Talk Nationals baseball and more: Ask Boswell

May 31, 2011

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

Past Ask Boswell chats

Tom, Could 2 of the changes needed, as alluded to by Jason Werth, be the Nats releasing Matt Stairs, and sending Ian Desmond to the minors to work on his hitting? Stairs is WAY past his prime and has shown that he cannot be relied on to provide a clutch at bat. The guy just looks overwhelmed. Desmond cannot stay in the majors and strike out this amount, unless he starts hitting 30 or 40 homers a year.

Stairs may be the hitting coach in waiting if they give up on Eckstein. Don't know. But logical if the offensive fizzle continues. He's already Werth's de facto coach. (How's that working?)

 Stairs has a career OPS as good as Werth or Zimmerman. He's hit ~245 homers. It's just that nobody in DC saw any of them so they think he's an old bum. He's old. And he may be washed up. But he was no bum. But he looks awful. 

Desmond's fielding has finally started to look MLB-ready on errors. He's on a pace for 24 after 35 last year and even looks better on footwork, avoiding the tough hop after work with Larry Bowa. He's always had the range.

There is nothing in AAA for Desmond. He's had a million bush league ABs. If his errors are a decreasing problem, then you just wait it out with his hitting because his track record shows he's more than a good enough hitter to be a regular SS because of his defense. But hit him 7th until he gets sorted out and put Espinosa at No. 2.     

Hey, Boz. I'm typing this from Tampa, where Jim Bowden project Elijah Dukes was just arrested yet again yesterday for an alleged driving offense. I read recently that Mike Rizzo is talking about focusing on pitching in the draft again. Considering the present state of the Nationals' lineup, is this wise? I'm familiar with the old saw that you can never have too much pitching, but doesn't there come a time when you have to draft hitting?

Assuming Harper is a .280-25-90 guy soon __'12 or '13__ and I do assume that, then a lineup with Werth, Z'man, LaRoche (in '12) and the rest is at least average. What limits the Nats ceiling __in good-case scenarios__ is the lack of No. 1-2-3 starters. Jordan Zimmermann looks much better, but still inconsistent, so probably a No. 3. Wjat if Strasburg DOESN'T come back at 90%+ of his old form. (Or 100%.) Then you REALLY need pitching.

No, pitching is definitely the way to go in the draft.

Also, Lombardozzi at AA has been a .295 switch-hitting machine at every level and will be at Syracuse this year __one jump away as a possible 2nd baseman. (Espinosa to SS? Desmond in trade for a CF leadoff man? You can get a lot for a rangy SS who hits .260 with 65 RBI,  some pop and good "makeup."

Finally, Derek Norris is back hitting again at his normal level at AA. A cacther who draws tons of walks, hits with some power and looks like an .800 OPS catcher is also either useable or tradeable for a hitter.

Go pitching. 

Boz, I've heard of this stat and have yet to figure out its value, although your explanation helped a little. If everybody ends up around .300 (give or take 10-15 points) what's the point of the stat? It's like saying, "Once I hit the ball, I do great," ignoring the number of times they don't hit the ball. Care to explain a little further?

It's used to understand which players are simply hitting in bad luck or good luck. Sometimes, it helps you show patience with your own "slumping" player. Sometimes it helps you steal an underrated player from another team.

But there are "outliers." Rod Carew's career BABIP was .359! So, it looks like there are a few players who really can "hit 'em where they ain''t" and do it deliberately and year after year. BTW, the more line drives you hit __great contact__ the better your BABIP. Everybody isn't exactly equal, but it's good to know that almost everybody does tend to "bunch" around .300. 

Was that little dig a sign that you've given up on Riggleman? Do you think his style of managing has cost the Nats some games in this bad stretch? Maybe more importantly, do you think anybody in the Nats front office agrees with you?

I learned the game at the knee of Earl Weaver. (And that's a knee that isn't very far above the ground.) He was the anti-Riggleman. Granted A.L. vs. N.L. style. Still, it's very hard for me to see Rig as more than a decent manager because I just think he buys into the small ball style too much.

One reason Desmond can't run full speed is because he stole so much early in the year. Was it worth it for him to have a recurring thigh problem? Why is a team full of high-K guys with 12-to-30 home run power so concerned with little innings. It's a Big Inning sport, always has been and the somewhat lower scoring this season still falls within the normal range.

