to Allen Craaig was almost unfair on Sunday.

The Cards vs Nats rotation may be big if they are both in post-season. Taylor Jordan's sinker should work decently against them. 

I'm sure I'mma get to Espinosa in another question.   

Your column. Wow. It sounds like there's a lot more team discontent with Harper than what you've stated (implied).

He's a big talent and fun to be around. They just want him to play like a third-year big leaguer who says he's an all-about-the-team guy, not like a 21-year-old who has lapses.

He's both. He needs to move toward the second.

Can someone, please, please tell F.P. Santangelo TO.SHUT.UP. He talks more than any other baseball color man/analyst I have ever listened to. And he's not terribly insightful. Which makes it all the more annoying. After that knucklehead Rob Dibble we are saddled listening to this guy? He talks CONSTANTLY. PLEASE. F.P. JUST. SHUT. UP. PLEASE. More really is less, sometimes....

By nature, he's a very amped guy. Very amped usually needs to be turned down a little in TV broadcasting.

Everybody has some crab thing to say about almost anybody in the booth. My nag -- and it applies to a lot of announcers in several sports -- is the unnecessary use of the words "base," "foot" and "basket," in "he threw The Baseball, he caught The Football or he can really shoot The Basketball."

It's just a damn "ball."

Don't intone it like The Baseball is a sacred object. Or that nobody has ever discovered that you can use all three syllables in "the bas-ket-ball." Drives me nuts the 10,000th time. This is an industry-wide epidemic (of which I am probably the only person who notices or cares)! So, F.P.'s not the problem on that. (And get off my lawn, too.)    

And, with his logo money, he should have great seats.

Okay, that's amusing.

One-liners always appreciated.

Love your stuff, but you were a bit unfair to Harper today. Not about hustle. That was spot on. But using an RBI plus Runs comparison. How about something like OPS, which you know gives a better understanding of value.

OPS is a fine stat. But there has never been a LFer in history who wasn't -- and shouldn't -- be judged by the ability to score or drive in runs. The New Stats are fun. But whenever I see a knee-jerk reaction to criticize "counting stats" like wins and RBI -- not saying that's you -- I get suspicious of Metric Envy.  

Tom, am I missing something or does Zach Walters deserve a chance to be in the Nats' lineup regularly? I know shortstop is taken, but should it be? And if it should be, why hasn't he been prepared to play somewhere else, like CF or 1B? If he can play SS, he can play those. The kid has dome nothing but hit whenever he's been given the chance.

Oh, boy.

Desmond has won the last two Silver Slugger Awards at shortstop and has also been runnerup for N.L. Gold Glove at SS the last two years. He's had a bad couple of weeks. He did last spring, too. Lets not be giving away SS!

Figuring out where Walters fits is a nice problem, but also, yeah, kind of a problem -- at least to me. Lot of tools, except for a very bad K-W ratio that MLB pitchers may exploit, it's tough not to want to find a place for a switch-hitter who led all of AAA in homers last year (29). Robin Yount switched from SS to CF in mid-career. The Nats have invested in other CF prospects already. What do you do with Souza?

Remember when we were trying to decide what to do with Lastings Milledge and Nook Logan? Different times.  

Hi Boz, So after the revelations in Katie Carrera's article last week about the way the Caps have been run and coached, do you still think George McPhee will return as GM? And do you still think Adam Oates should be kept as coach? On Oates, do you really think it's wise for a coach to actually try to change players' natural playing style (such as with Hotlby) just because he prefers another style?

I thought several points in that story were new information and damaging to the chances of both. Oates seems to micro-manage players. And GMGM has had an incredibly long time to build exactly the team he wants -- and its not in the playoffs. Either or both are not retained, it's understandable.

BUT you have to be very confident that you can do better. Both are very smart hockey people. McPhee has built a bunch of playoff teams and filled a lot of seats. "The more you know, the more you know." We know more about both men now. And neither is helped by that info. 

I know it's early, but I'm less than enthusiastic about Williams's managing. Between not lining up the starters for Atlanta and St. Louis and over-managing the lineup, he's starting to resemble Riggleman. We all know how that ended up. Your thoughts?

Williams has jumped up a notch in the last three days. Leadership, forcefulness, was a big part of why he was hired. His post-game "talk" with his team on Thursday was so intense that nobody -- and I mean nobody --will even hint at it. And Harper benching probably didn't lose him anybody  in the room -- as long as it doesn't lose him Harper -- while he probably gained support in some corners. Actually, I would say the Northwest corner.

