Ask Boswell: Stephen Strasburg, John Wall, Nats, Wizards, NBA Draft and more

Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Sports Columnist
Thursday, June 24, 2010; 11:00 AM

Washington Post Sports Columnist Tom Boswell was online Thursday, June 24 to take all your questions about Stephen Strasburg, the Nats, Major League Baseball, John Wall, the Wizards' NBA Draft plans, the World Cup and more.

A transcript follows


Arlington, Va.: Boz,

Do you think Strasburg threw as many strikes as he did yesterday in an attempt to get quick outs and keep his pitch count down in an attempt to stay in the game longer? Instead of taking advantage of those juicy 0-2 counts like you normally would?


Tom Boswell: To a degree, yes. Strasburg knew they hoped he could go seven or even eight innings because the Storen-Clippard-Capps gang could have used a little rest. They assumed they'd score a few runs against Bannister, one of the few guys with an ERA over 5.00 over the last four years combined who still has a starting job. It didn't work out that way.

The four 'unnecessary' strikes to Butler and Guillen were bad mistakes. If you want to challenge in some situations, fine, but not in a 0-0 game, especially to Guillen who has alrerady struck out 66 times this season and is a notorious chaser of bad pitches. But if he can reach it, he can hit almost anything. The way Strasburg was challenging everybody and the good swings Guillen had had in his previous two at bats, I "put in a call" for a three-run homer for Guillen. When it got to 0-2, I said, "Can I have m 'call' back, please???" Since hitters had been batting .026 against Strasburg with two strikes. Pudge gets blame, too. He should have been calling for BOTH the 0-2 pitches to Guillen to be off the plate. Strasburg "knows" -- in theory -- but had to learn the hard way. He's a quick study.


The District: You've mentioned several times that you aren't a believer when it comes to Chien Ming Wang coming back from injury. Could you qualify that? All reports that I've read say he is doing all right.

Tom Boswell: I always assume pitchers with major shoulder (labrum) problems will never come back to their previous form, even though some have. And I always assume that pitchers with elbow surgery -- Tommy John or bone chips -- will make a full recovery and may even be a tad better, though some have not. So, I'll "believe it when I see it" -- and not just for a few starts, followed by another breakdown -- with Wang and Scott Olsen, though, of course, I hope they make a full recovery. And I assume that Jordan Zimmermann and Jason Marquis will be back this year and certainly next year at 100%. Ross Detwiler just had a hip injury. No problem. He'll probably be in the rotation next month.

As for Lannan (the next obvious question), I'd say he'll probably rediscover his sinker in the minors and immediately return to his '08-'09 form and be a fine 4th-5th starter for years. He wasn't "lucky" or a stat anomoly, imo. He just had a helluva sinker. But there is a chance he's somehow lost his best pitch. I don't remember ever seeing that happen with a pitcher I covered, so I'll assume Lannan will not be the first to meet that fate.


Washington D.C. of the NW: Boz , thank you for being the voice of intelligence and reason on so many topics in a land full of cheap nihilistic snark.

I want to know what you think of Riggleman's constant explanation of the Nationals month long backward slide to 2009 that they have been pitched real good.

Can it be that everyone suddenly has Cy Young on the mound that night. Both pitchers in the Strasburg home games came in that night with ERA's over 5.00, we totaled one run between them and at home ... Do you see it the same as Riggs ?

And what if anything should be done now .

Tom Boswell: Riggleman keeps saying the team is playing hard and just running into good pitching, etc. I wonder if he just doesn't want to sound gloomy at a time when there is such a Strasburg/Harper glow over the franchise.

