Ask Boswell: Redskins, Nationals and Washington sports

May 13, 2019

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

Past Ask Boswell chats

Is This The Beginning Of The End:

Now that the Nats are back from what will probably be their scariest road trip of the season, both in who they played and how badly hurt they were, are they a "team on the edge" or is the worst past for them?

I'd say that they are very close --perhaps 10-days to two weeks-- from being out of the woods on a 'lost season" but still face >100 games of grinding. 

Does that kind of "hard pleasure" appeal to either the Nats or to their fans? It's always been one of the things I enjoyed MOST about MLB --the long chase. But it takes special teams to have that much grit and usually "plus" managers, too. 

The NBA's two Game Sevens on Sunday had some remarkable heroes --Kawhi Leonard with 41 points and a miracle buzzer-beater shot for Toronto to break hearts in Philly, as well as CJ McCollum's 37 points to keep Portland advancing. But how about the hidden goats in those games? 

I've got some for you. 

Also, on to the PGA Championship this week! Your thoughts on what is now Must Watch golf.

Now that we have time to evaluate the past weekend's rookie minicamp, do you have any projections for the next decade's of wins and losses for the Haskins led Redskins? Or is it possible that we are trying to read a little too much into just a weekend of practice? Thanks, I'll hang up and listen to your answer.

One of my favorite questions --ever. 

Between not holding a bat correctly when bunting (keeping fingers out of the way) to creating outs on the bases to sloppy fielding and defense, it seems as if the Nats can't get out of their own way. What is the expectation for these things being done correctly?

The Trea Turner HBP that put him out for nearly 2 months was not a mistake in fundamentals. His mistake --a tiny one-- was to "show bunt" an instant too soon. This allowed the pitcher to counter with a fastball up-and-in. With Turner squaring to bunt, and moving a bit toward the plate in the process, the pitch came at his face. As Trea said afterward, he just used the bat to shield his face. Many MLBers hold their fingers on the bat as Trea did --because they have the hand-eye coordination never to get their fingers hit --except once in a blue moon. That was the blue-moon total eclipse. 

As for other Nats mistakes, they still make way too many. Part of the reason is so many young players breaking in at one time. Kieboom had the fielding quitters. Robles made as bad a TOOTBLAN (Thrown Out on the Bases Like a Nincompoop) as you'll see out in L.A. The Nats/Robles story is that --with men on 2nd (Robles) and 3rd, none out, in the top of the first inning with no outs, Juan Soto drew a walk to load the bases-- the 21-year-old thought that "time" had been called, so he wandered toward the third base coach for a chat. That is possible. However, what some announcers assumed --and which also looked like a plausible explanation-- is that Robles thought the bases were already loaded and that the 3-2 pitch walk to Soto meant he could go to 3rd base. After a few steps --OOOOPS--- he was trapped off 2nd. 

Maybe Robles thought time was out. And it's OK to give rookies some "cover" at times --as Davey Johnson always tried to do with Bryce Harper in his first couple of years.

Find an alternative explanation for "he's young, he messed up, get off his case cause he plays hard and he's going to be excellent."

The biggest part of the Nats problem with ugly plays --simple fielding blunders, overthrown cutoff men, overrun fly balls (like Eaton last week) or getting thrown out while trying for an extra base-- are just the usual manifestations of many players trying to Do Too Much to compensate for all the injured Nats. When you try to assemble a lot of responsible, adult players there is one booby trap --they are especially prone to being "team conscious" and internalize everybody's problems instead of focusing solely on their jobs. I've seen it "forever." 

The Nats issue now is "How Far Behind Do They Fall Before They Start Their Comeback." And will they be so far behind that their "comeback" will essentially be far too little, far too late. We constantly see this dynamic within one NBA game --a good team falls way behind. You know they are going to make a run. But will the comeback be mere pointless face-saving or, like Portland coming back from down 17 points, Sunday, to beat Denver in Game 7, will they have enough time and talent enough to pull it off? 