Is he Hype Much? We'll see. He had a team that looked like absolute crap -- worse than any point in '12, maybe -- in its 1-5 vs Braves and that "exhibition" against the Cards. The last three days they looked like the Best of "12.

We'll see which lasts.

Two small points. Williams wanted to improve the team's defensive efficiency with defensive shifts. And he wanted to teach his pitchers how to hold runners better to cut down the running game.

It's early, but the Nats are No. 1 in MLB in percentage of baseball stealers thrown out (four of nine) and have allowed the second-lower number of total SB (five). Teams like the Cubs and D'backs have already allowed 19-of-20 successful olen base attempts. Lobaton gets some credit. The Rays staff loved him even though his arm isn't supposedly a strength.

Defensive efficiency has been awful -- 28th in MLB in turning balls-hit-in-play into outs. Last year Nats were 18th. So the shifts (or the luck) hasn't gone their way yet. It's a long season for that data to pile up. 

Boz, Bubba is a very fan-friendly champion and seems to own Augusta National, but the back nine was a big disappointment. Nobody went eagle-birdie (or even birdie-birdie) on 13 and 15 to put the pressure on Bubba. The feel was more US Open than Masters. Also, Jonas Blixt has some great game. He will bring Sweden a men's major real soon.

Very odd final nine at Masters. The hard, fast conditions hurt scoring all week, but there wwere still chances on the back nine.

BTW, the Masters subtly makes their course tougher EVERY  year, but they do in such a subtle (sneaky) way that few notice. The water to the back left of No. 11 is now totally IN PLAY if you trickle off the back edge. It never was before. The slopes of almost ball the banks in the Amen Corner are also steeper -- literally more banked. I could give a long list. You walk around and say, "There are less places to miss every year." That's needed because the players and the equipment are so good.

Yes, this may be the Age of Jonas Blixt. Or Jordan Spieth. Or, more likely, about 20 talented guys like that, none of whom dominate or have a big persolnality. That isn't what golf wants, you can bet. Seen a bunch of Golf Is In Trouble Post-Tiger after that Masters, with one price tag on total lost future revenue (if he doesn't win aanother major) put at a guesstimate of $15 Billion. Golf has gotten through several periods (that I've covered) when it didn't have the Arnie, Jack or Tiger in their primes big star. But it's less fun. Big personalities and true champions in the field make the wins of a Jim Furyk or lesser names more meaningful to fans and to the players themselves. 

Is it time to start thinking that Strasburg is no more than a decently good big league pitcher? His supposed break-out year in '13 he was 8-9. This year he is 1-2 after five starts with an ERA over 5 and has given up 29 hits and 10 walks in 27 innings. I hope for the best but am beginning to think he is not a great one.

For the first time I'm starting to think that he's putting it together and may have a break out year -- this year. Does he have enough fastball and enough command of that fastball? He's got 28 more starts (in theory). If he has good-to-excellent fastball command in 20 of them, he's going to have some amazing games. With Matt Harvey out, I doubt that anybody has three OTHER "secondary" pitches that are as devastating. They are actually his three best pitches. If he can use the fastball early in counts to get quick outs or to get to the feared wipeout pitches, he's very special. Can he? I think he will.

But you are right that, at 26 in a couple of months, we're about to find out how good he will be...or not. He knows it.

So what do we make of Dan Haren being 3-0 with an ERA of, I think, 2.15?

Luck matters.

How different would the Nats '13e season have been if Haren, a reasonable addition, had pitched like that last April. Everything changes everything.

Almost nobody wanted Aaron Harang after last season (5-12, 5.40 ERA, 4.79 FIP). The Braves picked him up out of desperatiopn. So, his first four starets he has a 0.70 ERA. I watched one of his starts to see what he's got this year. Nothing. Tops at 90. Smart vet. Little of this, little of that and a lot of prayer.

Surprises matter, too. Remember the Nats had several nice surprises in '12.

(Will Espinosa be one this year? Sure looks like it. Man, what an object lesson to haters. Totally different hitter now, much more restrained approach at the plate. Composes himself between pitches to slow the game down. Tons of good at bats, whether they end up as hits or walks. Will it continue. Well, it's not luck. If he keeps the same short, quick approach he'll continue to be successsful. How successful? He still has extra-base power. Can he hit .250? If he does, with his "plus" or mayb e "plus-plus" defense, teams will be lined up around the block to get him as their shortstop. But he's under Nats team control through '17 season. Last year, who believed that "four more years" of Espinosa would sound like really good news? So far, it does. Just don't jinx the guy. Praise him in parenthesis. This period, playing everyday until Z'man returns, is a career-saver chance for him to show his new hitting approach over an extended fair-test period. He played with a lot of injuries. He deserves it, imo.)

