Ask Boswell: Redskins, Nationals and Washington sports

Feb 22, 2016

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

Past Ask Boswell chats

In my opinion, one of the most instructive aspects of your chats is your weekly reminders on how to be a good baseball fan. With that said, I've got a question about expectations for the Nats this year: Is it fair to say that the Nats' recent World Series window has closed now? That's not to say they don't have any chance of a World Series trip in the near future, but when I think of "championship windows," I think of home-grown talent, groomed to come of age at a certain time, and complemented with trades and free agents. The window was open from 2012 - 2015 with Strasburg, Zimmermann, Zimmerman, Desmond, Espinosa, and Harper. Now most of those guys are gone with Strasburg following at the end of this season. Werth is aging out. Ramos doesn't seem to be the bat the Nats expected. Is it wrong that my approach as a fan now is to just sit and hope that the Nats have a lucky season until the next window opens with Harper, Rendon, Giolito, Ross, Nobles, and whatever other studs are rising through the minors?

The Nats aren't as strong on paper as they were 365 days ago. But they're still a very good club. Last night I did an exercise that I often do before the next MLB season begins. I let the numbers talk and I try to listen. I look at every key player on a team and figure out his value, on average, over the previous three seasons combined. In some cases, like a rookie like Joe Ross in '15, you have to tweak with just one year of data. But for a whole team you'd be amazed how clear a sense you get of a club's general ability. I end up with a WAR (wins above replacement) using two different models for the whole roster, assuming that the last couple of players/pitchers on the bench will contribute relatively little.

Last year the Nats team WAR was about +36-37. They only won 83 games, but their run differential (+68) implied that, normally, they'd probably have won about 89 games. It was one of their "unlucky" run distribution years.

As a frame of reference, the Mets team WAR last year was about +38 or +39 wins. They ended up winning 90 games. But their run differential was +70, meaning in an average season they'd probably have won 89-90 games.

So, what about '16????!!!!

The Nats look like they have less high-ceiling potential for a huge season, but overall, I have them as a +37-to-38 WAR team. In other words, almost identical to last year. Perhaps an 87-to-90 win team with a good chance to make the playoffs. After that, if Scherzer and Strasburg are healthy and pitching well,they have as good a 1-2 punch as anybody, though probably not as good a 1-2-3 punch as the Mets.

Now, of course, the season will have a million variables and any team can end up with 10 wins more or less than you'd guesstimate even if amazing developments (like huge injuries or the emergence of a surprise Rookie of the Year) do NOT appear. 

I'd say that whatever you think the Nats window is NOW, then it will probably be a little BETTER in '17 because the Nats pipeline is strong and, by then, you'll probably see Ross, Trea Turner, Lucas Giolito and Michael A. Taylor on a regular basis and also closer to their prime years.

It should be a fun season. Every team wants to field an on-paper 90-win squad as many years as possible because that gives you the most shots in October to win it all. Even GM Theo Epstein, working with huge budgets in Boston and now the Cubs, has said that the goal every year is 90 wins. If you try to build a 100-win team for a one or two year Kill Everybody run, it's a big and perhaps unwise gamble. The Phils tried it the "Year of the Four Aces," the rotation that couldn't possibly be beaten. Well, they got beaten in the first round. And to some degree the Phils have been paying for that Kill 'Em All play ever since.

The Nats' 98 and 96 wins seasons were part of a natural developmental evolution, plus opportune free agents. That's their method now. I'd say their only Go For It year was '15 when they signed Scherzer and still had Zimmermann. You all saw what happened.

Now, things are more normal for a very good franchise.

But it's not as exciting BEFORE Opening Day as it was the last three years when everybody was falling over themselves to get the Nats a World Series win or else pick them was one of the co-favorites.

Tanner Roark said, "I think I enjoy the 'underdog' thing."

It's nice to be an underdog and still get picked by the more sophisticated baseball sites as the fouth, fifth or fifth best team in baseball. But some say lower. We'll see. 

Nothing could blunt the joy of hearing "pitchers and catchers report" more than hearing "Papelbon's back."

Papelbon is a helluva relief pitcher. Obviously, at 35, anybody can have a bad year or a bad arm. But I've done a lot of searching, looking at "most similar" careers. They give you quite an optimistic view of Papelbon's chances this year.