Managers need incredible patience. Ray Miller called Earl Weaver "the most patient impatient man I ever met." In the NFL, you decide fast. In baseball, very slowly. But Lannan has pitched himself back to the minors and Nyjer Morgan, at some point, is going to play himself into being a fourth outfielder behind Bernadina in CF and Morse in RF. Morgan now has 1,002 MLB at bats with a .287 average and .345 on-base percentage with 67% success in steals and no power. In CF, he's not as great as he looked last year and not as poor (and scatterbrained) as he's looked this year. This somewhere-in-the-middle Morgan is probably who he really is. Is that good enough? He'll hit better than he has, but he's probably only an adequate CF/leadoff guy, even if he stops panicing that his career as a top-drawer player is slipping away. Right now, the game has him by the throat. I'd put him in the Adam Kennedy role as the third man in a three-man rotation with Bernadina/Morse, comparable to Desmond/Guzman/Kennedy.

Desmond's in a bad slump. You just let him play his way out. Also, since they think he's a No. 2 hitter eventually, why not just move him up there now. They're not going to the playoffs. I'd say there is less pressure, not more, hitting No. 2 vs. hitting No. 7-8 where he sees constant breaking balls.


Arlington, Va.: I hate to jump on the bandwagon, but Strasburg's stuff is -sick- !

Twice yesterday he ended innings on pitches where the batter looked like he was trying to sit in the visitor's dugout. Uncle Charlie must be damned scary -- especially when it just might be a 98-mph fastball heading for that helmet.

But I'm concerned -- he and his fellow Nats somehow turned Floyd and Bannister into Cy Young and Bob Feller. This sounds so simplistic and stupid, but is there any chance his teammates are, in a sense, standing around gaping as well? The defense yesterday was ... challenged, and the heads weren't there at the plate. Okay, Desmond's head was at the plate, but two feet below his shoulders and ...

never mind.

To what can we attribute an admittedly-struggling team suddenly becoming A-level players when Strasburg pitches? Coincidence?

PS I asked this question before reading today's column. What you write just makes me ask more earnestly: is Strasmas an on-field distraction to the team?

No knock on the kid, btw. Good Gahd! Thomas Boswell: Even in defeat, Nationals' Strasburg continues to amaze (Washington Post, June 24)

Tom Boswell: The players don't think it's a distraction at all. Zimmerman said, "We want to get good enough that we get this kind of (media) attention every day." They're sick of not being noticed. And they think Strasburg is a great, modest kid. His first game Dunn-Zim-Willingham all homered. His second start in Cleveland, they gave him six runs. They are just in a team hitting slump now. It's not a Strasburg slump. On Saturday, J.D. Martin lost 1-0, too, right?


Clarksville, Md.: Boz: As exceptional as Strasburg's pitching ability is, his even-keel demeanor seems even more remarkable, given all the hype. I get the sense that he's analyzing all the time and learning something from every outing, including yesterday's loss. Do you agree?

Tom Boswell: Yes, he's analytical, private, orderly, disciplined by nature. We "sponsored" a Navy midshipman several years ago who was the closer on the baseball team. Smart, quiet, sly sense of humor, shoes-in-a-row. My wife said, "Who is this kid Strasburg?" I said, "He's Zach." She said, "That explains everything."

Think of Strasburg as a career military type guy. The group before the individual. Almost a physical aversion to being taken out of the peer setting and singled out. Like so many in the military, he sees "star treatment" as a badge of shame. I'll ask him sometime if there's any truth in this. This is just my first-draft guess.


Baltimore: The Baltimore Sun is reporting that the Orioles will interview Rick Dempsey for the manager slot. I think Demper would be a horrible major league manager. What do you think?

Tom Boswell: Long ago in Yankee Stadium, several reporters asked Dempsey what he through about the LF fence being moved and monument park changing location. He said he liked the fences being closer "but it's a shame they moved the graves."

We all kept a straight face, but dashed straight to Weaver to tell him the story, but not tell him who'd said it. He laughed, then said, "I don't have to guess. I know. Was it the guy who faces the other way?"

Dempsey is a great guy, fine catcher, fun announcer but just about the last guy I'd tab as a manager. But you never know. People surprise you. If he got the job I'd certainly root for him. I heard in the Pebble Beach bar (The Tap Room) from people in Houston that ex-manager Phil Garner wants to manager again and that he specifically mentioned the Orioles as a team that would suit his talents.


