Ask Boswell

May 23, 2011

Washington Post Sports Columnist Tom Boswell answered your questions about baseball, local D.C. sports and more.

Past Ask Boswell chats

Is Riggleman's job in danger? The team seems to have lapsed into old bad habits - poor situational hitting, poor pitch selection, tons of men left on base. Does the team need someone new to light a fire under them?

Riggleman is nowhere close to being in trouble, not with the team at 21-25 without Ryan Zimmerman.  That's a pace for five more wins than last year with a team that's hitting dead last in MLB. He can't go up and hit for them.  

But the problems are adding up. If LaRoche is out for significant time that will hurt the defense because Michael Morse is new to the position.  The last 10 days have been the kind of frustrating period that can send a shakey injured team into a tailspin. Luckily, the teams they face over the next five weeks aren't, as a group, any better than they are. So this is a chance for Riggleman to build up the case for himself.

It's still very rare to put a manager in a position when he's on a one-year deal. The core of a manager's authority is that players think they will have to put up with him for 2-3 years, so they don't cross him. They could have extended Riggleman for 1/200th of the Werth contract. That undermines him, in and of itself.

Surely the Nats can find a better candidate for the 25th spot on their roster than .100 hitting (3 for 30) pinch hitter Matt Stairs? If he's such a great clubhouse influence, maybe they can make him a coach.

I don't think Stairs is going anywhere. But when he was no used on Sunday as a DH in Baltimore vs a RH pitcher, I thought to myself, "On plenty of teams, that would mean he was about to be released." He's hitting 3-for-30. And you don't think enough of him to play him three straight days when all he has to do is DH? 

Part of the problem is that the Nats "prospects" at AAA are just as bad as what they have at the MLB level. This could have been Chris Marrero's chance to get a shot at 1st if LaRoche is out for a couple of weeks. But he has hit only four homers in 159 ABs at AAA with a meediocre .749 OPS. So, the Nats can keep hoping Stairs wins them a game off the bench. And even at 43, Stairs is probably as good a defensive first baseman as either Morse or Marrero. Which tells you about them.    

As you have been saying for a while and is now clear to me this is just the owners trying to break the players. Any chance the players can hold out and together the whole season if there are no games. I know as a season ticket holder I will end up paying either way but I just can't support the owners.

I went to the Sports Lawyers Association annual conference on Saturday at the Renaissance. It moves to different cities every year and draws about 600 lawyers __agents, pro front officies, college students and law professors. And every heavyweight is there __the heads of all the unions in NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL as well as the head negotiators for the owners in those sports. Or at least the No. 2 negotiator. The head of the MLBPA, Michael Weiner, said something interesting. I'll also give you some quotes from Billy Hunter who was really rattling the saber about the NBA labor crisis that will arrive in about 40 days.


“The key to understanding what is happening in each of these leagues is to ask ‘Why is this happening?’ Negotiations are not about intelligence or creativity. It’s about power.

        “Demands for massive concessions don’t make them evil. They are doing it because they think they have the leverage to seek these kinds of concessions. 

       “The economic of MLB fall between the NFL and where the NBA claims it is. Why don’t the MLB owners ask for these concessions? It isn’t because they are less greedy. It’s because they don’t think they can get them without a fight that would so damage the game and the industry that it isn’t worth it. They have seen what the result is. They have a respect for the bargaining process and the (solidarity) of the players themselves.”



So you're saying that Rizzo's setting up Riggleman to fail so he can use him as a scapegoat in order to buy himself another season of 100 losses, because Rizzo's certainly gotten a free pass from the media in this town. The guy can't put a roster together to save his life and it's the manager's drama? Rizzo talks about rebuilding and he tears his offense down out of principle. Trades 85 RBIs for a reliever who can't throw straight, then spends $126 million to replace that exact number. He's doing 'divide and conquer', pitting the players against the manager so nobody looks at how anemic the farm system is, and how timid he is in making trades. He falls in love with his prospects. He's a loser.