Is he back as an elite golfer? Or was second place finish yesterday a fluke?

I hope he's back. He didn't plummet as badly as some breifly No. 1 players. He dropped from No. 1 in '11 in Money List to 14th to 36th last year (PGA Tour money). He still came to the Masters, and played decently on a course that has allowed him only two strong finishes in 10 tries, as No. 27 in world. He's had a consistent '14 and a win was a logical continuation. He's one I root for. Not colorful. They don't all have to be.

Boz, Is there anything new on a deal with MASN?

Not in our lifetimes.

Lets look at one angle on this which isn't mentioned at all. If they think they are being done wrong, why don't the Lerners fight? In public, in court or in the MLB backroom? If you are worth billions, you should be able to take care of your own self-interest. Unless the Lerners are certain that they know the endgame and are just waiting it out, they look weak on this. I'm not sympathetic to their apparent inactivity. Fans can be annoyed at Angelos, at Selig or at MLB. But they should also be annolyed at the Lerners. They have big contract decisions coming up. Are they using the MASN delay as an excxuse not to pay Desmond or Z'mann? (I doubt that.) Regardless of HOW MUCH more money the eventually Nats get, they are on the short end over the last few years. If you were worth $3-billion, and you thought you had a strong case, would you just watch the grass grow?

Why was Barrett sent back to Syracuse? A numbers issue in the bullpen or keeping him a secret for the next time they play the Braves? He has looked awfully good. Dave, Gaithersburg, MD

In six games at Syracuse, Barrett's ERA is 0.00. His line: 4 1/3-1-(0-0)-2-6.

When they sent him down, so they could have a fresh arm for ONE day, they lost him (by rule) for 10 days he'd have to spend in minors at a minimum. With hindsight, was that smart? (Get him back up here as soon as it's legal. They ain't got 12 guys who are better.)

Sound familiar ? On August 14, 1960 , In the bottom of the sixth of the second game of a Yankee-Senator's double header ( the Yanks lost both games !) , Mickey Mantle did not run hard to first base and was doubled up at first. Casey Stengel yanked him from the lineup and dressed him down in an unprecedented dugout rebuke. .. From : " The Last Boy-Mickey Mantle and the end of America's Childhood " by Jane Leavy ( 20i0) That was Mantle's 1352 game in the majors He did pretty well after that... Tom Terry , Alexandria

Wow! Thanks.

My daughter played sports and was not allowed to wear jewelry on the field. I was wondering if the players are allowed to wear any jewelry other than those necklaces or gold chains. I've seen married players who do not wear wedding rings, and no one wears earrings. Also, who chooses the uniform of the day? The coach? The equipment manager? Why didn't we wear the blue shirts yesterday?

It may be possible that I've spent my life asking the wrong questions. Because I have no answers for these. Sorry.

In October 2012, this town had "Curley Ws" everywhere as the Nats made the playoffs. In December 2012, this town was on cloud nine as the Redskins beat the Cowboys in a play in game. Now, the Wizards are up 1-0 in the playoffs, and the city is like "Eh" while shrugging its shoulders. As a native Washingtonian, any theories on why there is no buzz regarding our basketball team?

Gee, I don't get it -- except for the third-of-a-century of absolutely totally sucking without a single season with even a .550 winninmg percentage. Even when they are sorta good they haven't been really good -- not once.

I AM pysched because they're the kind of team I enjoy watching. But the apathy -- which may change right now or if they win another game -- is pretty amazing.

It takes a long time to really alienate a fan base. You have to give the Wiz credit -- since '79 nobody has tried harder.

Nevertheless, I'm back on the (mini-)bus. Hope there's more company coming.

How is plus/minus calculated? Does it include power play goals? If so, given that Ovechkin plays on the power play but not the penalty kill, shouldn't he have a great plus/minus? This past season he had the worst plus/minus in the NHL. Could one argue that he is the worst player in the NHL?

=/- is just measured at even strength, not power play.

It's a flawed stat. (You always have to say this. It's in the NHL bylaws and constitution.) But it's pretty damning.

Is Ovechkin the worst defender in any two-way sport? I don't know. But, especially the last couple of seasons, he might be one of the least interested. Saving himself for offense? If you lead the league in goals that actually isn't a terrible defense for playing no defense.

When Doug Fister is ready, I'm assuming the obvious move is Taylor Jordan goes to Syracuse. Do you get the sense that's what the Nats are thinking? And, watching Clippard get into hot water again over the weekend made me really wonder why Aaron Barrett is not around. Any insight on whether they'll call him back up soon? Thanks....