Virginia: Do you see Bernadina and Morse actually becoming solid starting OFers for the Nats? I keep hearing Bernadina continues to impress/improve during practice, but he seems very average to me during games (although his defense has been great).

Tom Boswell: Rizzo likes Bernadina. Capps spontaneously endorsed him yesterday as one of the team's future talents. (But maybe as a CF.) The Nats are lucky to have a prospect as solid as Bernadina if Morgan doesn't work out. But there's no rush. Put Morgan's '09-'10 numbers together. Hitting .289, on-base .350. Also, 39 steals, 18 caught stealing in 119 games. And 88 runs per 160 games (not good for a leadofff man). Base your thinking on that.

I really like Morse. He came within three rows of being the first player to hit a ball out of Nationals Park this week. And he hit it to straight leftfield, not down the line! If you cut Morgan's role to a degree, do you "lose him?" I think more of him than that.

The answer may still be a free agent RF with power this winter for a two-year contract, then hand the position to Bryce Harper when he's 20.

But that doesn't answer CF/leadoff, a key position which the Nats thought they had solved. Maybe Nyjer gets hot and the conversation changes. It happens all the time. Horrible first half, great second half.


Sec. 314: I agree, Morgan should be the 4th outfielder. I'd like to see them move Willie Harris along (trade or DFA) and try someone younger from Syracuse as the fifth outfielder. Why not Boomer Whiting, who seems to be hitting and is definitely fast.

Tom Boswell: I understand your thinking Sec. 314, but I would say, as a generality, that fans always want to "do something now." And so, they are almost always wrong.


Strikeout Pitchers: Hi Boz,

You wrote a column a week or so ago concerned that Strasburg becoming a strikeout pitcher wasn't really a good thing. Can you elaborate? Can a pitcher really control whether they are a strikeout pitcher or not? Doesn't seem to me they have much control over that.

Tom Boswell: No, they don't have much control over it. The Nats just thought Strasburg's sinker would produce a lot of quick ground outs, as it did in spring training and the minors. But it hasn't. Lots of discussion of that in the press boz. Tim Kirkjian and I agreed that -- maybe -- hitters in the minors were just trying to get the bat on the ball as soon as possible and not strike out, not look foolish and damage their stock. ("Strasburg made him look like a fool.") In the majors, hitters are finally, maybe for the first time in his life, trying to have normal nature at bats against him and actually HIT the ball. And, apparently, they can't.

There has been a debate for many years about whether high strike out totals led to much higher pitch counts and whether they were "good" or not. If you can be highly effiecient -- high K's, low walks -- that is the absolute best thing to be. Because 20% of all ground balls go for hits, so you have to face an "extra" man and throw pitches to him.

However, I grew up watching pitchers who CRAVED strikeouts, lived for them and wanted the fame they brought with them, like Sam McDowell and especially Nolan Ryan, one of the more overrated pitchers in baseball for his first 15 years because he kept trying to throw perfect pitches to get K's and ended up getting far more walks than he should have.

But, if like Randy Johnson and Schilling in his best years, you can fan 300+ but with low walks, then that's what you want. That leads to the lowest ERA, which is the ultimate goal. The five-walk Strasburg start in Cleveland was the one worrisome point. But every other game of his life -- college, minors, MLB -- says that he can have an incredible W/K ratio. So, I'd have to say that, in the two games since I wrote that columns, his results against the White Sox and Royals -- the two hardest teams in baseball to strike out -- have given us an enormous data point. His combined line: 13-13-(2-2)-0-19 on 179 pitches or 13.77 pitches per inning.

Hold onto your hats. That would make Strasburg No. 1 in baseball for FEWEST pitches per 9 innings, despite the 19 Ks, ahead of Cliff Lee (13.82).

In all four of his starts, including the inefficient one in Cleveland, he's averaged 14.57 pitches per inning which would be 7th best in baseball!