His career has been "most comparable" to date with....drum role...Mariano Rivera. After that, Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner. That is high-high-high class company.

Here are some Pap comps who had several fine years from age 35 onward: Rivera, Hoffman, Wagner, Tom Henke, Joe Nathan. I'd add Lee Smith whom I think he resembles very strongly in ability to adapt to velocity dropping from 95+ to 92 last year. If I had to bet, just on performance, I'd say Papelbon is more likely than not to do a good job of closing.

His issue was the Harper incident and whether you wanted to go forward with him. He and Harper say that it's all good. That's likely. But we'll see. Papelbon's apology sounded genuine to me. But then you're head would have to be harder than a trailer hitch not to understand that you had to make a total sincere apology. I'll add one little point. In my column, I mentioned that Papelbon had on his "Obama Can't Ban This Guns" T-shirt before his apology press conference but changed to "Train to Reign." There was some lighthearted talk at the time, just teasing. I doubt he ever intended to wear it to the press conference. Anyway, it didn't happen. Talk about a non-issue. It's more to the point, to me, that when you play in D.C. maybe you develop the awareness to realize that politics is highly-charged in the town, so it's smart to let everybody believe what they believe and not cross the partisanship line too much or too often. Unless you want to take a specific stand on a serious issue and make it in depth.

I suspect that Nats fans will be more interested that Papelbon has a 91 percent save rate the last two years and in save situations in '14 and '15 his ERA was 1.61.

If he's that good again, my 50-50 take on him this a.m. in my column, up a lot from 90-10 against him after he choked Harper, may shift again. 

Is he now getting more of a pass for his "blame the victim" stance in domestic violence cases? He seems like an overall good guy but those comments still stick in my craw.

I had a talk with Dusty about that. He had a scheduled press session that day and wasn't up to speed on any of the details of the Chapman issue. If I remember correctly, the police report referred to eight gun shots in the garage, etc. If he'd known more of the facts he'd probably have amplified or altered his remarks somewhat. But that can work both ways. One of Dusty's very best long-time friends, Darryl Hamilton, died in a domestic violence incident with his wife in 2015. Dusty even spoke at his funeral and still carries what he wrote around with him as well as a picture of Hamilton. One of Dusty's points that day was that men can be the victim of domestic violence, too. But since 87 percent of reported cases are women, most people, including me in my column, felt that Dusty was missing the larger issue and striking some sour notes.

Because his remarks were in a press conference, because he returned to the subject and approached it from several angles and endorsed Chapman as a person, the quality of his family and how he'd be glad to trade for him, Dusty got himself in a hot spot.

Anybody who knows Dusty Baker knows he's a fine man and is not on the wrong side of this issue. So I think you can relax on that score. But live microphones are tricky. Make sure you know all the facts before you speak. And choose your words. Or your foot can end up in your mouth even when you don't intend to put it there. That applies to everybody, of course, I view microphones as sleeping snakes waiting to be awakened by my stupidest sentence. In the life of Dusty, it'll be a footnote to a footnote to a footnote.

While there are all sorts of teams that win championships, your comment about "baseball-as-fun" today struck a nerve. The current "BAF" champs are the champs; while their exuberance might cross over into arrogance on occasion, there's no denying that there has been no team in baseball more fun to watch than the Royals the last couple of years. Those Giants champs? Buster Posey may be all business, but Pence and the departed Panda were among the guys who seemed to lead game-long parties (in a good way). Last year's Mets? Too young to not know that baseball is a job. Underachieving teams like the post-2012 Nats (even 2014) and the Dodgers seemed to be ground into dust by their own grist. I don't know how to verify this statistically, but chemistry (and the fun that can ensue) still seems to count. Let's hope the Nats have concocted a winning potion.

I think the most overlooked factor in baseball, from a team perspective, is collective confidence and relaxation under pressure. How can you measure it? And how can you instill it? (Believe it or not, there are teams that are now trying to study "clubhouse chemistry" just as they study "how to minimize DL days." I wish 'em luck! What do you want as far as a blend of vets and kids, or how many "overachievers" who set an example for others, or how many introverts/extroverts and how many tough guys?

