Ask Boswell: Redskins, Nationals and Washington sports

Jan 17, 2017

Washington Post Sports Columnist Tom Boswell answered your questions about the Redskins, Capitals, Nationals, Wizards, the NFL and more.

Past Ask Boswell chats

Watched the game last night, wow a lot of action and the refs seemed for the most part to let them play. Fast-paced, and even the reviews were quick. But can you imagine the same replays as last night being reviewed by the NFL? Take forever, and they'd get it wrong. What a game.

The Caps have had an amazing run lately. In the 9-0 run they had seven wins against teams that are in the top 11 in the NHL in points percentage, including lopsided wins against Columbus (5-0), Chicago (6-0), Pens (5-2) and at Montreal (4-1). They were so good, so hot and so lucky that you just shook your head constantly. I give Joe and Craig credit in their telecasts for noting how "the puck luck" had turned from the early season and that the Caps were getting every bounce and break -- to the point where you could hardly believe it and wondered when it would end.

We found out. Even the Pens couldn't believe some of the eight goals they got, including one deflected off Ovi's skate and the winning goal that went off Niskanen's skate. And Malkin's mid-air flip over Holtby's shoulder had him amazed. That's how you have the second-highest scoring one-goal game in the last 20 years in the NHL.

I thought Caps veteran Justin Williams had it exactly right afterwards when he said, "Just a good reality check. Just to say, 'You're not THAT good.'"

Thought it was remarkable that, with a tired team on the road against the Pens, and after losing a 3-0 lead, that they could regroup to tie at 7-7.

There are some questions submitted in this chat about the officiating in Pittsburgh. The day I pretend to be a hockey expert to the point of ripping refs, boot me off the chat. But I have to admit that it never seems to me that the Caps are exactly the NHL's favorite child.

If they keep playing anywhere near their level of the last month and if Holtby (their MVP) stays in this zone, they won't need TOO much puck luck, help from officials, etc., as the season goes along. It would be nice, knock on wood, if they continued as the NHL's least-injured team this season. Things like that are essential to Max Seasons.


Do you think the Nats will bring in another closer before spring training, or just try to develop someone in-house? Also, what happens if Zim and Robinson both continue to hit like they did last season? How long can Dusty afford to keep them in the lineup?

The Nats should try hard to sign Greg Hollard, coming back from TJ surgery, because he’s been a big-time reliever and will (or won’t) be back at full health by the trade deadline. If he is, problem solved. And you probably sign him for ’17 and ’18, too. If he isn’t, you took your only high-quality shot -- every other closer is gone (Jansen) or you can’t get ‘em in deal (Robinson) because you don’t have the trade pieces that are needed.

ALSO, if Holland isn’t the answer, if his arm blows again or he isn’t effective, you “only” lost some money -- in an obvious two-year go-for-it window when you can’t let a little wasted money stop you. THEN you use the trade deadline for Plan B -- get the ’17 equivalent of Melancon in ’16.

Added benefit: Treinen has a 1.73 ERA in his last 56 games last year with a .210 BA again, .598 OPS-versus and most of the other stats you’d associated with a pretty darn good closer. So, you make him the closer on Opening Day. Can he take the pressure? (I have no idea.) But at 28 if he can’t do it now he probably never will. If Holland is back by June, you make a decision on their roles.

Last year there was an excellent scientific study of every sinker in baseball -- spin rate, vertical drop, late break, contact rate, etc. Zach Britton had the best sinker in MLB by miles  --and maybe the best pitch of any kind in baseball for inducing no contact or weak contact -- except for one pitcher who was, shockingly, almost as amazing in raw stuff with his sinker: Treinen. And Treinen’s slider is just fine now, too.

 IMO, Nats really do need to find out about Treinen. So, 1) Get Holland. 2) Test drive Treinen. 3) Make a decision by August 1 on whether to go after Closer X, assuming Nats are still in the race.

The Nats off-season isn’t as dull a subject as some may think. I find it hard to believe they aren’t looking at out-of-the-box things, whether they do them or not.

For example: the market has slumped for free agent sluggers Trumbo (LF, 1st, DH) and Bautista (still mostly a RFer who could probably play decent LF 130 times a year, plus DH in AL parks.) Can a team that thinks it is a serious contender start the year projecting both Werth (at 38) and Zimmerman as starters at LF and 1st with no proven options behind them? Could either Trumbo or Bautista (who’ll probably go back to Toronto) help __even in theory?

Trumbo is a mess to figure out. On average, he’s much like Z’man, excluding last year’s total stat collapse by Ryan. But if Zim bounces back to merely ’14-’15 levels in ’17, then he’s probably better at 1st than a bad-fielding “normal” season from Trumbo. But Trumbo never has “normal” seasons. He’s either well above or well below his average production.