So, my column asked, "Is it good for Strasburg to strike out this many?" I didn't say it wasn't. I said the Nats were excited at the idea that he could get quick outs with his sinker. But it seems that Strasburg's control is so good and his ability to attack so effective, that he can power pitch, get tons of K's and still have good (or maybe very good) pitch counts.

Again, this is a limited sample. And nobody has ever come remotely close to Strasburg's current stats -- for K/9IP or Whip or ERA (1.78). So, after he has a bad game or two, this has to change. (Tommy Hanson gave up 13 hits and 9 earned runs in 3 2/3 innings last night and he's an exceptional young pitcher.) Still, the reason the fuss about Strasburg won't stop is because his reality keeps exceeding expectations. Until that stops, if it stops, the analysis won't stop, either. Because it shouldn't.

_______________________ Here's Boz's column about concern over a potential inevitable quest for Strasburg to become the strikeout king: Should Stephen Strasburg resist the urge to become a strikeout king?


Morgan/Desmond: I agree totally with your comments on Nyjer Morgan. He will indeed play himself into a 4th outfielder if he doesn't get his act together.

I respectfully disagree with your comments on Desmond. If he wasn't the King of Errors, perhaps he could play his way out of his slump. But you can't let him sacrifice the entire team because he is so error-prone. It appears he's not ready for prime time, and perhaps some time in the minors will allow him to clean up his errors. It worked wonders for Bernadina.

Tom Boswell: Dsmond is going to make a lot of errors. Cal Ripken may have had the "softest" and best hands of any infielder I ever saw. He could go years without bobbling a short hop, missing a throw in the dirt, rushing and dropping a slow hopper or having a ball pop outof his mitt in the hole. Desmond rushes at times and fumbles the ball. He's got ange. He makes spectacular plays. You need to give him time to find out if his current pace of 35 errors is the best he can do. Rizzo expected/accepted 28 as a rookie. Lots of rookies cut their errors by 10 in their second year. Give him time. Nyjer has an expiration date. Desmond doesn't. He's the SS of the future and should be.


70-68: Trivia Q for you Boz. What does 70 - 68 refer to?

Tom Boswell: Poor guys.


Center, CT: Isner wins, 70-68!

Tom Boswell: But they'll be remembered for a l-o-n-g time. And, otherwise, I assume they would not have been.


Lynchburg, Va.: If anything, I guess Stephen Strasburg now knows what Walter Johnson went through when he lost all those 1-0 decisions, but a related question. These late afternoon starts usually seem to discourage offense (look at Saturday's game as well as yesterday's, plus I recall a 1-0 Nats loss to the Phillies in a 4:35 start at RFK in '05).

Why do the Nats schedule weekday afternoon games at that time, instead of 1 or 12:35? Is it logistical problems with the DoT nearby?

And I know that in the old days of baseball before lighted stadiums, games routinely started at 3 or so, especially in the summer months, to enable teams to draw more of a business crowd. (The term "five o'clock lightning," referring to the Yankees late-inning rallies of the '20s and '30s, drew out of this.) About what time did MLB stop scheduling game starts in mid-afternoon?

Tom Boswell: Lots of good points. Thanks. In RFK days, the current Nats had good luck with the "business-person special" starting times. But they hurt the hitters. In four previous 4:35 starts this year at Nats Park, the combined ERA was 3.21. Now, it lower.

It's not a good time to play baseball. Period.


Sec 114, Row E: Bos, if you ask Strasburg about the badge of shame regarding star treatment, can you get his thoughts on being the only MLB pitcher who goes every 5th day as opposed to every 5th game.

I know other guys go on 5 days when there's an injury, or an off day and someone gets skipped. But he is the only one on the 5 day schedule.

