Ask Boswell: Redskins, Nationals and Washington sports

May 28, 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

Pretend there is some kind of supplemental draft and only 3 players are available - Machado, Harper and Trout. Would you mind channeling your inner Mel Kiper and give us your "big board" and rank these 3 phenoms?

1) Trout, because he's now putting up EXACTLY the same numbers __across the board__ in all categories that he did in '12. .304/.380/.570.

2) Bryce Harper, because he's now starting to show that he's probably capable of being a 30-to-40 HR player at 20 or 21. That power gives him enormous upside. The major issues with him now are injury and judgment. If he doesn't reign himself in to some degree, especially near walls, and stop saying "I'm not really hurt. I healed. I can play today, lemme in, lemme in, lemme in," he won't be on any list in 5 years.

3) Machado is a smooth player. He isn't going to get hurt huch. He's already Gold Glove level at third. When will Trout or Harper win a GG? Ever? Machado is no drama in clubhouse. Yesterday, Gio Gonzalez, 21-game-winner, made him look silly with a 92 mph sinker in his first AB __a pool cue dribbler to 1st base on which Machado almost fell down swinging just to make contact. Later, Gonzalez threw the same pitch __a PERFECT low away sinker__ and Machado smoked it into rightcenter for a double. Machado has 12 homers in 415 ABs so far. (Harper has 12 homers in 150 ABs this year alone.) That will be the last piece of the puzzle for Machado __especially if most of his career is as a 3rd baseman. (Even if he moves to SS at some point, won't he move back to 3rd for many years?)

These three could end up in any order at the end of their careers. I assume at least one of them ends up in the Hall of Fame. But I'd bet even more that ALL THREE three don't. Things just don't work out that easily. Not a knock. Vada Pinson was amazing at 20-21, had ~2,800 hits, isn't close to Cooperstown. 

Can Ryan Zimmerman play 2B? What about moving him over there and making room for Rendon at third? Ryan played SS in college and in his major league debut, and his quick reflexes seem to give him the range necessary to play the position. And the best part: the throws are a lot shorter from 2B.

Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblauch were second basemen. If Zimmerman's throwing problems on routine plays are most physical, then he'll fix them over the course of this season as he works on his new mechanics after shoulder surgery last win ter. If the problems are mostly mental, then moving him to second won't help. He'd probably lack the range of a top second baseman. He's QUICK, not fast. That suits 3rd base.

By the way, wish somebody would get a screen grab of his vertical leap to get out of the way of a screaming foul ball when he was leading off 3rd base either yesterday or Sunday. His feet are tucked up under him and it is hard to believe. Looks like every part of him is at least four feet in the air. Probably imossible. But the freeze frame is unbelievable.

Is Espinoza ever going to find his swing? I know you were tooting his horn a while back, do you still feel the same about him?

His last thousand plate appearances have changed my mind. That's not sarcasm. It's just data. I think the balance has changed.

Before it was: Assume Espinosa will learn to make enough contact to let all his other skills show themselves.

Now it may be: Assume he's just never going to be able to make much contact. And he plays so hard that he gets hurt. But doesn't evaluate his own injuries accurately or else he doesn't transmit that info accurately so the team can make good decisions about him.

Espinosa, in scout's terms, is a "plus" defensive second baseman with a "plus-plus" arm and ++ toughness, too. He has "plus" power and "plus" speed for a middle infielder. That is a rare combination __he has four obvious and undeniable tools __run, hit for power, field and throw. That's why it drives the Nats crazy to show even the slightest lack of faith in him because, though he seems cocky, nobody who strikes out 189 times in one year can go to the plate with a lot of confidence.

In contrast, Lombardozzi, whom everybody likes and admires, has average range at 2nd, or slightly better than average. His arm and power are a "minus" on the tools scale. He projects as a MLB average hitter for average __.270-.280 (around .300 in minors, but you have to assume that comes down at MLB level); but with him, his hitting as a whole is slightly below average because of his blah on-base ability __nobody walks him. He has no "plus" tool EXCEPT MAKEUP. That might be "plus plus."

I almost wish that Espinosa could be shut down for the rest of the year as LaRoche was in '11 so he can start fresh after shoulder surgery in '14. Let Lombardozzi play 2nd with Kobernus or, by mid-season, maybe Rendon at 2nd. But that is so close to giving up on a major physical talent with off-the-charts toughness/strength that a scouting-driven organization is going to have a hard time pulling the trigger on that decision. 

You can easily STILL Espinosa as another Brandon Phillips __2time all-star, three gold gloves, .756 career OPS (Espinosa's career OPS is .703, down from .737 in '10). 


