The people of Nats Town haven’t gathered with pitchforks and torches quite yet, but the number of fans who want to chase Jim Riggleman out of town is no small band. Riggleman like many others in Washington has taken a hit to his approval rating, but he has a public vote of confidence from management, so I don’t expect him to leave town anytime soon.
In fact, most of the criticism of the manager, now in his third season at the helm of the Nationals, has come in the form of fan message board posts. Believe it or not, it’s not all about winning. If it was, I think that it would be a little unfair given the dearth of talent Riggleman has had to manage. With Riggleman, what makes the fans’ blood boil is strategy.
Riggleman doesn’t appear to be in any danger. Fans are marginalized by team management, because they didn’t play the game. This appears to be the prevailing opinion of the Nats, an organization filled with “baseball people.” Like it or not, having the experience of swinging a bat or throwing a curveball at the professional level still to this day gets you a pass over logic and probability. Now don’t get me wrong, I’d much rather have a baseball person swinging the bat or throwing home on a sacrifice fly to short left. But when it comes to managing the team, give me the egghead who never even played minor league ball picking the players and giving the steal signs.
About a month ago, Sports Illustrated writer, Joe Posnanski, respectfully called Riggleman's game management into question, making the point that Rigs either didn’t know the probability of scoring a run in certain situations or that he just ignored that evidence willfully. The article was just a louder version of the drum Nats fans have been beating since the middle of last season.
I’ve been following Riggleman’s in-game moves very closely this year and have mixed feelings about the way he does things. The biggest issue is that he pulls his starters, especially the veterans, too early in favor of the bullpen. I understand he’s trying to win games, and bullpen arms like Tyler Clippard’s are one of the Nats’ great strengths. But you have to wonder at what cost those moves are being made. Clippard pitched the second most innings for a reliever in the majors last season. I’d hate to see the guy turn into a Pedro Feliciano, a guy whose arm was used up over a few taxing seasons.
One of the other things fans hammer Riggleman on is his love for multiple moves. Sunday’s game against the Mets is a perfect example of how even if everything goes right, it still can be a wrong decision. In the top of the 8th inning, Matt Stairs pinch hit for Chad Gaudin. Stairs did a good job, he drew a walk, but because he’s a one-dimensional player, Riggleman was forced to pinch run Jerry Hairston Jr. for Stairs. On the surface it looked like a good move. Hairston went from first to third on a single, and scored the tying run on a ground out. There’s no chance Stairs gets to third if he’s still in the game. That’s why I don’t blame Riggleman for the move, he did what he had to do to get a run. I blame GM Mike Rizzo (and a little bit of Rigs depending on how big of a hand he had in forming the roster) for building such a inflexible bench.
I think the excessive moves will eventually be Riggleman’s undoing. You can play a blackjack hand incorrectly and still win sometimes. When you play it poorly and people notice is when you’re in trouble. Let’s go back to Sunday. In that 8th inning, Riggleman had already pinch hit for Alex Cora, bringing in Laynce Nix. Remember, Ryan Zimmerman was unavailable in this game because of injury, so by the 8th Riggleman had used his entire bench except for his backup catcher. In the 11th, Adam LaRoche led off with a single. As mentioned in Posnanski’s article above, you have a much better chance of scoring with a man on first with no outs, than with a man on second with one out, but at this point, Riggleman’s hands were essentially tied. Drew Storen was up because of a previous move, and not wanting to burn his backup catcher, he had to bring in another pitcher to sacrifice LaRoche over for a lower percentage scoring opportunity. As fate would have it, LaRoche injured himself getting to second, so Riggleman had to burn Ramos anyway to run for the hobbled LaRoche. After breaking the game open with a single by Pudge Rodriguez and a homer for padding by Nix, the rest is history. Pudge played an inning at first in a quirky footnote to a win.
What if Nix hadn’t hit the homer, and lacking the insurance runs Pudge made a mistake at an unfamiliar position and the Mets came back to win? It wouldn’t have just been a loss, it would’ve been an inexcusable embarrassment of game management.
That’s what Nationals fans see and are growing tired of. One can only hope Riggleman can continue to beat the house.