The two managers I've known who were conscious of these factors and considered them enormously important were Davey Johnson and Dusty Baker. Bruce Bochy, Joe Maddon and Joe Torre, too. Baker is old school in some ways. But some of those "old" ways may be very good and even an edge in '16. You don't hear many managers say that they may take different players out so they can get to know each other. He says he might take one Nat out for dinner, another out fishing or another just out for a drink. Davey was fun, but he probably wasn't that warm and cuddly. But he was good as meetings in his office, not chew outs, but discussions about a player's role or a boost-his-confidence talk. 

The '12 Nats had the best room for that kind of fun. But the '14 team was quite good, too, because so many subs filled in for injured vets, that made for a lot of satisfied players who felt they were contributing. The '14 Nats didn't lose to the Giants because there was anything much wrong with their chemistry. However, things definitely went backwards last year. You had a team with many introverts or (as Davey called them) "socially comfortable introvert" who were managed by a barely-socially-comfortable introvert who was wound tight, showed his intensity/tension in the dugout and, over time, lost parts of the team because he just didn't have the knack of having a feel for the majority of his players. Billy Martin said that Casey Stengel said that the key to managing was "keeping the five players who hate you away from the five players who haven't made up their minds yet."

The premise underneath that is that any decent manager can connect with 15 of his 25 men. Williams was a wonderful player and good man, but I don't think 'he found a way to clicked with 15 core Nats. And he had two years to do it.

Fans always analyze the GM. Rizzo's record is exceptional in trades, player development and signings. (Though a couple of big signings are basically Ted Lerner's, though Ted knows that Rizzo strongly approves of the player.) But "history will show" that Rizzo made one huge mistake. It can't be looked at any other way, even if Matt Williams someday gets another job and succeeds. With Davey leaving the scene and two years to figure out "who'd next after Johnson," Rizzo had a lot off candidates to choose from because almost everybody wanted the Nats job because of their talent. Rizzo had his eye on Matt for many years, his ideal, strong, organized manager who'd also coordinate with the front office. Riz got EXACTLY the man he'd spotted many years before. The only other GM that I've ever seen as excited, as absolutely certain that he had the perfect man for an important championship run, was George McPhee when he got Adam Oates as his coach! McPhee was a smart hockey man, just like Rizzo in baseball. But Oates may have been an "F" as a a coach. Maybe "D" if you're being nice. And Williams was probably a "C" (he did win Manager of the Year in '14!) who ended up looking awful, and out of touch, when he didn't know about the Harp-Pap fight in his own dugout. 

I predict the fun will be back, as long as they get above .500 and stay above it. Not necessarily first place. But this is a team that NEEDS a decent start. They have been beaten about the head by pundits since the end of last season. Everybody on the high-paid Red Sox and Tigers __both under .500 last year__ as well as the quick-exit Dodgers with their >$300M payroll, should have sent the Nats a Xmas card last winter thanking them for taking all the heat as the only miserably disappointing team of '15.  

Sorry, Bos, he still sounds like a jerk. I realize a lot of obnoxious people are nevertheless good players, most of whom I know little about. But I woudn't want him as a teammate and I'll find it hard to root for him on the field. I'm hoping that Gio will strangle him.

I admit that you certainly aren't alone. The Nats fans down here in Viera tend to be pretty fanatical and pro-Nats (why else would they be watching pitchers throw side sessions) and I'd say at least 60 percent accepted Papelbon's apology at face value. I was surprised. But some also definitely agree with you. The tone of Papelbon's apology should help him. But that incident is going to be hard for some fans to forget. Of all the baseball fights in my time, the only one that had worse "optics" was the Steve Garvey-Don Sutton in the late '70s that left them both going on national TV looking like they had gone 12 rounds with the heavyweight champ. Ironically, neither Papelbon or Harper came out of their tussle with as much as a cracked fingernail as far as I've heard.

What differences can we expect to see in the approach of Mike Maddux as compared to the departed Steve McCatty? Is it possible Maddux can get Gio to return to the 2012 version? How do veterans like Scherzer and Strasburg generally react to a pitching coach with, perhaps, new ideas?