What on earth is he thinking? He'll have to negotiate with the Ravens again in 3 years on Flacco, and I can't imagine other NFL teams are going to be too happy to deal with him after these comments.

Dumbest agent comments I've ever read. Well, that's probably saying too much because there's plenty of competition. I don't know him. Maybe he just had a (very) bad day.

But with one set of quotes he damaged 1) his relationship with the Ravens, 2) Flacco's relationship with the Ravens, 3) Raven ownership's relationship with its fans and 4) his own ability to negotiate with ANYBODY in the future.

If you're an owner and all other things are equal and you may or may not want to deal with his client, what is the first thing you think: "Wow! Look how he ripped the Ravens after he got a HUGE contract out of them. Poison!"

I thought Dan finally learned his lesson about getting too close with his "chosen players", which can divide the team. Now he's back to his old tricks with RG3. When will he learn his lesson? Late Jack Kent Cooke never did that with any of his players, and his record (3-1 in SB games) speaks for itself. What's your take on this?

IMO, RGIII's father should never have gotten in the middle of it with comments about the team/coach. John Thompson Jr. had excellent reamrks on that on the radio the other day, talking about the parents of his college players. He ducked the RGII quotes directly but it was a clear inference that he thought it could only do mischief.

No owner in any sport should establish a relationship with a player that undercuts a coach that he intends to keep in the job for a long time. In theory, they shouldn't do it with any player ever. But MANY do. You can be warm without being fuzzy, too.

As for Dan and RGIII, I haven't seen anything that looks like a problem yet. If I've missed something in recent (holiday) days, lemme know.

Shouldn't Harper just be placed on the DL until he heals up enough that he won't be missing a few games every week? The way they're doing it, the team is short a player and a bat for two or three days on a regular basis, or has Harper playing at 70 percent. Werth goes on the DL for a month with a strained hamstring. Ramos will be at least the same. Seems to me Harper's problems are at least that serious.

These are easy 2nd guesses. But my "first guess" at the time of the Wall Crash was that the Nats should have kept Harper out of the lineup for a week AS IF he'd had a concussion (that's an MLB rule), even though they said their testing showed no concussion. That crash __in total trauma to Harper__ had to be on the same scale as a concussion, right? So, he's 20. You were cautious with Strasburg. Be a bit careful with Harper. Now Harper says he'll have to play with the pain "the rest of this year." Maybe he's wrong. But did he HAVE to develop "bursitis" if he'd been given sufficiuent rest?

General managers (Rizzo) set the protocol for recoveries from major surgeries like Zimmermann and Strasburg from Tommy John surgery. Rizzo took that responsibility (and the heat) and didn't let his managers make the call on either of them. Z'mann is now 8-2 with a ~1.70 ERA; Strasburg has a 2.49 ERA and has pitched 23 innings in his last three consecutive starts, is averaging over 100 pitches a start and has thrown as many pitches this year as Justrin Verlander. (Before this, Strasburg had never had more than 20 innings in a span of 3 starts).

OTOH, managers control day-to-day decisions on the lineup and Davey keeps letting Harper and Werth be co-managers of themselves along with him. As a player, Davey was VERY old-school about playing with pain and with the Mets he was know for letting players play with as much discomfort as they could stand. I thought he'd mellowed on that somewhat. I think he has. But he still needs to take 100 percent responsibility for Harper's development/health and stop saying, "You never run out of energy when you are 20," or "he's a tough kid" or "he's driving me crazy when he sits on the bench."

There IS another theory. Davey is letting Harpeer understand the full painful consequences of his style of play by letting him go back out there as soon as doctors say he "can't hurt himself any more by playing." If he wants to play like a faster George Brett who also runs into walls, then maybe he needs to understand how that FEELS.

In my book, all of that malarky is too complex. Harper has a right to his own style and identity as a player. But there are limits to everything. It's also his responsibility, imo, to his employer and his teammates to find a style that allows him to be near normal MLB health for >140 games a season. He's come back too soon THREE TIMES.

Somebody needs to get a clue __Harper, Johnson or even Rizzo by risking Davey's wrath and saying (behind doors), "You may be retiring. I'm not. Neither is the 20 year old. If he can't take care of himself because he wants to look super-tough to himself or his dad or the fans, then YOU take care of him. It's your JOB."   

Doesn't anyone vet anyone anymore? They interview 63 people and this is the best they can do? I wouldn't want my daughter to play for her (Julie Hermann) and can't imagine that anyone else would, either.

Seems like "due diligence" has turned into due indifference.