I think Rizzo does a good job and is a strength of the organization. But you put the negative (maybe even nasty) case out there. Fine. It's interesting.

I did some "unsettling" stats on Jayson Werth the other day. Werth is going to be the defining Rizzo moment from this period. He said This is the The Guy we need."

Okay, I looked at Werth's ROAD stats from his 3 years in Philly, to get rid of the bias of that bandbox park the Phils play in. Then, on a whim, I lo0oked at Josh Willingham's stats in his two years in DC, just to see how much better Werth would be. I was stunned: The numbers are as close to identical as I've ever seen.

Werth on the road as a Phil: 781 abs-109 runs, 211 hits, 48 doubles, three triples, 37 homers, 122 RBI, 122 walks, 234 Ks.

Willingham as a Nat: 797-124-210-48-2-40-117-(128 walks-189 Ks).

As a slash line, it's Werth: .270/.376/.481. Willingham: .263/.377/.856.

Willingham gets hurt more and Werth is a much better outfielder. Still!!  

Good column on Riggleman. I hope he's able to survive. But if the Orioles' experience has any relevance, this may not be best for the team. Before Buck Showalter was hired, they had a string of mediocrities. There was much discussion as to how much difference a manager actually makes -- and Earl Weaver and Sparky Anderson, among others, were quoted as saying, notmuch. But clearly there are managers, such as Showalter, Davey Johnson, Billy Martin and others who can turn teams around very quickly. Not all are suited for the long haul, but just like losing, winning can build on itself and give fans at least a taste of better times.

Everybody talks about how players can't escape from what's on the back of their baseball cards. The stats, over time, tell the story. That's not quite as ironclad for managers __for example, "everybody" thinks Gene Mauch was a better manager than his career record. But Riggleman __I checked yesterday__ still has the worst winning percentage (.443) of any manager since 1900 who has managed for 10 years or more. Rig is 12 years. But, except for one 90-win Cubs team, there certainly is an argument that he's been handed bad teams.

All in all, I think Riggleman is an average MLB manager __strong on in-game stuff, boring with the media, though he tries hard. So his ability to motivate and discipline players is vital. Do they avoid mental mistakes? Do they play hard? Do they rebound well from tough defeats? Do they stay tough in the face of injuries? So far, he's grading out pretty well there. But he will be an easy scapegoat __and he knows it__ if things don't go well.

One MLB exec told me this week that it annoys him that the Nats have consistently had a payroll that is about $25-million a year lower than what would seem to be Market Appropriate. "They are still back at the payroll (about $65M) that they had in '05 when the team was run by MLB and they didn't even have an owner."



Thank you for the column on Harmon Killebrew. At age 60 I remember when the only thing to root for was Killebrew and later Frank Howard. These guys kept me glued to the radio waiting for the next monster blast. They gave us a measure of respect around the league we could not achieve in wins and losses. I wish I was still including Adam Dunn in that group.

So do I. Even though Dunn is hitting about .189 now. It's possible he's not adjusting well to the DH role. Maybe he's starting to get old. But I doubt it. I think he'll bounce back.

Entertainment has value. But far more important is
"presence" in the middle of a lineup. That's a big part of what the Nats lack, especially with Zimmerman out. And now maybe LaRoche. Teams pitch around your best hitters in late-game clutch spots. For example, Werth has no protection __something the SIGHT of Dunn would have provided. This season, in the 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th innings of all games that were closer than six runs, Werth has ONE RBI in 70 plate appearances. Partly he has failed in those clutch spots. Partly, he has been left naked.

He says crime will increase if the NFL lockout continues. Is he talking about the players or the fans?

I saw the headline, didn't read the quote because I couldn't imagine it would be worth reading. But we are probably going to see an NBA lockout very soon. Their CBA runs out at the end of June. Here are some of Billy Hunter's remarks from the SLA convention to 600 lawyers.

Billy Hunter, head of NBAPA: “Three weeks ago, we received an offer that was shocking to our players. It was regressive with even more demands that were in their original proposal (from two years ago). It is repressive.”


