Monday, July 29, 2013

Washington Post Sports Watch: Praising this summer's Nats coverage, criticizing last year's

Before I get to my criticism of the Post's Nats coverage today, I want to give some credit to the Post's Nats coverage. Adam Kilgore's lengthy Sunday piece on the unraveling of the Nats' season was really good--both the analysis and some of the quotes (such as Ryan Zimmerman's "A lot of guys last year had really good years all in the same year. It’s not easy to do that, year in, year out, no matter how good you're supposed to be on paper.")

And while many people mocked Mike Wise's column on Drew Storen a couple weeks ago (just take a look at the majority of comments--although it seems that there are a lot of people who hate everything Mike Wise writes just because he doesn't like the Redskins' name), he was obviously on to something. Tyler Clippard on Friday night pretty much said the same thing that Wise's column did--that it wasn't right that the Nats replaced Storen with Rafael Soriano after one bad playoff game and that has led to Storen's troubles this year. Wise doesn't indicate whether or not he had knowledge of the feelings of Clippard and/or others in the Nats' locker room before writing the article--it didn't seem like it when I initially read the article--but whatever the case, the column comes across after this weekend as pretty prescient. (Whether Storen should have let the bullpen demotion affect him to the degree it has is another story entirely.)

But if we're going to talk about the Post's Nats coverage, there's something we need to talk about that goes back to last year--something that was pretty controversial throughout the world of Major League Baseball but not all that controversial among fans and media here in D.C. Yes, we need to talk about the Post's coverage of the Strasburg shutdown.

I feel it's relevant now not because of the bad year the Nats are having (although that is a decent reason), but because of a post by Sarah Kogod on the D.C. Sports Bog last week on a Reddit conversation with Dr. Frank Jobe, the inventor of "Tommy John" surgery. Asked his opinion of the Strasburg shutdown last year, Jobe said it "made sense" to shut him down when they did, but "in hindsight it might have made sense to shut him down earlier in the year so that he could have pitched in the playoffs, but that's hindsight." So you're telling me that the guy who invented Tommy John surgery says the Nats could have given Strasburg a month off in the middle of the season and then had him pitch during the playoffs? That's something that Mike Rizzo said wasn't appropriate for a pitcher in Strasburg's situation. Apparently, it was OK. Why didn't we know this before now?

I don't want to re-litigate the Strasburg shutdown. I think that having an innings limit for Strasburg was understandable, and something for which most baseball people understood the rationale--even if they didn't agree with it. (No one has ever explained to me why pitchers are on pitch counts for games, but on an innings limit for a season, but hopefully, someday, someone will ask that question.) Where many people raised questions with the Strasburg shutdown was in how to distribute those 160-180 innings that he could pitch--in other words, why weren't the Nats skipping his starts when there was an off-day, or why weren't they giving him a few weeks on the DL with some mystery injury (like Dan Haren's a few weeks ago) in order to conserve his innings for a possible playoff run once they realized in July that was a strong possibility.

How did the Post Sports section cover this issue? Well, they reported that Rizzo would not deviate from his plan and that this was his decision. James Wagner did a very good piece in August consulting medical experts on the shutdown, of which the basic conclusion was that no one really has any idea whether shutting down Strasburg was the right move. The article does quote, late in the story, the Texas Rangers' team doctor as saying that if the team is likely to make the playoffs, he works with the team to manage the pitcher's innings--such as skipping starts-- in order to conserve him for the playoffs. You'd think that little nugget might spur a good columnist to do a little digging and ask a few questions about that. But that didn't happen, maybe because of Tom Boswell's July 5, 2012, column, in which, along with calling anyone who disagreed with the Rizzo plan for the Strasburg shutdown "dopes" and "nincompoops," he wrote this:

There are two things so stupid that you never do them. First, you don’t voluntarily shut a pitcher down for weeks then start him back up, creating, in effect, a second spring training. You also can’t pretend that “skipping starts” is feasible. Why? Because you aren’t skipping anything. The issue isn’t innings; it’s total workload on the arm. While skipping starts, a pitcher stays on a throwing program. For Strasburg, that’s 95 mph. It isn’t “rest.” The stress and risk accumulate. Short of suspended animation, you can’t beat it.
Huh. That mean Frank Jobe is stupid?

And that was it for the Post on the issue until a couple weeks before the shutdown, when John Feinstein--after everyone from all the other Post sports columnists to KidsPost to the editorial page had expressed support for the shutdown and not questioned the allotment of innings--weighed in with an anti-shutdown column that at least argued the other side, but didn't seriously address the rearrangement of innings issue. Feinstein, to his credit, was the only columnist to bring up the fact that "magical seasons aren't guaranteed" and that "you never know" what might happen in the future, which resonates much more strongly with the Nats two games under .500 in late July than it did with a big first-place lead last August.

Do I think that Mike Rizzo was going to change his mind because the Post asked more questions and did more investigating about the Strasburg shutdown? No, I don't. But the Post Sports section's reporters and, especially, its columnists, owed more to its readers than they provided. If this new Frank Jobe quote isn't enough proof, how about a quote from Mike Rizzo? As he said in February on local sports radio:

Really the only people that had a problem with it was the media, and really, largely, it was the national media. Because I think the local media was on board with it.”
Reports are that when someone asked Rizzo about the shutdown decision at a season-ticket holder event this past weekend, he was booed. That's a shame. Team general managers shouldn't be beyond questioning and criticism by fans, and the media. It's a free country, so if fans want to boo a guy who asks a critical questions, that's their right. But asking those questions are the media's job. Let's hope the Post Sports section does a better job of it in the future.


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