I had a long talk with Maddux this a.m. Lot of fun. Really sharp guy. Bob Boone said the other day: "When you hear pitching coaches around baseball discussed, it's usually Maddux at the head of the group. We're REALLY glad to get him." Maddox mentioned that he'd gone up to Dusty in the dugout a couple of year ago--never met him before--and they hit it off so well that Maddux says that he said to Dusty: "Maybe someday we'll be able to get together" (with Maddux on Dusty's staff).

There must be a Maddux family interview tradition: Mike said: "Lets talk at 7:45 a.m." I had a bunch of interviews with his brother Greg in the '90s in spring training and it was the same thing... "be here at the park at 7:30 a.m." The early bird catches the Maddux. 

BTW, McCatty was an excellent "Pitching Whisperer" and handled some not-so-easy-to-handle pitchers VERY well. Not one Nat pitcher ever said one bad word about McCatty to me... ever. And plenty volunteered good things. But Maddux was a CATCH. A trade you HAD to make.

I thought Liz Clarke's piece yesterday on the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. 15 years ago at the Daytona 500 was excellent. I'm not a racing fan but she had me hooked from the beginning and I shed a tear or two at the end. That's terrific writing and I congratulate your colleague! 

Thanks. I somehow missed it. I'll read it now. I always look for Liz's pieces. She loves racing and knows it inside out. And she's a wonderful writer on every subject.

It looked like the overnight ratings for the Daytona 500 were down a bit from last year, but an exciting finish and a well received superstar in Jeff Gordon now joining the booth seems like it could provide some momentum. What are your thoughts on NASCAR and the sport's future potential following its recent decline?

Mike Maddux and I accidentally watched the ESPN shot of the Daytona finish on TV in the Nats clubhouse. Wow!!!

I asked him if he saw it. He said, "Playing golf." I was watching Daytona, then with 67 laps to go, I said, "I've already seen the end of Maryland beating Michigan. Why am I watching auto racing, too? I'm gonna go walk the beach."

I'm afraid for many people that's were they are with auto racing these days, even on its biggest days, looking for a golf course or a beach or something else to do. But if THAT finish won't bring some people back, I don't know what would.

Great column this morning on Papelbon. This offseason, lots of high-end relievers were traded (Kimbrel, Chapman, Giles, F. Rodriguez, McGee, Benoit) with none of them going to the Nats. Did they even try to get any of these guys (I know they tried and failed to sign O'Day)? Were they unwilling to give up prospects -- or did other clubs not highly value available Nats? Even with Papelbon as closer, they don't have a proven 8th inning guy. Did they make any real effort to trade Papelbon (not that there would be many takers) or was it always the 'plan' to stick with Papelbon regardless of fan sentiment (which isn't going away quickly)?

Thanks. I assume other options were explored. Remember how Dusty immediately said he'd be interested in Chapman?

But I think that, by whatever path they got there, once you realize that Papelbon is your closer, you have to encourage him, or at least allow him, to be himself. Which means he'll be a big figure in his clubhouse. Apparently Red Sox and Phillies players  like Ortiz, Pedroia, Varitek, Hamels and others have spoken highly of him as a teammate and the Nats gave that some weight. Most fans will never know how differently people inside baseball look at baseball versus how people outside it look at baseball. I was talking to Rizzo and he said that in the minors in Peoria a teammate named Christy barked at him, "You lost your toe hold (in the box). Your time is up." What happened? "We fought right there." Who started it? "Me," said Rizzo. How come you still remember the guy's name after all these years? "He was an even worse player than me." 

What does that one fact, that this ... pitcher, he said as neutrally as possible ... thought that his theoretically-contrite, answer-all-questions-until-they-stop press conference attire should include this article, say about the likelihood of Papelbon being both a positive influence in the clubhouse and a go-about-his-business type before the fans/the media the rest of the year? We all know there are a lot of gun-toting GOP voters in baseball. But this guy's utter obliviousness or willful disregard has to be the comet across the sky foretelling the coming of doom, no?

Reporters have been noting the T-shirts with messages that players wear in the clubhouse for at least 20 years (since it became popular). You don't look (spying, in my opinion) in players lockers. But you obviously can note what they wear on their chests, especially when you wear the same shirt three days in a row. BUT I think it is silly to discuss what a player DIDN'T wear to a press conference. Cut the guy a fair amount of slack. He's wearing a hot-button-issue T-shirt around his teammates. Is that okay? Irrelevant? It's fair to discuss. But he DIDN'T wear it, and was treating it lightheartedly before NOT wearing it to a press conference. That's a case of mildly-amusing detail but "nothing to see here."