Howdy Boz, Has anyone suggested he get his vision tested? He has absolutely no pitch recognition, he looks like the world's guess hitter. Reminds me of a line from "League of Their Own"... Throw high fastballs, can't hit 'em, can't lay off 'em.

I watch some games entirely in slow motion. You fast forward between pitches, foul balls, between innings and relief pitcher delays, but you freeze the picture as the ball is about to be thrown and then watch the pitch itself in slo-mo. That way, you can watch a 3 hour game in maybe 2:15 but you get a great grasp of the pitch recognition abilities of hitters. Great hitters, or hitters in a hot streak, are said to "slow the game down." By using slow mo, you slow the game down enough that you __the slob observer__ can see the game as they SHOULD see it and as they WANT to see it.  "Everything" becomes obvious so quickly that it's spooky. When LaRoche was cold, the pitch would be 10 feet out of the pitcher's hand and, with the omniscience of slo-mo, I'd say, "Ball." He'd swing and miss by six inches. I'd say, "Strike," he's take it for strike three. Then, as soon as he got hot, he saw EVERY PITCH just as if it had been thrown in slow motion! He "recognized" probably 80-to-90 percent of the pitches correctly __which to swing at, which to take. Of course that doesn't mean you drill every pitch. But it's like watching an entirely different player.

I also look to see when hitters lift their front foot __the trigger for most swings__ or reset their front-foot heel, if that's their style__ to see who is able to "wait" longest for the pitch before committing to swing. Again, hot and cold versions of the same hitters are radically different.

This year, Espinosa has the worst pitch recognition I have ever seen __except for pitchers trying to hit. It's unbelievable. He's already swinging before I can even say "ball" or "strike" and I'm watching slo-mo. He's just lost, swings at anything, everything, guessing wildly, hopinges. I think it's taken a couple of years of swing changes, approach to hitting changes, injuries and lost confidence to reach this point. It's sad to watch. BUT hitters do sometimes suddenly "click" with one stance change or new "swing thought" (like golf).

Rendon's pitch recognition was as good as anybody on the team, except Harper who is unreal when he's "locked." But Rendon had trouble handling good letter-high fastballs even after he'd recognized them correctly as fastballs IN the zone. That's one reason they sent him down to AA (more young fireballers) rather than AAA. He doesn't need to "see" the tricksters in AAA. He can probably already cope with them. He just needs to figure out tiny things to be more efficient on some pure-stuff pitchers. A great fastball will get you to the big leagues. So that's the No. 1 thing you have to be able to handle. You don't want to learn that at the MLB level. Of course, Rendon can hit fastballs. I mean really good ones in good spots. That's my take anyway.   

BTW, can't wait to go as a fan tonight to see Gausman, who hit 99 mph in his debut for the O's last week, vs. Nate Karns who has a live arm, too. Saw Karns up close in side sessions in Fla. Quality fastball, not quite as fast as Gausman, and a sharper slider than Gausman's breaking ball. I have no idea how the Jays had as many good swingsoff Gausman as they did __three doubles off the wall, a line drive HR and four runs off him in 5 innings. I wondered if he was tipping pitches. Or can Toronto just RAKE! The Jays will tell you the truth about your stuff if it's marginal. They just beat the hell out of Tim Hudson last night. To me, Hudson is the best of a striggling group of name pitchers that are losing their stuff as they age and are having real trouble remaining effective starters: Blanton, Haren, Halladay before surgery, Mark Buehrle, Vogelsong befoire he got hurt. Also, what's up with David Price and Gee of the Mets. Price has fallen from star level and Gee looks like he may not be a mid-rotation piece anymore.    

Boz, I know you are the ultimate Nats optimist, but with a lack luster offense, poor defense, a bullpen you can't seem to count on and only two starters pitching well, why do you believe the Nats will turn it around?

Okay, time for a reality check. It's the 50-game mark. Well, 51 games. If you want a serious attempt at the impossible __guesstimating what the probabilities are of a given team making the playoffs this year__ then you might want to look at the PECOTA site (Baseball Prospectus). Serious geeks.

They do simulations of all remaining games using their own set of assumptions which, in some cases (as well as I can figure out), include the past performance of teams (in '12) or players (whole careers).Their info is updated every day!

The PECOTA percentages on the Nats are that they have a 40.6 percent chance of making the playoffs this year and a 3.7% chance of winning the World Series. That 40.6% is broken down as a 25.4% chance of winning the NL East and an additional 15.2% chance of winning one of the two wildcard spots.

Before you gasp, the odds BEFORE the season in Vegas (Bogata) were on 11-to-12% that the Nats would win the Series. I wrote a column about that __"The Nats will not win the World Series this year"__ and pointed out that their "favorite" role __at 8-to-1 odds__ was about as bad as hoping John Lannan would get a base hit as a batter.