      “There’s an impression that there is movement (in talks). None, zero, no movement and I don’t know if there will be any…Under no circumstances are we willing to accept this proposal. It’s a non-starter.”


       “The NFL wants $1-billion (in concessions). Ours is $800 million.”


       “They say 25 teams are losing money. There may be some. But it can be resolved with revenue sharing. The NBA doesn’t want to talk about that.”


       “This deal or a lockout? Give me the lockout.”


      “Last time in ’98, it was devastating for business. It took six years to recover. I don’t know how long it would take for us to recover (this time).”


       “We’ll talk several times over the next 40 days. We’ll (probably) go around the clock. But I’ve got to say that I don’t know if sitting around looking at eachother for eight-ten hours a day will help. It might piss you off. But nobody can say we didn’t try.”


       “There would be opportunities for our marquis players like leBron, Wade, Dirk, Kobe__ to play in Europe (during a lockout). If a significant salary is offered, they may decide to stay where they go. The NBA has to pay attention to that.”


        “A lockout will be devastating. It will get people’s focus by Labor Day.” 

I'm only 31 and have done my share of partying, but I'm horrified by the Preainess's decision to lure more "party animals" to the infield by offering unlimited refills on beer. I've read several articles on t his and none of the participants said they were there for the horse race. Instead, they gave "free beer," "partying" and "getting drunk" as their rational. A Balt. Sun headline read, "Drunken port-a-john jumping returns to the infield." If the Preakness is still around when my children are old enough to attend, no way am I going to take them unless this policy is changed.

I can't verify the accuracy of this, but the Peakness infield has always been legendary as a beer party. I've covered it several times. But then it's no different than the Indy 500 infield. There's never been a year when you'd want to take one of your children there. Horse racing needs crowds. I hope they don't want them bad enough to do what you describe.

Bos, as one of sveral hundred fans (at least) who showed up for last Tuesday's Pirates/Nationals afternoon game under perfectly clear skies, only to learn it had been canceled hours earlier, I'm wondering if there's anything MLB can do to get this right? The next day the Nats played through a driving rain NYC and the same t hing happened to the Orioles on Thurs. I have a friend who says it would take something like Cal's streak having been ended by an injury caused by playing under unplayable conditions to bring some sense to this situation. Of course, we're both glad that didn't happen; but she may have a point. Another says her dad, a non-football fan, used to say that the difference between baseball players and football players was that baseball players had enough sense to come in out of the rain. Sadly, that is no longer true.

I was planning to go to that game, so it was too bad when the sun came out __or at least there was no rain__ all afternoon. Two points. First, they announced it at about 10 a.m.. So, if you are going to do it __based on a (supposedly) 100% chance of rain weather report__ then that's the way to do it. 

Second, the Nats may have thought there was some advanatge in kicking the game into the future. Their bullpen was tired. When they play the makeup game with the Pirates they will presumably have Z,man back. And it gave them a chance to skip Jordan Zimmermann in the rotation and give him a big rest for his arm that's still coming back from TJ surgery.

On Z'mann, he struck out 11 in his previous start. Then, on Sunday, he had a one-hit shutout through six innings before throwing an awful 0-2 curve over the plate to Vlad Guerrero, who homered for all the O's runs in 2-1 win.

That may be the best stuff I've ever seen him have __well, the best of all three pitches: fastball velocity (94-95), hard slider and best use of his curve from 75-to-81 as an off-speed pitch. He said afterwards he feels great.

As I've said, he still lacks polish. He's not maxing out the results that his stuff warrants. But I think that will come. He reminds me of Dennis Martinez __loses focus with two outs and nobody on or leaves an 0-2 pitch over the plate to a cleanup hitter or tries to make perfect pitches for K's when there's nobody even on base which runs up his pitch count. A lot of little things. But he has the talent and the toughness to be a No. 2-3 starter.

He's not there yet. Of course, if he got 3-4-5 runs a gam,e to work with, maybe he wouldn't have to be so "fine" with his pitches.

No way to know if there was any strategy in the N ats thinking.   