I would not bet on ANY team, coming off an 82-80 season, coming from 7 1/2 games behind after 40 games --almost 1/4th of the season. You can't trust a team --like the Nats-- that has been playing below potential for 200 games because, suddenly, you've reached a data sample size where they may not be as good as most think they are. Maybe close-to-.500 or slightly above when healthy IS their potential.

I don't believe that.

I think the Nats will get healthy and, as long as their rotation stays intact and very strong at 1-2-3, they'll get back in the picture. 

But, as you point out, poor fundamentals, sloppy fielding and a poor bullpen will undermine all of those hopes in a hurry.   

Which do you feel is more likely: a Rendon extension signed at some point this season, or Rendon traded away in July?

Rendon isn't going anywhere at any time during this season, imo.

For reference, the Nats did not trade Harper at the deadline last year --despite having offers-- even though they had assumed for years that he was almost certainly going to test free agency and not make any decision until that auction process had run its course by Jan/Feb of '19. IOW, their operating assumption was that they were going to end up in the low-probability scenario where they would not END UP with Harper, but they still wanted to keep the doors open, show him respect, make him an offer at the end of the season, etc. Don't drive him away. Sacrifice the fairly minor difference between what would get in trade and the value of the compensation they'd get for losing a top free agent for the sake of "Holy cow, he stayed!"

The Nats operating assumption with Antony is that he is much more likely to stay. Rendon has never craved attention. If he's happy in D.C., that would matter more to him, relative to finding out his auction-market price, than it would have to Harper. Also, the total risk of signing a BIG Rendon deal is much smaller with Anthony than Bryce because Rendon is a free agent after his age-29 season while Harper was a FA after his age 25 season. 

So that is four years of risk --which is probably more than $100M-- that you don't have to embrace if you make Rendon a deal that says, "We just HAVE to have you." Besides, maybe they agree on a lower number than a guess at what his full-auction-price might be.

Remember, at the trade deadline last year the Nats were five games behind and really battered by injuries. Strasburg had been hurt and was already deep into a 3-month period --May 29 to Aug 29--  when he had 0 wins. On 7/30 the Nats were 52-53 and showed little life. The starting lineup included Mark Reynolds and Spencer Kieboom.

If they didn't trade Harper then, I doubt very much that they'd trade Rendon --even if things are bad-- by 7/31.

I certainly would NOT trade him. For one thing, so much $$ falls off the Nats payroll after this year, that they COULD stay in the free agent hunt for Rendon --if necessary-- until Jan or Feb of '20. They'd hate it. But they could.

Just because things are ugly now, don't project that into the infinite future.

How'd you like that final shot that bounced 4-5 times before going down???

The first bounce --straight up on a jumper by Leonard from the right corner-- did not surprise me at all. That happens a million times and, a certain percentage of the time, the ball comes almost straight down. Maybe you get lucky and it swishes.

Late in his (very good) Celtics career, Don Nelson, as a player, had a crucial playoff jump shot from the foul line go straight up off the back rim, bounce (from memory) as high as the top of the backboard and drop straight through the rim for one of the biggest baskets in a game that decided the whole series. (Don't ask for details. But THAT shot was replayed for years.)

On such longish shots that take high bounces, it is much more likely that the ball, instead of "swishing" for a lucky shot, just "clanks" off the rim in some bad direction. 

It was the SECOND bounce off the rim that makes the shot amazing, and the moment unique in the NBA; you almost never get a soft SECOND bounce off the rim after the first bounce goes two-or-three-feet in the air. That isn't a "shooter's roll." It's a talk-about-it-forever in Toronto (and show it forever on ESPN) bounce.

I'm one of those sports obsessives that likes to watch every pitch, snap and dribble of each important game, especially in the post-season, to get a sense of what’s happening that’s obvious and what’s happening under the surface.

