Thomas Boswell discusses the latest sports news with Washington Post readers

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Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Sports Columnist
Friday, August 27, 2010; 2:30 PM

Washington Post sports columnist Thomas Boswell was be online Friday, Aug. 27 at 2:30 ET to discuss and analyze the latest sports news.


Rockville, Md.: Can we name the curse? Maybe something in honor of Walter Johnson, ensuring who remains the best D.C. pitcher of all time.

Thomas Boswell: You mentioned the perfect name, Rockville.

There was actually "another Walter Johnson" who was just as good as a Big Train. And his story is an excellent one for this day. The other man with a fastball that hitter's claimed they could barely see was Smoky Joe Wood of the Boston Red Sox. Wood, except among real baseball fans, is now a semi-forgotten figure. And injury, which could probably have been correct with 21st century care, ended his greatest days when he was only 22, Stephen Strasburg's current age.

Wood only had one immortal year in 1912 at 22. He went 34-5 with a 1.91 ERA, 10 shutouts, 35 complete games and 258 strikeouts, then went 3-1 in the World Series, beating Christy Mathewson in the deciding Game Eight, 3-2.

"I threw so ard I thought my arm would fly off my body," said Wood, who got his nickname from his fastball.

Walter Johnson said, "Can I throw harder than Smky Joe Wood? Listen, my friend, there's no man alive who can throw harder than Smoky Joe Wood."

I think the sports writer's kind of polished up those quotes in 1912. ut you get the point.

The next year, Wood slipped fielding a bun and broke his thumb. He pitched in pain the next three years, never more than 157 innings. As I remember it from old stories, he had various kinds of arm trouble from te thumb, the innings, etc., and was washed up at 25, though he still went 15-5 that season. He tried other comebacks.

The point is that Strasburg has an 85-to-92 percent chance NOT to be another Joe Wood. That's the success rate for Tommy John surgery. However, I think too many people are trying to cast this very bad news in a too-rosey light today. There's nothing god about this. In a very few cases, like Josh Johnson, pitchers have thrown a little hard AFTER TJ surgery. But only a few. It's studied the stats since '02 when every fastball has been clocked. Excet for Johnson I can't find anybody else who got much better. Some maybe 1 m.p.h.


Scottsdale, Ariz.: Boz,

I've been reading your stuff for nearly 30 years, and when sports goes haywire, I know that you'll be able to break it down and put it in, what's your outlook on how this injury impacts SS's career and the Nat's near- and long-term outlooks?

Thomas Boswell: Jst got a call from Stan Kasten who recalled, when he was a young NBA GM for Ted Turner's Atlnta Hawks, that Red Auerback drafted Larry Bird a year before he was elligible to come out of college. (You could do that then, obviously.)

"Everybody asked Red, 'Why would you take a player that you can't even use for a year,'" said Kasten. "Red said, 'A year goes by really fast.'"

Kasten then pointed out that it was only 13 months ago that Jordan Zimmerman had his Tomm John surgery and he pitched last night. I won't say that it "seemed like last week" but it certainly doesn't seem like a lng time ago. So, April '12 will come around faster than we think. That's when there's a 90 per cent chance that Strasburg will be pretty much as good as new.

But what about the other 10 per cent?

What about the shoulder that already put him on the DL?

What about having THREE 'plu-pls' pitches that all put differednt kinds of strain on different parts of the shoulder and elbow.

It's great good break that this first big injury is to the elbow, which canalmost always be fixed, not the shoulder.

But my concern __and this is not a day to jump straight to "Oh, he'll be all right. Just show some patience__ is that Strasburg only lasted 11 games in the minors and a dozen in the majors before he'd been on the DL twice and had TJ surgery.

The way to bet is that we'll see the "real" Stephen Strasburg" again in '12. But it's not a certainty.


Reston, Va.: Is there any rhyme or reason that you know of for what pitchers eventually need TJ surgery?

Thomas Boswell: Absolutely nobody has satisfactory answers.

However, it's a fact that four N.L. All Stars this year hd come back from TJ surgery.

Here's part of the incredible list of players who have had TJ and come back to full form.

A.J Burnett, Chris Carpenter, Ryan Dempster, Jaime Garcia, Tim Hudson, Josh Johnson, Jimmy Key. Francisco Liriano (it took his 3 1/2 years to get back to his old velocity), Carl Pavano, Arthus Rhodes, Jose Rijo (had TJ surgery FOUR times), Fernando Rodney (touching 100 m.p.h. again and averaging over 95), Anibal Sanchez, Alfredo Simon (O's), John Smoltz (went to bullpen for a few years to lessen strain after surgery), Edinson Volquez, Billy Wagner (two years ago as an "old man"), David Wells, Brian Wilson, Randy Wolf, Kerry Wood (oooops) and Jordan Zimmermann.


Rockville, Md.: From Strasburg's medical history, was this something that they may have seen coming? I don't know much about his college injuries, but from what I've heard, this isn't a total suprise. Is that correct? Is it better that this happened early in his career rather than in three years?

Thomas Boswell: There is no better or worse time. You can come back from the surgery when you are deep into your 30's, like Billy Wagner or Smoltz after he'd already thrown 2,000 innings.