PECOTA's simulations have the Nats missing out on the LAST wild card spot with an 85-77 record, one game behind the Pirates, who get that WC spot. So, even in what seems like a pessimistic senario, the Nats have a 25% chance to win the NL East, a 40% chance to make the playoffs and a most-likely-case scenario that they fight for the wildcard until the last game of the season.

Message to Lerners: Even at those odds, you make every sane Trade Deadline move to get into the post-season because with Strasburg, Zimmermann and Gonzalez, you have a better chance than the average playoff team of advancing.

Oriole fans will not be happy with PECOTA. Because they play in such a tough division, they are predicted/simulated to finish fourth with an 81-81 record (despite their 28-23 record which is better than the Nats 26-25). The O's chances of making the playoffs are only 17.5% and of winning the World Series only 0.6% __or one SIXTH as much as the Nats.

Throw the bricks at them. I'm the messenger.

They have O's with a 10.1% chance to win the AL East.

As for Phils (ouch!), they have only a 7.3% of making the playoffs and a 0.4% chance to win the Series.

So, you say, what do YOU think?

I think it's all a guess. But everybody likes guessing. I'd guess that no team is the same team the next year __but in most cases it is still SIMILAR to the last season. So, to evaluate partial-season data __like 26-25__ you have to meld the two seaons in some way to account for some reversion (but not too much) to '12 levels. 

If you combine the nats '12--and-'13 records (124-89, .582), then assume they play their last 111 games at that level, then they'd win 91 games. Which, under the new format, would almost always take one of the two wild card spots.

If you use the same method, but use run-differential as your measure of ability, then the Nats "should" have been 96-66 last year and shopuld be 23-28 this year. So, run differential says the Nats are more like a .559 team. That would give them 88 wins this year and, again, about a 50-50 shot at the playoffs.

In the last 50 years, there have been 11 teams that won 98-or-more games and were UNDER .500 the next year. So, that possible for the Nats. But unlikely even after a lousy start. If I had to guess, I'd say they'd win 88-89-90-91 games, be 50-50 to make the playoffs, but, if they get there, they could raise some heck.

But will they ever get healthy enough or hit enough to get there?

Nats biggest problem __one losing streak can come close to sinking the season. And they have six games in a row with the O's and Braves right now.

Nats biggest boost __an incredibly easy schedule for their last 105 games. If they get hot as the schedule gets weaker, they could make PECOTA's 85-win projection look very low.

I asked one of the Nats best players about the PECOTA/Baseball Prospectus stats. He knew all bout them, even the name of the editor. "How'd that work out for 'em the last couple of years? Not too well, right?" he said. "That's why nerds shouldn't do that stuff."    

Bos, big day (maybe) for the Nationals future if Karns can establish himself as a future 3-4-5 starter. Everything I hear and read about him says he has plus stuff and makeup, and an especially good fastball. What are you looking for tonight vs. the Os and how many starts can we expect Karns to make?

I'm not worried about thsi surprise start bothering Karns development. He's 25, not 20-21-22. He's been to college and, a couple of years ago, missed most of a season with shoulder surgery. Gausman probably has somewhat flashier stuff, was drafted much higher. Expect a legit prospect, but don't think "season savior" thoughts.

Both have been in the Eastern League (AA). Gausman has allowed 21 runs in 46.1 innings with only five walks and 49 Ks. Karns has allowed 27 runs in 45 innings with 18 walks (a lot) and 55 Ks (a lot). A bunch of those runs are unearned for both pitchers. But it shows that they are (very) human and coming up from AA. I doubt either will stay in the Nats or O's rotation for long.

But you never know. Sometimes they just won't let you send 'em back down. Karns pitched in six games in relief last year. I'll be interested to see how his stuff plays against a lineup as tough as the O's.

Here's one thing that both of them need to remember. They should not be caught up in the "Wow, I'm in MLB! How cool. Look at mom smiling!" This is their JOB. Their Life's Work. It's not about their "feelings."

"How did it feel out there tonight?" is the question for saps and bad writers. It's your job. So, be a pro. That's the issue.

We Hit the Wall, we hit the locker, we just don't hit the ball.


Like it. Will steal it.

Well Mr Boswell, which is it ? Are the Nats and Harper going the way of Shanahan and RGIII with this knee business OR will we see common sense prevail so we can see our best player Harper rest up and make a difference when it really counts? Didn't Harper come to bat with the score already 5-1 (6-1 ?) , in the bottom 8th when the Nats already had a commanding lead?