To one degree or another, at least in our favorite sports, we all think we have that ability to see multiple levels in the action. So, my gotta-see-it-all self was a little sorry to be on a long weekend getaway with my wife on Mother’s Day. But, for once, I’m not sure there’s much I could have seen on Sunday –even if I’d watched for hours—that would have stayed in my memory for more than a day or so EXCEPT for the Kawhi Leonard shot!

Nonetheless, I'm envious of those of you who did get to watch those two Game Sevens.

My (small) contribution is to examine the box scores of those games. ESPN (and everybody else) loves heroics, especially in winner-take-all games, and doesn't dwell too often on the goats --the goats, sometimes, on BOTH teams, including the winners. If I get any of this wrong, those who saw the whole games please let me know. 

CJ McCollum is an excellent 6-foot-3 shooting guard for Portland (22.3 ppg this year). So his 37 points weren't out of character. What was unusual was that he scored so many of his points in the paint. Damian Lillard should send him a "THANK YOU" text, every day for the rest of this year.

Lillard has been amazing in these playoffs, including his audacious game-winning 37-foot shot at the buzzer --"That's a bad shot," said Paul George in defeat after OKC lost. But Lillard was 3-for-17 from the floor on Sunday, which usually would be enough to lose a Game 7 all by itself.

In this era of high-volume three-point shooting, the NBA game looks far more appealing when it is condensed in some replay form, with all the "amazing shots" going in, than it does in real time when you watch the whole game and realize that the same "superstar" who makes those shots has also been laying bricks on 70% of his treys and that, in reality, SOME of them just have to go in. It's not THAT hard to jack 'em up and have some fall.

Leonard's 41-point game, when the next three highest scoring Raptors only had 38 points, was clutch. But he also took 39 shots! He was 16-for-39, including 2-for-9 from 3-pt.

In the 76ers game, Joel Embiid went 6-for-18 from the floor and Ben Simmons had as many turnovers (5) as field-goal attempts (5). Did both disappear? I'm sure Philly is discussing that right this minute!

How does firing a manager work, in the weeks leading up to making the decision? What do you think is going on behind the scenes? Has Rizzo spoken to Randy Knorr or other internal candidates? Is it possible he has spoken to external candidates? By the way, the manager's salary does not count toward the competitive-balance tax. Just saying.

I assume the Nats have given thought to what they'd do AT SOME POINT if they think they need a different manager. But, remember, it has been less than two weeks since Mike Rizzo stood by the Nats dugout and talked for about 15 minutes on how much he backed Dave Martinez, thought he was doing a good job and was entirely behind him. (See Barry's column, full of pertinent quotes, on that subject.) Then, after the game, the Nats fired the pitching coach --not the manager.

The context for Rizzo's comments, including his tone which I thought was absolutely candid, not a fake vote of confidence, is that well-run MLB teams are NEVER in a hurry to fire ANY manager. (It's easier to destroy than to create.)

Especially, do not be in a hurry to fire a manager when there is an obvious reason for the team's bad record that is likely to be significantly more important than the manager's performance.

In the Nats' case, a poorly-built bullpen and INJURIES to his starting lineup are a bigger factor this year than the impact of any manager. Martinez used the bullpen he was given in roughly the roles for which they were acquired --and they stunk to high heaven with an ERA near 8.00 for most of April. Even if you deliberately mismanaged you wouldn't generate a high 7.00's ERA for a month because the pitchers are ALL TRYING to get outs because their career in the majors is always at stake. 

As soon as the pen showed slight signs of improvement, Martinez lost his No. 3-4-5 hitters on top of the No. 2 hitter (Trea Turner) that he lost just a week into the season. I'm sorry to be firm on this point but NOBODY wins without their 2-3-4-5 hitters --or in the Nats' case, BOTH their platoon 1st basemen at No. 5, meaning that their bench was weakened, too, with either Matt Adams or Zimmerman subtracted. Also, Martinez lost 2-3-4-5 in the year after Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy left the lineup as free agents.

Come on, are you really going to fire a manager when --from his '18 roster-- he does not have Turner, Rendon, Soto, Zimmerman, Adams, Harper and Murphy? And the only addition in those slots is Brian Dozier who is hitting <.200?