Is Bautista too old? Was his significant stat drop in ’16 just one bad year and he’ll be an .800 OPS hitter again in ’17 (but no longer >.900)? Or is he now just old and about to plummet?

The idea that the Nat have no major decisions to make is false. If they sign a free agent starting pitcher who can be their fifth starter (there are still a few available) -- which means he’d be somebody that you do not project to be a playoff starter -- then they could certainly trade “somebody” for a closer. Is “somebody” Gio? (Yes, maybe.) Is it Roark or Ross? (No, probably.) Tough to go without a LHed starter. Gio has nice value as an 11-10, 175 IP, 3.80 ERA rubber-armed starter during the regular season who matches up well with certain key foes (Mets). But do you ever want to see him start another playoff game against ANYBODY, even somebody he “should” match up with?

They probably NEED to sign Holland, and then hold their breath. They COULD go after a fifth starter or gamble on a FA power hitter who might upset the chemistry of a team that still thinks of both Werth and Zim as key people.

And they could see if Matt Wieters falls to them on a one-year cushion contract. But I doubt they think highly enough of Wieters defense to make that move. They think Norris is a good pitch framer with a strong arm, although he doesn't have soft hands (at all). And Severino looks like an excellent defensive catcher right now, so they don't want to block his development too much.

Still, we could have surprises between now and the day pitchers and catchers report to spring training.


So the Wizards broke through .500 and are the fifth seed. How many more years does that buy Ernie?

Oh, let's let up on Ernie for one week. How often do the Wiz win 12 in a row at home! They have the third-best home record in the NBA right now. What is that worth? It means that you are more dangerous than the average ~.500 team because you actually have a strength. (That is, if the strong home record continues.)

There are some Wiz trends that you might enjoy watching as the regular season continues. To me, it's remarkable that they are playing so well when they have so many clear weaknesses. That means, probably, that they are getting good leadership from Wall, good coaching at key times and that their players -- especially their better-than-average starting five -- know their roles very well and thus disguise some of their flaws.

What are those flaws?

The Wiz are ranked 25th or worse in the 30-team NBA defensive rebounding, total rebounds and blocks. They are not big and they do not "play big" either.

They are a good offensive team, but a lopsided one that (still) shoots tons of two-point jumpers and doesn't get to the foul line much. The Wiz are 25th or worse in something called "free throw rate" -- which is the ratio of free throw attempts to field goal attempts. IOW, ability to get to the line. While they are excellent at getting steals (second in the NBA), they are 25th (bad) in "effective field-goal defense," which measures the ability to defend against both 2-pt and  3-pt shots.

Finally, and this is important, the dominant trend in the NBA is toward three-point shooting IN VOLUME. Good Lord, it took DECADES for the league to figure out the third-grade arithmetic of this. Houston now takes 40 (f-o-r-t-y) threes a game! Brooklyn, Cleveland and Boston take 32 or 33. Golden State is back at 5th in jacking up treys with 31 a game.

The Wiz are 28th (very low) in the percentage of their total shots that are 3-pt tries -- only 24 percent.

Here's what's weirdest (to me). The Wiz understand that the easiest 3-point shot is the one from the corner since it is SHORTER. They take plenty of 'em and almost act like it's against the basketball law to take a trey that is NOT from the corner. They probably think they are pretty good shooters from the corners because they hit 33.2 percent from there. But actually, they are lousy -- 28th in the NBA in shooting percentage from the corners.

So, if you are ONLY going to emphasize shooting treys from the corners, how about building your roster so that you actually have a couple of guys who CAN DO IT.

If the bench keeps coming around, I'm going to start thinking that the general improvement of the team reflects coach Scott Brooks ability to implement his ideas over the course of the season. If that's the case, more improvement is possible. But this is a team that is VERY dependent on avoid injuries to its top five.                

I had being "that guy" who complains about the officiating ... but geez! How does a referee mess one mega star, while carrying the puck, get so blatantly tripped on open ice by another mega star? I mean it's not like the NBA where no ref wants to be the guy who calls the sixth foul on Lebron ...

See, I told you there were restless Caps fans after last night.

Hey, build up a reservoir of complaints now, then remind everybody of them if you play the Pens in the playoffs. Getting in the heads of the refs is universal -- I thought Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban were actually going to run out to mid-field, fall down on the ground and throw a few tantrums right in the middle of the college championship football game. Are there ANY rules for sideline conduct by famous coaches in a title game?    

Given that at this time last year no one thought Strasburg would sign a contract extension, what do you think the odds are that something like that happens with Harper?