Also, Earl was outspoken, not afraid to take on his players in public, but let them pop off too __provided they could stand the public blow back from him. Rig is all rose-colored glasses and we're-trying-hard in public. He's much tougher in private. I prefer the reverse. Be tougher in public, less concerned with "keeping the clubhouse." Let them worry about "keeping you happy."

But Rig's poor track record and awful record of finishing __year after year__ below where the Phythagorean run theory says he should just doesn't allow him that authroity. Good guy, know the game from first-pitch-to-last. But that can be said of a lot of people. In a month or two, when Z'man is back, he will certainly be under the gun. The Lerners, Rizzo, Boras and all his Nats clients are sick of losing. The first fall guy will obviously be Riggleman. But there is plenty of blame to go around.  

While I see an improved roster and some good young talent on hand and on the way, without Zimmeman and LaRoche, with no real leadoff hitter and the bullpen still sorting itself out, this team may not reach what I thought was a realistic goal of 75 wins. is there any reason to believe they can still reach that level when (if?) Zimmerman comes back? Any likely moves on the horizon to boost our spirits?

No quick-help trades. 75 is still within reach when Z'man gets back. But getting the Phils out of town __with the Nats hitting road after this series__ will probably help as much as anything. The Phils just steal the Nats lunch money any time they want and, naturally, it demoralizes the Nats to see how far they have to go to live up to their "we are getting better" talk.


One third of the season is over, and currently the Nats are on a 67-95 pace, which would be a worse record than last year. Only two teams in all of baseball have a poorer record. Losing is bad, but how they're losing is frustrating. All year, there has been an utter lack of situational hitting, abundant base running blunders and recently the relief pitching can't get the key outs. How much of this is inexperience/lack of talent and how much is proper fundamentals? Do you think there is adequate accountability in the clubhouse?

I'll be writing a column for Thursday's paper on the larger issues behind the Nats inability to handle adversity. Basically, they have a very serious leadership vacuum now that Kasten __the man in charge of the Rose Colored Glasses and the Circus Master's Whip__ isn't around to be a one-man damage control unit when things went bad.

The Lerners are invisible. Rizzo is off scouting for the draft when he should be back at Nats Park wetting down the roof before the wildfire spreads. Werth was raised much better __third-generation big-leaguers__ than to be so ridiculously immature and unaccountable. When you take the money, don't clam up like a mummy. Dunn was accountable, always at his locker to take the heat after he or the team screwed up. Jayson, so far, is too cool for that. Hey, it's your JOB __five minutes a day. If Z'man could be the Face of the Franchise at 22 when he was making $465K, then Werth can speak for the clubhouse when he's making $126M.

It will help when Z'man is back in the room and Rizzo gets off the road. As long as they are 20-21 you don't sense the absence of credible established leadership. When they take a pratfall, it's obvious. Kasten was the brains and the bile of this operation for five years and now __when the stuff hits the fan__ is when the vacuum in his wake is obvious. He made mistakes, but you knew who was in charge. (Except, of course, when he asked Ted for another $15-20-25M in the budget and never got it).

If they win a few games, the drama will pass. But a leadership problem never goes away. It just waits to resurface. Rizzo and Werth, in different roles, need to step up. And Z'man needs to get back. Even then, it remains a problem.  

Boz what do the Lerners think about the tragic scene yesterday at Nationals Park of yet another invasion of the worst fans in baseball (GQ called then them the worst in all sports)and turning what should be a home game into an away game.(so the Nats are now playing a 14 game road trip) Is it really they only think about money and do not care like Stan Kasten would express (the man who created this horror) ? I really can not believe they are happy to sit by and watch this unfold yet again? The little hope I have left on this season is the Lerners will finally wake up?

The scene yesterday was not new, but it was still a travesty.

It's a good thing (for me) that I'm not 18 again and going to ballgames with three of my old D.C. street-ball buddies. One was the nose-guard in football for Anacostia, one was a hurdler at Eastern and the third, who went to Western, was the best all-around 'street athlete' of us. I'm afraid we did a few rowdy things. I hate to think what would have happened if we'd been sitting near some Phils fans our age who act the ways these clowns do. I'm positive it wouldn't have ended negatively.  And I'm sure the Anacostia nose guard would have started it and probably finished.