Everbody is going to claim they are a genius now and "called this one." I'm not. I wrote last year that no No. 1 overall draft pick had ever become a great pitcher __Andy Benes and a couple of other won 150 games. But my argument, in three different columns, was that the salary that the Nats gave Strasburg should be sane because it should incorporate the high probability of any pitcher getting severely injured. IOW, I thought he was worth the $15M they gave him, but I wouldn't have gone to $25M, much less the $50M of the original rumor. Now you see the reason why.

There will now be analysis of his mechanics and the supposed "reverse W" in his delivery. Well, serious medical papers were written on Mark Ppior's "perfect" mechanics__just before his career started going to hell.

Nobody knows.

as I always point out, Jim Palmer missed almost two years at 21-22 and Roger Clemens had SHOULDER surgery in the middle of his second season with the Red Sox. hat proves that Strasburg isn't finished or even prevented (yet) from being great.

But it's equally true that every sad story has a first sad chapter. I hope that's not the case here.


Tommy John for HOF: He was a good pitcher, sure, but TJ surgery has changed the game. We need a bust of his reconstructed elbow tendon in Cooperstown.

Thomas Boswell: The elbow should be there. But not quite the man.

John was one of my favorite players to inerview. I once said to him, "I can never guess what you are going to throw." He said, "I'll tell you if you promise not to write it until after I retire."

So, I promised.

John said, "Subtract one 'ball' from the count that you see on the scoreboard. I'm the only one who knows what MY count is. How can the hitter know what's coming if he doesn't even know what the count is?"

As I asked about three-ball couns. "I never give in to the hitter," said John. "The count never goesto thee balls to me."

What about bases loaded?

"The bases are never loaded," he said. "Home plate is always open."

So, he'd rather walk home a run than "give in" to the hitter and give up a grand slam or a three-run double.

Dr. Frank Jobe said he'd only try to TJ surgery on Tommy John "because he was so smart" and could understand the theory behind the surgery and the rehab.

Jobe called it "100-to-1 oods" of a comeback when he did the surgery in '74. Now, it's more like 90%.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Don't you think you D.C. sportswriters continue to overhype their atheletes from Ovechkin to Haynesworth to now Strasburg, in reality what has any of them accomplished?

Thomas Boswell: Strasbuerg is the first pitcher that I have ever seen who had command of a plus-plus fastball and control of two other plus-plus pitches __big hard 12-inch slider and changeup/screwball. It's not hype. Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson __all had command/control of two such pitches, not three.

Pedro Martinez may have been the only pitcher I ever saw __and some think he's actually the best of the last 60 years__ when it comes to command of three or more different pitches.

Strasburg has/had a chance to be as good as any pitcher ever. It'll take lots of years, lots of work and some improvement. But at least people got to see what e had against MLB hitters. That's why it's important that he got to show it __if only in a dozen starts so far.

I think we'll see it again.

But he's only going to be pitching 150 or less innings in '12. He's not going to come back with a "new elbow" at age 24 and blow out 200 innings right away and see if he can break down his shoulder.

So this is going to cost the Nats a lot of the innings they were assuming they'd get out of him in the 6 1/2 years that they have him under team control trough'16.


Washington, D.C.: Does he still get all that money?

Thomas Boswell: Yes.

And I'm glad he got it. And I won't be erasing the tapes I saved of his three best games, including the 1 K, 0 walk debut.

The "arc" of this story within a few months really is almost beyond belief.


Arlington, Va.: Hi, Boz,

What exactly is Strasburg's off-speed pitch? I've read that it is a screwball, not a straight change or circle change. If that's true, knowing how many arms the scroogie ruins (more than curves and sliders), we should hope that Strasburg ditches it for one of the two common versions of the change-up.

Thomas Boswell: His circle change is so good, and he throws it so hard, up to 92 m.p.h., that it acts like a screwball.

Does that mean it does some of the same damage as a screwball? That depends on how much he "pronates" his arm __rotates it the opposite way from a curveball.


Reston, Va.: Thank you for doing this chat. Poor Chris Cillizza was bombarded by Strasburg sadness. You're more like a grief counselor than a sports writer today.

Thomas Boswell: I smelled this last night but wasn't, and still am not sure, exactly when various people got the news. Kasten and Rizzo looked quite serious.

I'm amazed and a bit disappointed in the instantaneous "lets move on and look to the future" response to this by some, like Scott Boras and the Nats, too. Good Lord, can't we even have honmest responses to things anymore. If you're an baseball fan, much less a Nats fan, you feel like getting a hammer and bashing something. (Hopefully not your elbow.)

Someone in the press box last night said, "Hey, Boz, I've got a lede for you. That you won't use. 'Who will be in the Nats starting lineup first? Bryce Harper or Stephen Strasburg?'"

That sounded a little funny when we still thought Strasburg probably would NOT need surgery. Not real cute now. I say that "sports grief' is appropriate.


Baltimore, Md.: If I'm Peter Angelos, I'm broadcasting one of Strasburg's past games every 5 days instead of the game the Nats are actually playing. The audience ratings have to be higher, no?