What is MLB doing about players that have allegedly used PEDs? I see that a number of them are still playing - even some on the Nationals. Is there a movement to get them out, or is Bud content to let them continue to play? Is the issue really that complicated or baseball that gutless?

As Joe Posnanski (SI, etc) pointed out in a recent blog, it's very likely that PEDs are as much "out of baseball" as you will ever see and it's a problem that's largely in the past. No, not because of great testing. But because the penalties __not just threat of jail, but being ostrasized, kept out of the Hall of Fame, mocked__ is so huge that nobody in their right mind (or not many) want to take the risk. 

It's an accidental byproduct of the huge backlash against steroid use. It's just become totally socially unacceptable. There will always be some PED cheaters. And the Bonds/Clemens sagas will continue to play out.  But, for all practical purposes, I think the steroid era is over. 

So enjoy all those 2-1 games! Be careful what you wish for. As bad as the Nats offense is, they have scored more runs than EIGHT teams. And only three less than the Orioles who get to use the DH. Amazing.  

Good Morning Tom! Thank you for your time! Each week we read about both players and pitchers going down with injuries. Is it me, or does it seem like they are ocurring more frequently than in the past? If so, does this mean that maybe more players than we previously thought were taking a little "something" to get them by? Maybe not so much to "bulk up", but to "keep going". Am I out in left field? Thanks for your thoughts...

You are almost certainly right. Rizzo thinks so, says so and believes that young, fast, fit players are the future. And even they will run down, get nicks and need time off. It's not just PEDs to bounce back sooner. The crack down on "greenies" (uppers) also mean that guys can't play through as much exhaustion and nagging pain.

Why do you take your worst hitter and make him the DH? How long will Riggleman stick with Stairs as a pinch hitter? Can't they bring up somebody who can hit over .100?

I'm amazed at the number of questions about Stairs and the need for his public execution! Well, I guess it's a dry time in DC sports. (Man, it's tough to watch the Lihtning still playing.) This may be the most attention Stairs has ever gotten. He's not a good guy. He's a great guy. And the definition of a veteran influence. Oh, and he's Werth's buddy. It would be nice if he would get one big hit to takee the pressure off everybody.

Remember, he's still on the team because there is NOBODY in the high minors who can help at all.   


The Nats win scoring 17 runs and 19 hits , then in two games combine for 4 runs and 15 hits, loosing both. What gives? Are the bats really in a slump, or are we just seeing the team revert to form? LaRoche is hitting about .90 points lower then his career. Is the team ignoring an injury that is clearly effecting his bat? At what point to they just sit him down?

LaRoche is going to be a very tough decision. Internally, the Nats assume the most likely outcome of his latest visit for another opinion is that he'll have to rest __maybe for a couple of weeks. But that is their blind guess. LaRoche is tough. He might just keep playing. But it's far more likely, from his comments, that he believes his shoulder has lost strength because of the in jury, even though he has no pain when he swings.

I seem to have misplaced my medical degree, but I think an injury like that tends to lead to other muscles in the area atrophying or losing strength.

Last year it was Marquis who got $7.5-million and killed the team with three instant-loss early starts before elbow surgery. Then he came back and had a solid last two mon ths. This year it's LaRoche who seems like a logical decent player to add in free agency. And he looks exactly like the Marquis of '11.

LaRoche's stats his whole career look identical year-to-year and never hurt. The Nats got him "just in time."   

The "Rizzo Incident" in NY. An investigation, according to Rizzo, has begun on the incident in NY, not into Rizzo himself, but the "incident" - reading between the lines, does this say that the umpires crossed a line and instigated the incident? When will we hear more? Any reporters nearby running audio recroders?

On Sunday, Rizzo was on the road scouting players for the amateur draft in early June. He's probably somewhere in South Dakota where nobody can reach him. I'll be interested to learn, in time, the details of that confrontation. Rizzo, and others with the Nats, think that umpires treat them like a last-place joke team and give them no respect. So I can imagine Riz flipping. But, given how beligerant umps have become, they may have been the problem, too.