Like I said, good things Nats fans are so "nice." I hope, in time, they get over it. If (yeah, if, if, if) the Nats are ever in a playoff race with the Phils, I think you'll see the same DC reaction that was prevalent when the Redskins were good from '81 to '91 and Cowboy or Giant or Eagle fans came to town. Not (generally) uncivilized. But far from doormats for the visitors.  

Tom, Enjoyed your column on Danny Espinosa this morning. Other than Bryce Harper, how does their farm system compare to the rest of major league baseball for everyday players? Do they have other legitimate prospects that will be playing for them in two to three years? Where do Tyler Moore (Last year's Carolina League MVP), Derek Norris and Steve Lombardozzi rate in their plans? Are Ross Detwiller and Colin Balester still in their long-term plans? Thanks for your insight.

It's still not a deep farm system in my book. Detwiler just doesn't seem to advance to his ability. Balester is marginal. Lombardozzi looks like a solid prospect, but without much HR power. Norris would be a good-hitting catcher, but probably not good enough to move to first base.

There are the usual "pretty good" Peacocks, Milones, Meyers (all SP) with nice minor league numbers. But as we've seen in the past, AAA to MLB is a big jump and sometimes __usually__ those pretty-good stats don't translate. It's the guys with GREAT minor league stats who translate __Strasburg, Storen, presumably Harper, if he gets out of his recent slump. Espinosa is interesting because he's so confident and seems to have brought the same game to the majors that he had at every other level.

The Lerners are going to have to keep adding free agent talent because the farm system certainly doesn't look sufficient, though it's better. There's no excuse why they shouldn't. Hard as it is to believe, the Nats have inched up to 21st in attendance in a generally down year for baseball. So people appear to be ready to jump on a bandwagon __or at least a mini-wagon__ if given half of a chance.  

One question. Why is Matt Stairs still on the team?

If it will make you all happy, I will try to trip him as he goes down the "stairs" to the dugout.

What's with you people? He's one of the better pinch-hitters ever. He's not blocking anybody in the minors from coming up. Look higher for the problems. 

and is that necessarily a bad thing? i.e., are guys ticked off about losing.

I wished they were ticked off yesterday. Instead, they were hiding. That's almost always a bad sign. They don't want to face the press because they don't want to face what the represent __the public, their problems, the questions or internal issues they don't want to touch.

Come out, come out, where ever you are.

It has been speculated that "revenue flow" is one of the reasons the Cardinals haven't resigned Albert Pujols. They simply don't have a lot of new ways to pay for his contract "demands"...They already play to almost sold out crowds at Busch every night, so the "extra fans in the seats by signing him" option is out! Other than raise ticket prices significantly, what can they do? Along the same lines, is he the least appreciated superstar in MLB because he doesn't speak English?

Albert speaks English. If the Cards don't resign him, his value will be one of the great baseball debates __especially if he continues to have a slightly "off" year. You will see every "model" and method known to man used to analyze him __including psychics.

No, he will not be a Nat. Far too many unanswered questions in Washington. If he were "free" after the '12 season, then DC might be a clearer picture. But without clarity, one of the greatest players of all time, who's already won a World Series, isn't going to take a chance on being locked on a .500 team or less.  

Thomas, What is your honest opinion of what is going on in NY with the Mets? Is the cashflow issue (maybe shored up with the minority owner) unique to them or is this an issue that MLB needs to seriously look at with almost all of their clubs? If it wasn't for revenue sharing and publicly fleeced, i mean financed stadiums, would more teams be in this situation?

The Mets and Dodgers are total messes that are each unique to their own circumstances __not general MLB problems.

When the NBA lockout starts after June 30th, that league will maintain that as many as 25 of its teams are losing money and that they have a systemic problem. They certainly have a lack-of-competitiveness problem for lesser teams __like the Wizards__ who stay far from the top rungs for decades at a time. Like in the case of the Wiz for more than 30 years. When ever I think how long the last five years has been for the Nats since the 81-81 fun in '05, I think of how seldom the Wiz have provided a real thrill since the '70's.

Sorry, I need to go outside, look at the hot summer sunshine, think of how much I love this time of year and stop grinding my teeth about local teams.

Hey, congrats to the UVa mens lacrosse team.