I thought the odds were very low on Strasburg signing. And I was wrong.

I think the odds are even worse on Harper now because the amount being discussed is much higher and Harper is so much harder to evaluate because he was MVP in '15 with one of the all-time great seasons and then, after April, was little more than an average all-around rightfielder last year.

Always looking for good omens. Maybe marriage will help him. The bride and groom sure looked happy in those wedding pictures on their twitter feeds. 

Loved the elaborate lining of Harper's wedding suit. If I saw it correctly it seemed like lots of photos from their history together; if so, quite a romantic idea. Flamboyant, but so what, he's flamboyant. And I didn't see a single image that appeared to have anything to do with baseball. A good sign of restraint. Though, I'm just going to say this once, it has been my first-hand observation of Harper that he has a very high opinion of himself as a baseball player (and doesn't bother to hide it at all) but has a very realistic and fairly modest, quite appealing, sense of himself -- aside from being a great ballplayer. IOW, I think most people would like him personally, or like him a lot, if they knew him. And I think his teammates almost always "get" the difference between his extremely high athletic arrogance -- which I'm usually asking D.C. athletes to get MORE of, because it's usually part of being GREAT -- and his perfectly normal level of personal modesty. (All his managers have said that "his parents raised him right.")

What's your take on the coaching shuffle do si do? Can MacVay coach? Fallout on Skins? Whose gonna take the Offensive coordinator role? Whould they dare go outside for two key deputies?

I think they were shocked that their OC Sean McVay got a head coaching job ANYWHERE in his first year as an applicant for a head job. They thought he was excellent and would move up and on -- someday. BUT, even if you come from an NFL family, like McVay, there is a normal path to a head job after you get visibility as a coordinator at a young age. Year One: Get some interviews, make a good impression and increase your "buzz." But you never get the job. Year Two: You get into Serious Consideration, but seldom get the job. Year Three: If your stock is still high, you Get A Head Job.

So, you can be pretty sure that the Skins thought he'd be back in '17 and maybe even in  '18. They sure as heck didn't think he'd 1) get the head job in LA immediately and 2) ALREADY have the Skins' high-priority candidate for defensive coordinator (Wade Phillips) all lined up and, from the quickness of the deal, locked up to join him in L.A. the instant he got the job!

So, McVay was a double blow. Though I doubt very much they had a shot at Wade Phillips, who was in the NFL before McVay (31) was born. But who thought McVay could get him!

I was stunned to see Rob Ryan interviewed for defensive coordinator yesterday. As I've said here before, I love "The Big Lebowski." But do you hire Jeff Lebowski to be your D.C.?

To me, there's no question that Rob Ryan has deliberately gone for the Big Lebowski look. Come on.

I've never heard of this site. So, go there are your own discretion. It just shows that Ryan and the Lebowski character look like they were separated at birth and you don't get that entire long-hair, goatee, etc ., look without knowing it. I really like the idea of an off-beat NFL coach -- which Ryan certainly is. But his record as a DC is atrocious. Almost as bad as the TWO previous Skins defensive coordinators! It's incredible. Hazlet and Barry may have been the two lest competent DC's -- by the rankings of their previous defenses -- ever to be hired one after the other by any team. Ryan would blow away any previous trio of DCs in the Dubious Distinct Derby for "We Can Do Worse Than The Last Guy We Fired. Just Watch Us."   

I couldn't believe how Aaron Rodgers held on to the ball when he was sacked on the final drive. Any time "my team's QB" has been sacked like that in a final drive, it usually goes for 6 points the other way. Without Rodgers holding on to the ball, none of the rest of the game winning drive happens.

I agree completely. And thought so at that instant. Rodgers didn't even come close to fumbling -- no bobble and re-grab. Must bend steel pipes with his bare hands in his spare time. 

That play, and what happened afterwards with Rodgers/Green Bay may have saved the NFL post-season. Up until then, it had been six playoff games decided by an average of 18.3 points. AND, to make the NFL look worse, you had the Chargers gross dumping of San Diego, after 56 years, to go to Los Angeles, where nobody gives a damn about them or cares if they come. Then, within 48 hours, the Raiders, who actually had a history in L.A., filed with the league to moved to Las Vegas!

I wrote a draft of a column about how ugly everything was getting in the NFL. But 34-31 at the gun and a very good Steeler win over the Chiefs, 18-16, made it seem untimely to me. I still believe every word of it. I'm headed to some vacation and by the time I get back nobody will be talking about how the NFL's city-jumping, on top of all its other Bad Character Problems, will add to its perception as a league in gradual, though probably slow, decline from King of Sports to some a league that is, over time, seen more and more as enterprise with more dirty laundry, and a longer history of keeping it hidden, than all the other leagues combined.