Tom Boswell: You've got that wrong. Keeping a star pitcher on his regular day, not his regular "turn" is an ancient honored tradition. Especially on teams, like the Nats, who don't have anything close to a quality fourth or fifth starter who deserves any consideration at all. That's how Sandy Koufax got 41 starts twice and Warren Spahn always got 38-39. Later this season, after the All-Star break, you'll see Strasburg go back to his "turn," not his "day." But they want to let his arm "learn" how to work on the fifth day, every fifth day. They are doing it exactly right.


Atlanta: Boz:

Do you think the Orioles can lose 121? I think its a very difficult task, but I also think playing 24 series and only winning 2 is an extraordinary accomplishment.

Tom Boswell: They are so bad it is unbelievable. They are on pace for 119 loses, one off the Mets record of 120. And their run differential shows that they actually deserve to be that bad -- outscored by more than two runs a game (2.07), which is breathtaking. There are different ways to get "expected wins." My way says they "should" lose 118 if they are outscored by 2.07.

Last year, when the Nats were on pace for>115 loses, their run differential always implied that they were "only" a 50-games-under-.500 team, not an 80-games-under-.500 team. At least it looks like Gonzalez will make it back to the bullpen. But all their young players are contaminating each other with this slump disease. It's the reason it was so crucial for the Nats to add Dunn, Willingham, Olsen, etc., last year. When they finally turned it around, they played credibly the last 70 games. Will the O's?

The Nats bats look so bad right now that they might be able to help the O's this weekend. Quite a battle of the beltway. A team that's gone 13-25 since a fast start and makes an incredible number of errors against a team that is just flat awful.


Arlington, Va.: I don't know who the scorer is for the Nats games but at least 2 of the 9 hits Strasburg gave up yesterday should have been scored as errors. With our offense sputtering, we have no margin for error in giving up extra at bats to other teams in low scoring games. Desmond is a joke in the field and Dunn certainly can't help bail him or any of the other infielders out on bad throws. Our defense is killing us almost as much as our offense!

Tom Boswell: Dunn has only four errors. A pace for nine. N-i-n-e. That's exactly HALF of his error rate last year. I'd have bet anything he couldn't make less than 15 errors and might make 20 -- an incredibly high total for a 1st baseman. Sure, he may start making some. But he's far btter than I thought. His worst problem is footwork. His good (enough) at scooping low throws and can actually jump pretty well and can get very high throws. But moving laterally for throws, he's a mess. He doesn't have much range to his right, but he's not a statue. Good oin pop ups. And he really takes pride in getting better/less bad.

If the Nats let him go free agent for even one day, the Orioles should offer him $45M for three years, promise to play him 120+ games at first base (what, his defense is going to cost them the pennant?) and do whatever it takes to steal him. He is EXACTLY what they need to take pressure off Weiters, Markakis and Jones and would hit a few more homers in Camden Yards.

The official scoring was fine. Just cheap hits, imo. Desmond is NOT a joke. His range, in chances-per-9-IP (over 5.00) and assists per nine IP, as well as naked-eye is off the charts. Net-net he's far, far better than Guzman was last year (with 20 errors in only 117 games at SS). Derek Jeter has never seen the day he could get to the balls Desmond does. Oh, sorry, that would be St. Derek Jeter.


Falls Church, Va.: Boz, at around 2pm yesterday the U.S. had won a huge game at the World Cup. Strasburg was gearing up to pitch in a few hours. And the Wizards were a day away from drafting their guard of the future in Wall. I turned on sports radio to hear about these topics, and predictably they were on hour seven of uninterrupted Haynesworth coverage. Will things ever change around here?

Tom Boswell: It's an endless nightmare.

I watched the soccer, of course. Amazing. They were dead, then Algeria got the bright idea to try to score (and advance to the next round) instead of merely shocking the world by knocking out the U.S. and less than 10 seconds after they get aggressive and take their "chance" to score, the ball is in the back of their own net!

I doubt very much that Wall is remotely akin to Ovechkin or Strasburg in potential. But he should be a significant help.