Thomas Boswell: Man, how many times am I going to have to replay those three Strasburg tapes in the next 18 months?"

Prbably good that the Nats gave out those 15,000 Strasburg Debu DVDs as a Give Away in the last homestand.

But a little too ironic for my taste.


Tommy John: Can we get that surgery performed on Rob Dibble's mouth?

Thomas Boswell: One Nats exec, on hearing of the comments, called another Nats executive and just said one word, "Idiot."

They both knew, with no names mentioned and no other context, what was being discussed and who.

They used to say that you knew how good Steve Carlton was because if you said "Lefty" everybody in baseball knew who you were talking about. Dibble?


Arlington, Va.: Boz,

We keep hearing the refrain that "throwing a baseball is an unnatural act," or something to that effect. How come more coaches/kinesiologits don't seem to want to come up with a different way of throwing a baseball that doesn't put so much strain on the ligaments? Isn't there a guy named Marshall or something that's trying to do just that?

Thomas Boswell: Look at old tape of Walter Johnson. When he threw he BRACED against a stiff front leg and whipped his arm sidearm. No follow through. Like cracking a whip. The most unnatural thing I've ever seen. You'd think his career would have last about 10 innings.

But he struck out over 3,000. Strasburg lasted 10 weeks so far. What we don't know about pitcher's arms might clog the whole internet.


Washington, D.C.: How far does this set back the franchise? I've noticed by Zimmerman's body language that he's getting frustrated by the losing. Exhibit A: getting tossed for spiking his bat and helmet. Now the best pitcher and supposed savior goes out with a torn ligament. He'll be out at least a year, and may never be the same. There is no savior that will help the team in the near future. Harper eventually, but not now. I can't imagine that the record will be much better next year unless Rizzo adds some major free agents, and all of this at a time when the club desperately needs a winning record.

Thomas Boswell: The Nats need to resign Dunn and Livan Hernandez. Livan is going to get done. Dunn, I don't know. They better. Their payroll is still very low and flexible. They can improve this winter. A winning team is probably now a '12 goal at best. But with Zimmermann, Livan, Maya, Marquis, Lannan, Detwiler, etc., they can have a better rotation that this year. With Dunn, Z'man and Willingham at 3-4-5 and Desmond, Bernandina, Espinosa and Ramos all in the lineup, they can score more runs and have a better defense. That's before adding a free agent or two.

What's too bad about Strasburg is that it sets back the possibility of exceptional improvement until '12 or '13 with Strasburg and Harper as part of it. But this team can still aim for +10 wins in '11 over this season.


Arlington, Va.: What did pitchers do before Tommy John surgery existed? Would all of those TJ survivors that you listed simply have had their careers ended? Would they have just kept on pitching but with pain? Would they have just healed naturally on their own?

Thomas Boswell: They retired.

Or continued to pitch with five or more miles an hour knocked off their fastball.

"Dead arm" was what they called it for 100 years instead of torn elbow ligament.


TJ All Stars: Boz, there were actually six guys selected to the NL squad: Carpenter, Josh Johnson, Hudson, Brian Wilson, Kuo, Rhodes and Brian Wilson. (Wagner was invited but declined.) The AL had Soria and Soriano. Now only three of those guys are starters, but that is still encouraging.

Thomas Boswell: Good point.

Some like Wood and Smoltz switched to the bullpen to throw less pitches at any one time. Not nearly time for that with Strasburg.


San Jose, Costa Rica: So Strasburg goes on the 60-day DL, but that time still counts towards his major-league service time (and brings him closer to free agency), to the chagrin of the Nats bean counters. Could you explain how/why this is?

Thomas Boswell: Yes, that is my understanding. The Nats will still have him through '16, at the least. But they'll lose '11 forever. And he won't be coming back at a 200 IP level in '12.

Looking at Josh Johnson's career __a success story__ will not make you happy. This takes a long time and puts a big hole in a caeer.

'06...age 22...12-7...3,10...157.2 IP

'07...age 23...0-3....7.47...15.2 IP

'08...age 24...7-1....3.61...87.1

'09...age 25...15-5...3.23...209

Got to go write a column.

Nats exec says Strasburg is walking around the Nats clubhouse now with a sheepish grin on his face.

He said, "I should probably talk to the guys today."

Very mature. Everybody, cross your fingers.


Potomac, Md.: Do you remember where you were when you heard Stephen Strasburg was going under the knife?

Thomas Boswell: On the seventh hole of a golf course. I immediately made double bogey.


Rochester, N.Y.: Peter Gammons is reporting the Nats should have shut him down in July, and it's their fault that he needs TJ surgery, your thoughts?

Thomas Boswell: Hindsight is 20-20.

I thought seriously about that at the time. (The Nats didn't.) I live by my "How stupid would I feel" rule.

But, in real time, I thought the Nats' plan to bring him back was acceptable. Not a no-brainer. But sufficiently responsible.

However, after Zimmermann and Strasburg in back-to-back years, I can't imagine that some changes in training methods or personnel will not be made.

Off to column land. Sorry about all the questions. See you next week.


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