Boz, First there was the dugout confrontation between Marquis and Riggleman followed by Jayson Werth's comments regarding "change" and "obvious situations" or question is are the veterans on this team jumping ship on Riggleman? It seems to me that someone hitting @ .200 with RISP, making upwards of $18 million a year or a pitcher who got hit as hard as Marquis did by the O's should be the last ones to throw anybody under a bus. What are your thoughts?

Riggleman is in an inherently weak position. But, don't forget, Rig used to lend his car to Scott Boras when they were roomates in the minors. Boras really respects and likes him. You never know what can help you in a time of need. But if Werth decides he thinks the manager is part of the problem, then Scott's going to side with his client.

Put another way, who cares if Marquis acts like a jerk and Riggleman (probably) overreacts in return? But if you have to bring Werth into your office to clear the air __in May!__ that's not good.

The Nats finally pick the year of an NFL lockout __and little Redskins news in summer__ to have their dust ups. Nice timing __not. 

What's more amazing -- the Red Sox's turnaround or the ability of the Oakland A's to hover around the .500 mark? Seriously, they've done it more than a dozen times already this season!

The Red Sox have more money than the Vatican. They SHOULD be good. The A's have to pass the plate every Sunday to field a decent team. But they do it.

They have to take chances, like trading for Josh Willingham despite his history of back problems. Josh has nine homers and 35 RBI in that huge Mausoleum __more than any Nat__ and a pace for 27 homers and 104 RBI. Good guy.


Tom, was at the park yesterday. I thought Cora made a terrible baserunning mistake in the 7th that may have cost the Nats the game. If he stays put (as he should have on Ankiel's ground ball back to the pitcher), the Nats would have had second and third with one out and Espinosa coming to the plate. In the Post this morning, however, Cora was quoted as saying that he was "running all the way." Really? Is that the conventional baseball wisdom under those circumstances? If so, I stand corrected, but I don't see how a runner simply takes off from third on a ground ball with first and third, nobody out, down by one run late in the game, with the best pitcher in baseball clearly on the ropes. What is your take on that play? Thanks.

Cora was right. On a ball straight back to the pitcher, he has to break, otherwise, if he stays locked at third, the other team can pull off a quick 1-6-3 doubleplay while he stands there sucking his thumb. There's no way he can know Halladay will knock the ball down __not catch it cleanly__ and that he will recover it in time to throw him out at the plate.

Base-running decisions have to be made in an instant. Once you're taken that first step or two, it's over __you have committed. Cora's first two steps had to be towwrad home plate when he saw a grounder right back at the pitcher. Looked ugly. Just a bad break. 

The winning and losing pitchers in yesterday's Tigers-Twins game are both named after cities in New Mexico: Alburquerque and ValVerde.

Love it. Thanks.

Boz, You've mentioned many times that you won't criticize a manager for his in-game decisions. After watching the Nats over the the last month, have you considered re-evaluting that stance? If you only had one benchmark for evaluating a manager wouldn't it be the record in one-run games where one manager's decision can cost you the game? I think the Nats are 1-9 in their last 10 one-run games and I could probably point to a Riggleman decision in most of them that cost them the game. The main one is he too often seems to be one batter too late when changing pitchers.

I constantly first-guess managers for in game decisions. I hate it when Riggleman falls into sentimental managing __as he has three times this season__ and says afterwards, "So and so was pitching well. I wanted to leave him in the game (which was tied or the Nats behind) so he had a chance for a win." And most of the time, the game blows up immediately.

I firmly believe that if you consistently play for one-run early you tend to lose by one run late. The Nats are NOT an awful scoring team, but they are managed as if they are. There are eight teams that have scored less runs. It's a low-offense year. You don't have to manage like they are the Hitless Wonders. The Nats are a very low AVERAGE team, not a very low SCORING team.

The only time I ever left Kasten speachless was when I showed him the lifetime records of every famous manager of the last 30 years versus the "Pythagorean" run-differential formula. All of them won more games than their run differential would have predicted. Not by a lot. Maybe +10 or +15 games. Only a couple were a few games negative. Rigglemnan was a huge outlier __dozens of wins less than you'd predict.

Finally, Stan, proving he could spin an ything, said, "Maybe Jim's just 'due.'"

We both ened up laughing.   

After driving the same course 199 times, why would a great race car driver inexplicably choke on the final lap? I thought these guys had nerves of steel. Are they really like the rest of us? When you meet great athletes, do you get the impression that they really are different than the rest of us?