I guess Harper "earned" that 4th AB after gutting it out to beat Hamels. The damage was done, you could say.

As well as the Nats handled Strasburg, that's how dumb __and not in control of the player__ they look now. When a 20-year-old comes back from a wall crash THREE times and has to go back on the bench three times, the adults have a problem, not the 20-year-old who's just trying to give 100 percent.

The first gtime he tried to come back after missing one game, then pinch hit. The next time, he missed two games. Now he'll miss at least two games and maybe four starts. That's not a good trend.

Why are people praising Espinosa for being "tough" and playing through his broken wrist? He was HURTING the team, it's time to sit down at that point!

Good point.

The Nationals bats have not lived up to expectations. What move or moves could the Nationals make to get these bats going? Maybe a new hitting coach, an additional hitting coach, minor league players or some through a trade.

On paper, the Nats have four hitters with career OPS of more than .800 __Harper, Zimmerman, LaRoche and Werth. Desmond is .817 the last two seasons. That should be enough for a pretty good offense, when it is healthy. It ain't healthy. Three Opening day starters are out: Ramos (career .764 OPS, good for a catcher, Werth, Harper.)

The problem is that they apparently need to be within ONE starting player of a full deck to be a pretty good offense. Last year they were tenth in MLB in runs. They subtracted Morse (.791 OPS the last two years, not so wonderful) and Moore and Bernadina have done nothing with the ABs they've gotten.

I suspect their only choice is to ride it out. Or bring up Rendon at some point. But that probably puts too much weight on him, plus a position shifty to 2nd. He's too valuable to screw up. It matters that none of these injuries are long-term. In a week or so, everybody except Ramos should be back. And he'll probably be back in 4-5-6 weeks. At this rate, gonna be a long wait.

Any early predictions as to who will be managing the Nats next season? Davey's also dropped a couple of hints that his retirement isn't entirely his idea. Assuming they don't win the World Series and he gets to ride off into the sunset, any chance that he comes back next year?

The Davey decision has been made. No reason to think it would be un-made.

A few years ago, Don Mattingly was interested in the Orioles or Nats job __if it was open, of course. (But he really liked the idea of being in the A.L. East.) After that, it became clear he was lined up to be Dodger manager so any ideas like that died. The Nats were interested in Mattingly in '09 (I think it was).

I really like Mattingly, think he'll be a fine manager for somebody. More important, that's what Joe Torre thinks.

I don't think Cal Ripken, Jr., would ever take a managing job, even now that his kids are out of the house. At one time I felt he had a general sort of interest in running a team __team president or the equivalent with an ownership piece. Below that? Why would he want that nightmare and travel? But you can dream of Cal the manager. Buck is perfect in Baltimore and not going anywhere. Not gonna happen. But then I never thought ex-O's Davey would manage in DC. So I've learned not to be too sure of my instincts about people I've known for a long time.

Who would you take with the Wizard's No. 3?

Otto Porter.

But that's because I've seen him play so much and always thought, "A natural NBA player." GU players have a remarkable record of making the college-NBA transition successfully __Monroe, Hibbert recently. I just didn't think the Wiz'd get a pick high enough to get him. Also, Porter's skill set seems to fit Wiz needs.


I would love to know the name of the Nats player who reads Baseball Prospectus, but I guess you can't divulge that. Did you know that Baseball Prospectus is holding an event at the park before the 7/7 game vs the Padres, in cooperation with the Nats Front Office? You should think about attending--I would love to see the interaction.

One other thing. There's more than one method to guess a team's post-season chances. ESPN uses some different stat source. They have the Nats at 20.2% chance of making the playoffs right now and the O's at 33.7%. That is a LONG WAY from 40.6% and 17.5%.

Sounds like the makings of a good geek brawl.

Outta here. Thanks for all the thought-provoking questions. See you next Monday.

Here's a link to the BP event at Nats Park on 7/7. Brian Minniti, Adam Cromie and Doug Harris all scheduled to attend, plus a bunch of great BP writers:


Great response on Espinosa et al. and pitch recognition. As a follow-up... Is there any code among teammates and/or coaching staff regarding reaching out to a struggling player? I get that no scenario or response can be identical for each player, team, etc. Still, is it ultimately just a matter or waiting to click?

There is no touchier subject. Maybe for someone coming up from the minors or a 1st-2nd year player, you can muscle them into change. Or they may want instruction. But Espinosa has had a 20-homer and 20-steal season in  MLB. He's established, but regressing. It's his call, his problem. Just hope he gets fixed, some how, some way, some where, because he is a real talent.

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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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