Just the quick glance math: the Missing Nats from '18 (including Harper and Murphy) had a combined WAR of 20.9, which is why the Nats had a well-above-average offense in '18. Everybody else from the '18 Nats whom Martinez had to patch together into a lineup before Rendon came back had a combined WAR in '18 of 2.5!

Gentle reader, YOU make a lineup after subtracting 6 of your top 7 offensive players from '18.

So, we are currently in 'gimme a break' territory. Dave Martinez can be fired, but a sane organization cannot fire him NOW. Franchises have ways of doing business and institutional reputations that have to be maintained and defended. In many areas, the Nats rate high. In some they don't --like unwillingness to spend at the trade deadline or pay the going price for an established manager. Remember, if the Nats had offered Bud Black a market-level contract for a bit more than $1M-a-year for three years, he'd have taken the job in '16 instead of being insulted, which allowed Dusty Baker to get the job (and accept the low pay).

But the Nats have never made an unfair, panicky IN-SEASON firing of a manager --in large part of shift blame. If the Nats had been dissatisfied with Martinez, they could have replaced him after last season. They didn't. So, act right. Give the guy a square chance --partly out of basic fairness, but ALSO with an eye to the future.  To get good managers in the future, they need to believe they will be treated fairly and paid fairly. "Paid" come far behind "fair." You can live with less money, but how do you live with "they'll scapegoat me in a minute." 

..

To answer your question (Ha!), as the season goes along, if matters don't improve, here is a loose sense of how teams often go about making in-season managing changes.

 When you are looking for The Next Manager for the team that you follow, start by looking in the same dugout for someone who has managed before. That person, whoever it is, is loyal to the manager and, usually, isn't angling for his job. But it's decent MLB etiquette to take the job if it's offered. Next, is there somebody managing or coaching in your minors that has long been considered, but also by-passed for the managing job? That would be Randy Knorr. Those folks are normally very well-liked in the organization, know the X's-and-O's of the game and make credible interim managers until a "search" can be done after the season. Of course, many an interim manager has become permanent. But switching to somebody like Knorr, who knows everybody already, makes the transition less difficult and adds a (tiny) element of feel good. What you have to remember is that the Nats took a LONG look at Martinez and liked him from several different angles, including comfort with analytics, temperament, etc. Teams have a hard time saying, "We were wrong." Another element, Nats hitting coach Kevin Long applied for the Nats managing job. His hitters haven't done him many favors, so I'd say that's off the table even if, at some point, there's a change. 

Moving on, look in the broadcast booth. This is more of a longshot. For years Nats fans speculated about Ray Knight being a manager-in-waiting when the Nats were struggling. I had to chuckle at that. Some managers only get one shot because that one time is enough for people to figure out that, whatever else you may have done excellently in their careers, they probably aren't an MLB manager. Currently, I don't think Bo Porter, who was 110-190 when managing the total-teardown Astros in '13-'14, is looking over Dave's shoulder, even though the Nats (if memory served) interviewed him for a previous opening. In the last 20 years, a lot of future managers have done time in the broadcast booth. (Matt Williams in Arizona before he got the Nats job.

Finally, is there a "famous name" that's available --somebody so proven and visible that you'd hire him in mid-season to take over a team that he DOES NOT KNOW AT ALL and have to learn a new coaching staff, too. (Or replace some coaches in mid-season, also a brutal and rarely-down task.) That's Joe Girardi or Buck Showalter right now. First, would the Lerners pay the going rate for an experienced manager? Does he want to manage the Nats? Will he work well with Mike Rizzo? Is he as long-term solution for at least 5 years --if things work out well?

Sorry for the long answer, but there is no Nats topic that has as much interest as the status of Martinez.