The driver was 23.

Still, an amazing misjudgment. I've covered Indy and gone as a fan. You can't throw it away on a basic mistake in the last lap.

Great athletes have unique focus, among other qualities. Call it "grace under pressure." That's why crashes __whether on Lap 200 or the 18th hole or in the bottom of the ninth__ can be so psychologically damaging. They don't think that can "happen to them." After it does, there can be self-image and confidence problems.

You can "learn to lose." And once you're learned, it's hard to forget. That's why you develop baseball players gingerly at every level. Storen never learned to lose in the minors. So, I think, he can take the inevitable bad outting in the big leagues.

Has Tiger "learned to lose" __on the course and off__ to the degree that he will never be the same __in his own eyes? Yes, I assume so. Is it bad enough that he won't return to some remblance of himself in the future? That's what we don't know. As a friend said to me on the golf course the other day,  "I can't believe we're never going to get to see that amazing unique player again. There's nothing good about losing Tiger Woods."  

Boz, I am warming up in the managers bullpen ready for the call from Riz and the Learners. This team is actually underachieving and I think I can pull a Showalter and get this team right for a run in 2012. This is like my 1986 Mets team. I have my Gooden [Strasburg], my Strawberry [Harper] and a healthy Zim and LaRoche coming back. I think I have 4 more years of managing in me and I think '12-'15 can be playoff and championship years. We have been friends for a while. What is your advice? Davey.

The Nats ownership probably has pretty  severe Showalter Envy.

This time around, if that's what it comes to, maybe the Lerners will give Rizzo a bigger budget for a manager than $600K for one year. That only gets you an untested first-timer from the minors or a guy who's been fired a few times. Bobby Valentine makes quite a bit more than that at ESPN.


What are your views on "the Ohio State" football program? I would think the Athletic Director and the shool president need to follow Tressell out of the door for the school to avoid the death penalty.

Tressell has permanently given sweater vests (a personal weakness of mine) a bad name.

They can kick the OSU president out the door any time they want if only for his comment months ago that he "just hopes (Tressell) doesn't fire ME."

This may have been the slowest Memorial Day weekend for major sports in many years. But still fun. The action will pick up next week with the NBA finals, Stanley Cup, U.S. Open coming, etc. See you all then.

Boz, I love baseball stats as much as the next guy (well, unless the next guy's initials are T.B.). But I think you're going a little overboard in attributing Danny Espinosa's low batting average to bad luck (and a bad BABIP of .222). Break that stat down a little further: his BABIP batting righty is .313; batting lefty it's .191. If you've watched Espinosa this year, you know that .191 isn't bad luck, he's simply had an awful swing from the left side of the plate this year. Are you going to believe those damn stats, or what your eyes tell you?

'Hello again, folks. I'm going to try to stick in a late answer and hope nobody minds.

I did some more digging and I think I can make this BABIP discussion even easier and clearer. Lets look at current second basemen who had more than 1,000 minor league at bats (as Espinosa did) and compare their minor league BABIP to their subsequent MLB BABIP. Does BABIP "translate" to MLB?

Espinosa's minor-league BABIP in over 1200 plate appearances was .323. Now, in half a season in the majors, it's .226. Is he likely to get back around .323? (I used an assumption of .297 __the MLB norm__ in my column. So, .323 would make him even better than my projections.)

Chase Utley..MLB BABIP .313...minors .310 (1350 ABs).
Orlando Hudson...MLB BABIP .316...minors .318 (1832 at bats).
Brian Roberts...MLB BABIP .314...minors .329.
Robinson Cano...MLB BABIP .320,,,minors .302 (1,640 ABs)
Dustin Pedroia...MLB BABIP .309...minors .313.

There are plenty more. I can't find a meaningful exception for a player with >1200 minor league PAs. And I'm not going to spend more time trying. (There must be a few, right?)

Also, here are the career MLB BABIPs of a bunch of recent Nats. Ramos .299, Bernadina .291. Zimmerman .319. Desmond .309. Werth .329. Pudge .321. LaRoche .310. Dunn (slow) .295. Morse .347 (lucky, so far).

How long can Espinosa stay at .226? Not long. It's virtually impossible. Just enjoy watching it happen.

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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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