So, here are some of my thoughts. There's a time to be a grouch, or an angry ranter, and take a two-by-four to some heads. But there's also a time to let people enjoy some playoff football without pointing out everything that (really) is wrong with what they are watching.


      Does the NFL wake up every day, grab a shaving-cream pie in on one hand and a seltzer bottle in the other and think, “Do I smash the pie in my face first, then shoot myself with the seltzer? Or is the other way around? Oh, well, as long as I’ve got the red plastic nose and the big floppy shoes, it’ll be okay.”

       But nobody’s laughing at football’s clown show. The NFL is deteriorating before our eyes. Its TV ratings are down. Its ethics have been a disgrace for decades. Its commissioner is often an empty-suit embarrassment. As last Monday night’s college championship game showed, the sedate NFL is now second-rate in its own sport. Clemson ran 99 plays from scrimmage; against the Giants, Washington had 50 offensive plays. Including kick returns, Clemson-Alabama had 194 plays. The New York-Washington game had 131.

      If pro football’s arteries hardened any faster it would come to a complete halt. Terry Bradshaw is its idea of humor and Chris Berman (ESPN can’t ditch him too fast) is its boomer. The NFL’s pace, even compared to baseball, is now dreadful with 15 minutes of action swamped by 200 minutes of blah-blah. The league can thanks Aaron Rodgers -- about a dozen times -- for giving it a January pulse.

     Now Los Angeles, which didn’t have an NFL team for 21 years and barely seemed to notice, has both the Rams, who are awful, and, suddenly, the gone-in-60-seconds Chargers, too. The ‘Bolts admit they don’t really want to move there, have no fans in L.A. and only left San Diego because they couldn’t extort enough public stadium money to justify any civic loyalty to a city that supported ‘em for 56 years.

      As a cherry on top in this league which is all about the dollars but has lost its senses, the Oakland Raiders, who have L.A. roots, got beaten in the La-La Land cash grab and may end up in Las Vegas.

      You couldn’t wish it on a nicer sport. The NFL would smack its head but, oops, it no longer cashes in on concussions. This is how a sport looks when it is in an existential crisis. The NFL isn’t going anywhere. But the bloom is off the checkbook.

       Few things expose the raw greed underneath pro sports more than the sight of owners in the midst of a nationwide land grab to get to the towns that will give them the most (free) money, usually in the form of a stadium, though tax breaks are always a nice holiday gift.

       From ’54 through ’71, baseball saw eight teams change towns. One city lost baseball twice. That period damaged the game’s popularity nationwide. Baseball didn’t reform its ways. It just used the threat of city-jumping to get about 20 new ballparks built, most with tons of public m oney, in about 20 years. But MLB has, by accident, not virtue, gotten good optics out of its “loyalty” to its towns. In the last 46 years, only one MLB team has been allowed by its sport to abandon a city -- the Expos left Montreal to become the Washington Nationals.

        Every town that had big-league baseball in ’54 -- in fact, every town that has ever had a major-league team -- has at least one club now, except Montreal. The NFL, in contrast, may have to live with the fallout from abandoning St. Louis, San Diego and Oakland within a couple of years.

      Dear NFL, just go with the shaving-cream pie. At least it will cover your face.

Thoughts on allowing the public to now see why voters choose who they want to go to the Hall of Fame now, as well as what it might mean regarding who could likely get in that wouldn't have before?

Transparency is probably good, so writers with grudges can't hide. But it will also put pressure on everybody to be "nice" and vote for more people -- which may loosen standards. 

I agree with the Washington Post's policy, going back more than  a dozen years, I think, that our sports writers should not, and do not vote for any awards of any kind.

It's our job to cover people, not get involved -- as voters and arbiters, for heaven sake -- in what is essentially a PR effort by the league to glamorize, immortalize and sell their product. Hey, let 'em figure out their own Hall of Fame and who should be in it. It'll still get a ton of fan interest -- and be a good thing for the sport and the public -- but it won't be a conflict of interest for voters. At first, I agreed with our decision, but I didn't think it was a huge issue, just a good decision on our part. (No other paper, as far as I know, has followed our example.) But with the years, as writers have found themselves -- be honest, we have PUT ourselves -- in a position as moral arbiters on incredibly complex issues which, in my opinion, have no good answers, that I realize that the Post sports editor back then (Emilio Garcia-Ruiz) made the ONLY correct decision. Not a good call, but a great call.

Did sportswriters create PEDs? Or give them to ballplayers? Were we the body in charge of administering tests to catch cheaters? Where we the union representing players which should have considered their workplace safety as an essential duty?