Did the umps __a different crew__ send a message to the Nats with the unusual (but correct) call on Bernadina on the second pitch yesterday. Was that part of why Rig was so hot? Don't you love conspiracy theories about a game involving two teams that haven't finished a season over .500 since time immemorial.  

Even with a healthy Zimmerman and LaRoche (but that would sure be an improvement of the current lineup), there seem to be huge holes in the Nats batting order. Lead-off and clean-up are the biggest examples, and I still have doubts about Desmond in the second spot. Plus many players are batting in order locations that they wouldn't for a team contending for a wildcard. What can be done to cure this and how long will it take? (Even if Harper does make it to the majors next year, I'd hope he wouldn't have the added pressure of batting clean-up initially.)

You are going to see Bernadina batting leadoff for the rest of the season, I think. He is the only option and he's doing well. He may move to LF to some degree, but he'll stay at No. 1 because it suits him and he's not a bad option.

Desmond, who's a wild swinger, especially at breaking balls, needs the protection of hitting No. 2. But someday, because he has so much extra-base pop, brings such fire, I suspect Espinosa, if he canm get his average over .250 and his on-base percentage over .330, may need to hit higher __like No. 2.

If you put a "normal" Werth, Z'man and LaRoche in the middle of this lineup, with Ramos, Espinosa, Desmond and Bernadina in it, too, that's probably as good as last year once the synergies take hold. But they aren't "normal." So, the negative cycle begins.

What will the Bulls need to do differently to reach the finals? It looks like this series should be close all the way through.

I'm a conventional Heat Hater. It's just so much more fun. I hope the Bulls keep their heart and focus on  their young legs and depth to make it a long tough series. Lets see how the Big Three handle the "heat" of a game seven. Gimme Mavs and Bulls. 

I know we still have a month to go before the U.S. Open at Congressional, but who are looking at as best bets to take the title? Isn't K.J. Choi near the top of the list with his recent win at The Players and because he won the AT&T at Congressional? But who else do you like?

I really like Choi, though he's not charismatic on camera. I suspect his [problems with putting on really fast greens, especiually on the knee-knockers, will haunt him at Congressional. I'll do some handicapping as it gets closer. But look out for the Europeans. It's their time right now. Not McDowell, who's in a funk. But see which two or three of the usually suspects from the European Ryder Cup team are playing best. Like Poulter beating Luke Donald on Sunday in the World Match Play to prevent him from moving up to No. 1 in the world ahead of Lee Westwood.

We'll be seeing the World Open at Congressional, not the U.S. Open __so get prepared for it and enjoy it. 

Really like the direction the Orioles are heading but they will need to add that huge bat in the middle fo the lineup next year. Will they make a play for Prince Fielder? Would Prince consider the O's? Also, how about the catchers for both the Nats and the O's. Great futures for both Ramos and Wieters.

There's going to be a Weiters/Ramos debate for years. Z Britton is really special. But watching young pitchers these days will make you crazy. They don't last. Last year, everybody was talking about the futures of Strasburg, Aroldis Chapman, Tim Leake and Matt Latos. Now Strasburg is hurt, Chapman is so wild he's walked 20 men in 13 innings and has fallen way down in the Reds eyes. The Reds have sent Leake back down to the minors because he's been so bad since the end of last year. I watched him get shelled in AAA the other day __live on MiLB.TV online. Yes, $29.95 for the yearly package! I must be out of my mind. And Latos is 1-6 with a 4.60 ERA after he looked like Don Drysdale last year.

Tom, you may have already done this but please give a congratulatory nod to Maryland Lacrosse for getting into the NCAA Div. I final four. Great sport, growing in popularity nation wide (and in schools in my area, Southeastern VA) but under reported by the national sports press especially by NBA centric ESPN.

This is an e-mail I got from Charlie Brotman, legendary publicist, PA announcer, master of ceremonies and man-about-DC-sports. Thought you'd all enjoy it.