 

I also love the Haskins question. But there is something deeper there. When does a team know it has something special at the QB position? Perhaps it is a flash-in-the-pan like RG3 (but what a flash!) or something that seems like a lot more (say, the situation in K.C.). Shanahan seems to have never been convinced about RG3's long-term prospects, but apparently Reid, Chiefs staff and Chiefs vets were totally convinced about Mahomes very early into his rookie season (the one where he played just one game). Some guys take longer to develop, for sure. Maybe the better question is what do coaches need to see in order to be convinced they have something special at QB?

Joe Gibbs said that one of the first major signs in whether a player --and especially a QB-- would be a success in the NFL was his ability, in meetings looking at film, to recognize what he was seeing extremely quickly. Gibbs emphasized that elite-level football intelligence was, in his mind, a special gift which was sometimes non-verbal. It was purely visual. What do you see and how fast do you recognize it. Of course, what you see ON THE FIELD is most important. But the first big clue is what a player sees --especially a QB-- when he is looking at film. As the tape is running, does he say, INSTANTLY, what the defense is, where he should look on the field, what his "read" should be? It may all sound like obscure Football Talk --where the "mike" linebacker is leaning before the snap-- but to someone as tuned into offensive football as Gibbs, he could tell who SAW the game in a blink and who needed more time --too much time-- to see what the heck was unfolding before his eyes.

 

Gruden is also a fine offensive theorist and designer of plays (There are other areas we can critique.) I suspect that watching film together will be a tip-off for him on how "far away" or "not far away" Haskins is. Of course, he'll have to see on the field, then in exhibitions and finally in real full-speed, full-crazy NFL action, before he knows where Haskins stands in his development. But I bet he'll know a lot about Haskins long before we think he can know much of anything. 

Has Scherzer's fastball become too predictable?

Don't worry about Max. FanGraphs currently ranks him the No. 1 pitcher in MLB THIS YEAR with a WAR of 2.1 --which would be on pace for a WAR of 8.4.

Max has had bad luck on batting-average-on-balls-in-play (.361). That will even out. His FIP (Fielder Independent Pitching) gives you a good idea of where his ERA is probably headed --it's 2.25. His current record --2-4, 3.64 ERA-- is a mirage that will disappear if he continues to pitch at the same level.

Currently, the two highest rated NL pitchers by WAR are Scherzer and...Stephen Strasburg at 1.7 WAR. Strasburg is on pace for his best season, if he stays healthy. (Corbin is 19th among NL pitchers by WAR at a very good 1.0).

So, the way the Nats get turned around is simply to have these three continue to pitch just as they have been pitching while the rest of the team gets healthy and plays better baseball. If I HAD to bet what will happen --out of the whole range of Nat futures-- this is what I'd predict.

Max and Stras rank 6th and 8th among starting pitchers in K/9 at 11.98 and 11.84. They both have over-powering stuff, especially with their secondary pitches (off-speed) --which are NOT secondary to them!

Sometimes we hear about the Nats inability to ID and then develop starting pitchers. Perhaps we should change that. The Nats have ID'd some good starters and gotten them to the majors (or AAA) but traded when to "go for it" that season.

Looking for starters with strikeout stuff, currently, Robbie Ray is averaging 11.34 K/9. Also among the MLB leaders are Lucas Giolito (!!) at 10.89 K/9 with a 4-1 record and 3.55 WRA with the White Sox an Reynaldo Lopez (9.99 K/9).

Time to go! Thanks for all the fine questions. See you all next Monday --when we'll have a PGA Championship winner.

I doubt that it will be Tiger, though I think he'll be in the mix and cause a lot of excitement at some point. I think the Masters' course suits him the best of the majors. He has as much length as is needed plus TONS of local knowledge, great putting touch. Bethpage Black is a long belter's course. Woods is long but, relative to the field, not as long as he was years ago. Also, winning the Masters was a HUGE emotional drain --preparing, playing and then recovering after winning. Bouncing back this quickly is going to take a lot of resilience. 

However, after coming close at the PGA and Open last year as well as the Masters, I think Woods will be in the hunt. Block out your weekend. Cheers.

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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