Why is it our job to clear up the mess of the sport we cover? (Yes, sportswriters could have done a much better job of covering the PED story. I still remember Bud Selig saying to me, about 10 years ago, that "we only started to realize this PED thing was a problem about 1998." As soon as I stopped laughing, I said, "Bud, I guess you just forgot for a second who you were talking to. Try 1988." And you can look it up. 


I did have a couple of points to make about the HOF voting which will be announced on Wednesday evening.

First, those who cheated by using PEDs and were caught (like Palmeiro) AFTER the sport specifically banned them, should not be in the HOF. (I always have to look up that date of when they became officially against the rules -- it was in the '90's, early '90's I think.) 

In my personal opinion, those who have a huge amount of evidence that they almost certainly cheated, like Bonds and Clemens, should not be in the Hall either. It's like the rest of the world -- you have laws for insider trading on Wall Street. Some get caught. Some don't. The difference  -- a huge one -- is that Insider Trading can send you to jail and make you disgorge profits. Getting caught for PEDs isn't a crime, y6ou don't have to give back a cent of the $100M you earned and you don't even have to void the World Series title you may have won. The ONLY thing that happens to you is that you shouldn't get into the HOF because you cheated  -- in a way that gives a huge advantage in every moment of every game -- AND you got caught. And maybe people say, "He took steroids to do all that stuff at a time when the game SPECIFICALLY had a rule saying that taking PEDs was cheating and if you were caught you'd be punished (suspended)."

But, again, why should journalists be voters on such a thing. The previous paragraph is merely what I think. Other viewpoints by other current Hall voters aren't "wrong" or "bad." But we disagree. That's a good time for columns and stories arguing the subject. But voting on it? It screams conflict of interest.


Why hasn't Lee Smith, who won't make the Hall when he doesn't get enough votes this week in his 15th and last year of eligibility, get more serious consideration over the years? (Yes, I can -- as a non-voter -- be in an excellent distanced position to have an opinion on that.)

I don't know if he should be in. But I do know he never got anything like the conversation debate he deserved. He only made the playoffs twice (and give up five runs in 5 1/3 innings). He didn't play with great teams or in big markets. And he was a big quiet guy who said little to the media. Though when he was with the Orioles I enjoyed talking with him. He just didn't like to promote himself or draw attention to himself or add to the hassle. 

*Lee is 3rd in career saves with 478. Everybody knows that. Everybody somehow ignores it, I guess, because "saves" are a goofy arbitrary stat. But he going to be 3rd on that list for a LONG time because nobody is close to him and nobody is on a (reasonable) pace to catch him. Maybe Kimbrel will. In many years from now.

*Of all the relief pitchers in history, Smith is 8th in ERA-plus, which adjusts for the era you play in. That's very important. Of all pitchers since World War II who have pitched 1,000 innings, he is tied for 7th in ERA+ with Greg Maddux.

Rich Gossage and Rollie Fingers, both in the HOF, have ERA+ marks of 126 and 120. (That's 26 percent and 20 percent better than the league average ERA in their playing period.)

*Smith made SEVEN All-Star games. That's very hard for pitchers. Only the really dominant pitchers make All-Star teams. Only two relievers in history made more All-Start games than Smith -- Maraino Rivera (13) and Gossage (9). Hoffman also had seven and Bruce Sutter (HOF) six. 

*I won't beat this to death because I realize it's a close call -- at best. But Gossage's career ERA was 3.01. Smith's was 3.03. And Lee saved 30-or-more games ELEVEN times. (Oh, in more than  1,000 games, he made a career total of only four errors.)

Just wanted to give Lee a nod.

BTW, Mike Mussina should get into the HOF eventually and I expect that enthusiasm for him with grow. He's one of a handful of pitchers to win more than 100 more games than he lost. How many really excellent years did he have? He was in the top six in Cy Young voting NINE times.

I'm heading out for some winter vacation. Nice to see the Caps and Wiz both hot and fun to watch. Especially the Caps. I'll be back chatting on the Monday after the Super Bowl at 11 a.m. There might be things to chat about! Thanks for your questions. See you then.

Do you know any superstars who have balanced family / work lives? It just seems that if you want to be a superstar QB for the Packers, you have to be so driven that you drive away your family and don't talk to them for 2 years. Can Serena Williams win Wimbledon while dealing with a fiancee? People think the life of a superstar is amazing; I wouldn't wish it on anyone.

Jack Nicklaus did it.

Of course, he always credited Barbara, because if he hadn't everybody would've laughed at him.

There's somebody else. I'll think of the name soon.

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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