The year was 1954 - Killebrew joined the Senators.  Two years later, I was
hired to be the Giffith Stadium PA announcer.
I received a call from Calvin Griffith to report to his office.  "Charlie, we have a
player I want you to drive to Union Station.  Here's his ticket - and be sure he gets
it.  He'll be reporting to our minor league system where he'll get to play every day!"
I met the player in the Griffith Stadium "Press Parking Lot" - and drove him to Union Station.
I never saw a young man so "down", so dejected, so depressed!  So, in an effort to cheer
him up, I told him that the owner of the club - Calvin Griffith - told me he just wanted the
rookie to get more playing time, but that he'll be back with the Senators in no time at all.
We arived at the train station - the player got out (almost in tears) - I wished him well --
and as I drove off on my way back to Griffith Stadium -- I said to myself:  "Well, I'll probably
never see that kid again!"
Yes, it was Harmon Killebrew.

After his 1-0 loss to the Mets last week, continuing his second year of unexpectedly fine pitching, I wanted to note a couple of things about Livan Hernandez. He takes a beating from the stat nerds, who are right about lots of things, but Livo is a perfect example of how you have to couple numbers with on-the-ground baseball analysis.

What stat mavens don't know is that Hernandez has changed his pitching style in recent years and now calls himself a sinkerball pitcher. Almost all his fastballs are now sinking two-seamers at the knees or away while his rare four-seamers are almost always at or above the top of the strike zone. His lower home run rate is a direct consequence of a conscious change in approach. That's why his current sub-4.00 ERA's in '10 and '11 __similar to his combined ERAs around 3.80 in '00-'02-and'03 when he pitched much differently__ are not a fluke and, as long as he's healthy, will probably continue. He's not "lucky" or "due to give up homers." He has adapted. His critics are the ones who are behind. 
Also, early in his career, even though he threw much harder then, Hernandez allowed hitters to pull the ball (on which he gave up most of his homers) far more often than they hit it to the opposite field (on which he has almost never given up homers in any year of his career). In the last three years, he has (somehow) learned to get MORE hitters to put the ball in play to the opposite field than are able to pull the ball off him. This applies to both RH and LH hitters. You can dig up the stats if you want at Baseball Reference. This is a rare ability for any pitcher. How he does it (with a fastball that tops at 86) I have no idea. But he's been doing it for nearly 100 starts. 
Everybody thinks they are smarter than Livan and that he's just lucky. They say, "How does he do it?" The point is that HE actually does know how he does it. And the stats don't show it. Those who think his real ERA and his theoretical xFip "should" converge may continue to be disappoin ted.
Someday, he finally will get old and his numbers will implode. But not the way he's pitching now. Overall, his luck on BABHiP has been normal (.298 the last two years combined). However, his most remarkable quality in '10-'11, which has been lost because he has had incredibly low run support, is that in 25 of his 43 starts he has pitched 6 innings or more and had an ERA for that game of 3.00 or less. In other words, no cheap quality starts with 3 earned runs in six innings. The minimum would be 6 innings and only two earned runs. For most pitchers, this standard __maybe call it a "quality-plus" start__ comes pretty close to their win total.
On a .500 or better team with normal-to-good run support, Hernandez would probably have >20 wins the last two years. 

Does a smart catcher call for a curve on an 0-2 count when his pitcher is hurling a two-hitter and is throwing 93-94 mph fastballs? Heat to Vladdie, way off the plate. (At least they lost to an ex-Expo)

The problem wasn't the pitch call. "I was trying to bounce a curveball," said Zimmermann.

Instead, he threw it knee high over the plate __to Vlad Guerrero! You can get away with such a "high quality" mistake to a normal hitter. But not to a future Hall of Famer who can crush anything in his reach. If he bounces it, maybe Vlad chases and strikes out and the Nats win 1-0.

But he didn't. Vlad did what he does. And the Orioles, deservingly, win the first round of the home-and-home battle. And they did it after losing 17-5, coming off tough games earlier in the week. That's a strong comment on the backbone of Buck's team in B'mer.

Thanks for all the questions. See everybody next week.  

In This Chat
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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