By the way, why on earth are you listening to sports radio? It must kill more brain cells than any narcotic except extremely contaminated PCP. I think I've listened to less than 10 hours in my life. If I heard myself being interviewed, I'd turn myself off.


Southport, NC: If Jordan Zimmermann is already throwing 94 on the side, when can we expect to see him?? I think he could be very good

Tom Boswell: They are being "careful." And they should be. Let Marquis, Olsen, Detwiler and maybe Wang get their shot first. They know Z'mann is their No. 2 of the future if he's 100%. It's easy to forget: 92 K, 29 W in 91 IP last year in less than half a season.


Southport, N.C.: Hi Tom - thanks for hosting. Question - Why can't Morse get more playing time. Nyjer seems to be hurting more than helping.

Tom Boswell: I don't know. Maybe he will. He's hit everywhere he's played. Has a .798 OPS in MLB in 400 plate apperances and a near-.900 OPS in roughly 500 ABs at Syracuse in '09-'10.


Battle of the Beltways: Awfully Flat vs Flat Awful. Sounds like a T-shirt.

Tom Boswell: Save me one.


Alexandria, Va.: It's probably impossible for me to be objective about players I like. I've always been a fan of 4A guys (Dave Newhan, Rick Short, Howie Clark, Travis Driscoll) who finally get a shot and do reasonably well, but I realize there's probably a reason why they are called 4A guys. So I respect you objectivity. My question: How do manager do it? They must have favorites etc. but there also has to be a certain cold-bloodedness to their decision-making. I know Weaver didn't want to get close to player for that reason, but I don't know whether that's the case for other managers.

Tom Boswell: Earl said, "You have to manage for the team, not the players. That means you're always going to be a bastard. Or, in my case, a little bastard."

Weaver and maybe Davey Johnson are, perhaps, the only two managers I've ever observed who were cold-blooded enough, smart enough and ornery enough to manage with almost no sentiment. Okay, Frank Robinson, but he managed like it was still '66. Never caught up with the times. And, on his bad teams, just hated about half his players and let 'em know it. But, man, could he inspire the teams he liked and respected, like the '89 O's and '05 Nats. Earl and Davey were ahead of the times or helped form the new thinking of their day.

"Sentimental managing" drives me crazy. You see it constantly. And reporters must want to hit me for all the times I growl "sentimental managing" in the press box.

Glenn Gulliver. And Josh Towers, the patron saint of all players with absolutely no talent who made it to the Show, then fooled 'em long enough to earn $6.1M!


If I heard myself being interviewed, I'd turn myself off. : This is why so many people regard you as The Thinking Person's Sports Columnist.

Don't ever change.

Tom Boswell: Yeah, thanks, but I'm going to "change" in one way. I'm gonna start making these damn chats shorter than two hours before the chat moderator or my wife kill me.

I never got to the U.S. Open!

I played Pebble Beach on Monday -- one of 24 who won the annual "media lottery." Second time in 30+ Opens for me! Shot 97 from the 6,500-yard tees. Moderate amount of cheating, couple of mulligans, got disgusted and picked up a couple of putts for triple bogey. Glorious day. Parred 1-2-5-7-17. After seven holes -- par, par, triple, triple, par, double, par -- my caddie said, "I think you're tied with Dustin Johnson."

The greens were GREAT. S-m-o-o-t-h. Tiger's just a whiner. Didn't three putt. Made putts of 18, 15 and 40 feet. Come on, I'm a Col. Bogey bum. If they don't scare me -- with a caddie telling me, "Aim here and play it for 70% of normal speed" -- why are these guys so terrified? Oh, I know, because it's the U.S. Open.

I sympathize. I was so anxious/nervous to play that I actually had trouble getting the tee in the ground on No. 1. "You'd be surprised how much I see that here," said my caddie.

Oh, hit two in the ocean and one into a mansion under construction. But smoked it down the middle on 8-9-10 on the cliffs (then made double-double-double). I'l remember every shot forever. That's why it's probably the best course in the world.

Thanks. See you next week.


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