Boz, who are you watching, in particular, that are, a) rostered veterans; b) rookies/young players; c) non-rostered veterans ?

Trea Turner, Trea Turner, Trea Turner.

When will he be up with the Nats (and probably in the everyday lineup)?

"When you watch him on the field every day and he looks like a big-leaguer. That day," said one Nats decision maker.

That day could come in spring training. But before Opening Day? Doubtful. It could certainly be during the season. Another key Nats person noted that 23 was an appropriate age for a high draft pick middle-infield prospect coming out of college, like Joe Panic, Kolton Wong and several others, to come to the majors, get established and play every day. One the other hand, the same guy pointed out that 21 was too young to bring up a starting pitcher like Giolito. I named Wacha (21) and Syndergaard (22) as cases of guys who were up fast and in the World Series a few months later. "That's two on 30 teams. Name some more. Okay, Joe Ross was 21 last year. It's rare."

So if you want to know how baseball people think about Turner's timetable and Giolito's that probably sums it up.

While I understand the desire to talk about prospects like Turner, Giolito and Ross contributing heavily to the Nats in 2017, is Taylor too hyped? He's going to be 25 in a month and while he may be great in the field, he hit .229 with a .640 OPS last year. Should he really be seen as a future starter or is he more a good fouth outfielder?

We're probably going to find out this year whether Taylor is the next Mike Cameron, which would be very nice, or a good fourth outfielder who may someday keep developing. He was drafted (very raw as a baseball player) out of high school. But he has had a LOT of minor league time. Wonderful young man, marvelous center fielder. He's one of the players who could make a big difference in the Nats future. Star or good player or gifted fourth outfielder? I wish I could predict that one. Taylor's very high strikeouts after so many ABs in the minors, are the "issue." But the jury is out. I'd love to see him chasing down everything in CF for 10 years with 20-20 homers and steals and a >.260 average. Will it happen?

Boz, The west coast swing is over and on to Florida. Great leaderboard yesterday, even without Spieth who somehow shot a 79 on Thursday and missed the cut and Rory blowing up yesterday. With the depth now on tour, golf seems to be in good hands without Tiger.

When we all get to the Masters, Tiger will be missed to some degree. But many have seen this coming for years. "We" missed Arnie when he was still playing the Masters at 40 but wasn't going to win. We "missed Jack in his 40s when he'd obviously never win again as we all agreed.

Until he did at 46.

I just hope Woods can EVER get "golf healthy" again.

But you are right, golf is lucky. It is in very good hands. For 70+ years golf has shown itself to be a a sport that, if it has a real Big Three, Snead-Hogan-Nelson and even before that group, then it has it all. Looks like it has at least a Big Three once again. 

Ladson has Harper projected to hit third. Do you agree and, if so, why not clean up?

It's in stone within the organization: third.

Babe Ruth hit third. (His number was "3." Gehrig hit fourth--his number was "4.") Ted Williams hit third.

Is that sufficient data?

Gotta go talk to some ballplayers. See you all next Monday. Have a great week!

While I figure that KD is probably not coming to D.C., I do wonder about one of the common reasons for him not coming here - that the Wizards are losing this year. I would expect that this wouldn't be much of a deterrent to someone like Durant. A superstar of his ilk must look at any team (within reason) and feel that they can elevate said team to championship level. I mean, Cleveland was a joke before LeBron went back and now they are the class of the East. I find it a bit hard to believe that the Wizards losing season would be a main reason for Durant not to come here. Any thoughts on that?

Good point. The year Larry Bird became a Celtic I think their win total went up by about 30 __with few other changes. A Best-20-Players-In-History guy can transform, not change a basketball team. On the other hand, here is a (negative) link that may interest you.

Hey Boz, give us your February 22 prediction on how far the Caps go in the playoffs. Is this finally the year us long-suffering fans with the countless playoff heartbreaks get to celebrate? IMO, this is their best-ever team but we know that takes you only so far in the playoffs.