Well, you and Adam LaRoche are on the same wave length. I walked past and he said, "Any word on when Fister's going to be ready (to come back)." I tried to act smart and said something about pitching "in sim-games" and "two weeks."

We should hear pretty soon. He's entirely past his injuries and just on a normal build-up-arm-strength program until he's ready to start. 

It cost the O's big time last night. How could they not call that a catch?

I thought it was a catch at the time.

MLB needs to transfer the new transfer rule to oblivion. It wasn't needed in 1914 and it isn't needed in 2014.

It seems that he has done fairly well with the Birds so far. Do you see him playing much when they are at full strength?

No. He's a good utility man. That's not a knock. He's a GOOD utility man. Hitting .276 but with a (bad) .598 OPS. No pop, no SB speed, average range, weak arm, good fundamentals. And he didn't get the go-ahead run home from third with one out in the ninth last night in a tie game -- the spot he's born for.

The Nats look very smart for putting him in the Fister trade and keeping their faith in Espinosa.  

Boz, I can't help but compare RG III to Harper. Both have massive hype surrounding them and the associated marketing campaigns. How much of that is the team and how much of it is the modern young athlete? Both are immensely talented with a high ceiling but neither has the on-field performance to match the attention they get. Or am I just getting old and stodgy?

RGIII's play in '12 was amazing. He had a huge impact at, by faar, the most important position in the NFL. He's over-hyped, too. Once the machine starts rolling...

But, until he got hurt in '12, he was dazzling. And he may be again.

In all the brouhaha in the press following the Harper benching, it's surprising that absolutely no one has gone back to Randy Knorr's comments about Harper last August 31st. "The thing about Bryce right now that's tough," Knorr said after last night's loss, "he gets frustrated and I don't think he does it intentionally. But he's going to have to start picking it up a little bit. Because we've got everybody else doing it. And he gets frustrated at times and it just comes out of him. And it's something that we've got to fix." Was he surprised to see Harper, off all people, not hustling? "He's got a lot going on," the Nats' bench coach said, "It's hard for me to say. I'm not 20 years old in the big leagues and all that stuff going on around me, so it's something that we've got to get to the bottom of and keep talking to him, because eventually we're just going to have to take him out of the game." This is not a new problem.

You're right. And that's one reason that Knorr was the other finalist for the managing job. The same thing would be happening if he were manager. It's part of Harper's growing up as a big-leaguer. And it's his job to realize that people aren't after him. They just want him to play the way he says he believes he should play.

One more and out of here for today. I'm told an American won the Boston Marathon. Gotta check into that.

No fan is as happy as I am at Danny's re-emergence. He's been a favorite of mine since his home debut and I've had the chance to talk to him twice, and he really couldn't be a nicer guy. So far this season he's definitely justified the faith Rizzo has in him. I see an infield next year of Zim at first, Danny at second, Desi at short, and Rendon at third. Am I wrong? Thanks!

I would suspect that's the highest probability infield combination for '15. But it's far from a certainty. Z'man wants another short at third with an all-sidearm throwing motion. Espinosa has to play like this for six months, not three weeks. Hope he will.

Don't really get to see much of Trout since he's on the West Coast. Can you point out somethings to look for during this series, especially how they might contrast with Harper? Swing, patience at the plate, those kind of things. Or, maybe most importantly, does he use the correct amount of hustle?

Trout is one of the greatest all-around ballplayers of my lifetime. Look for the same things in him that you would have in Willie Mays -- everything, plus things you didn't suspect. No, doesn't have Mays HR power, though he's hit 30 and 27 the last two years.

Fabulous batting eye (led league in walks last year), tenacious long at bats, power to all fields, best base-runner in game (88 SB in 100 attempts in his career), explosive speed, wonderful "fly chaser."

Don't miss him. He's not from another galaxy but he might not be from this planet. It's unfair to compare other young players -- not just Harper but this whole generation -- to the Trout. Since Opening Day of '12 he has an OPS+ of 174 -- meaning he's a 74 percent better hitter than the average MLBer. And that doesn't include his SB or defensive contribution. Harper's career OPS+ is a very good 125. He has an excellent career ahead of him. He stole only 11 bases last year and is an average LFer with a strong arm.

See you next week. Thanks for all the fine questions.

Here's your Boston Marathon link.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/early-lead/wp/2014/04/21/meb-keflezighi-is-first-american-man-to-win-boston-marathon-since-1983/

Cheers.

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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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