I avoid specific predictions about sports as much as I can __because I'm sane. "Seeing the future" is not where I add value for readers. In situations where "picking" is part of the job, I must have a "perfect" 50-50 lifetime record __perfectly useless.

(When you see people in the media who do a lot of predicting, then getting a free "second angle" by reacting to their own predictions whether they are right or wrong, it's likely a sign that they don't have a wonderful idea, interview, insight or strong opinion that day. Predicting is usually "settling" because you can't do any better to offer.)

However (you knew that was coming), I haven't had a stronger temptation to predict about a local team in more than 20 years. Even I know I couldn't do any "jinx" damage because I'm not Mr. Hockey, even though I'm pleased with all the hours I've put into the Caps in the last 7-8 years. I really think they will get to the Stanley Cup. Over one game, who knows. I don't think anybody in the Eastern Conference is going to beat them in a seven-game series. The recent games against Dallas and L.A. show that there are some big, fast structured teams that may get to the Finals. Even Trotz still thinks that the Caps sometimes been to be reminded to "play through" the other team, "not around them" in those situations. I wouldn't pretend to predict a Cup winner. But if the Caps are knocked out early or lose a two-game lead in a series, I will be very surprised and very wrong. (But, of course, that'll hardly be for the first time!)

Tom: Love the chats. I am remembering a column several years ago (by you?) which asserted that many winning teams had something in common: 2 or 3 key players who both hated to lose (occasionally turning over tables and shutting off post-loss music) and positively wanted to crush their opponents, not just do enough to win. It seems the Nationals have had an absolute lack of such players in leadership roles. Happy-go-lucky Adam Dunn and goofy Mikey Morse seem to be the antithesis of this type, and good-guys Ryan Zimmerman and Drew Storen fall way short in this category. I take it from your column today that Pap is such a player, and may be just what the nice-guy Nats need.

I talked to Papelbon for a while today and I think you've put your finger on a good point. There's something to be said for player who love intensity __the more there is the better they play. Harper seems to be one. Papelbon set the record for most consecutive shutout innings in post-season to start a career __25 innings. His career ERA (2.35) is one of the half-dozen best in history for anybody with significant innings. But in save situations in his career its 2.12. His ERA the last two years, including he's poor showing with the Nats, was 2.04 in '14 and 2.13 in '15. In those two years, he's been successful in 91% of save chances. (In his career, he's 88%, the same at Mariano and one of only five in history with a 88% level __also Kimbrel, Joe Nathan, Hoffman.) His ERA in save situations last year was 1.38.

He may only throw 92+ not, not 95-96. But if he's about to fall off a cliff you have a hard time finding it in the numbers. It is simply a fact that his numbers the last couple of years are essentially identical to his whole career, except he does it now with tea-cup command, almost always missing on the "pro side" off the plate and throwing more splits and sliders.

He's outspoken and blunt. He's been suspended (7 days) for an obscene gesture toward Phillie fans __come on, no Philly jokes. He was suspended three games for, in the league's opinion, throwing intentionally at Machado's head last year. There's "stuff" that comes along with him. But you don't get the fire without some smoke. As my column tried to point out, the problems that could still happen are obvious. What is starting to show through down here is that Papelbon could __just could, long way to go__ be part of an attitude and competitiveness improvement on this team. You're correct that I'm on record for many years saying that a team needs many things but in baseball you need 2-3-4 hard-asses, too.

From Twitter this morning, it looks like Harper said this morning that he didn't want/have a leadership role on the team and he'd leave that to Zim and Werth. Any thoughts on that? I get that he's young but he is the best player and I thought I had heard the Nats wanted him to step up on that front.

I heard him say it. You become a leader by acting like a leader, not by saying that you're a leader __especially when you are 23. Harp has made wonderful progress in that. Though few notice it, he's a very respectful person. He deferred to "J-Dub and Zim" as leaders and appreciated all they'd done for him. But, in his way, Harper is certainly a leader NOW. He doesn't have to say it. Dusty can say, as he should, that the leaders are the vets like Scherzer, etc. But it's obvious Harper is one. (One of the little ways that Scherzer leads is by including Giolito __first time in main camp, presumably won't make the team__ in clubhouse talk, jokes.)

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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