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.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Washington Post Sports Watch: Jason Reid Believes the Hype

Last week I wrote a post about the tendency of Post writers and columnists to frequently overhype the local teams, demonstrating a "premature excitement" or optimism about the teams before they've accomplished much of anything. I cited a Jason Reid column * declaring that the Wizards would make the playoffs next year, a Tom Boswell piece last fall comparing the Nationals to the 90s Braves and Jeter-era Yankees, and an recent blog post on the Insider blog questioning why anyone might pick against the Redskins in the NFC East. Unfortunately, it seems like Jason Reid took that post as a personal challenge. Reid's new column on the Redskins is as good an example of that overhype and excessive optimism as anything in that first post.

Headlined "Washington Redskins Primed for Sustained Excellence Entering Training Camp" on the Web, Reid's column says the Redskins will not only win the NFC East this year and make it to the NFC Championship Game, but also go 12-4 and return to being a "perennial winner" like they were in the first Joe Gibbs era. Now I'll admit there is certainly good reason to be more optimistic about the Redskins this year than in most recent preseasons. And I am fine with a columnist who is willing to take a strong stand and then defend his position. The problem is that while Reid explains why he thinks the Redskins will be so good (it basically boils down to "they have a good offense"), he leaves out a crucial element that should be in any good column arguing for a strong position--he never seriously counters, and only barely acknowledges, any of the arguments that cast doubt on his position.

Reid's column says the Redskins' numerous offensive weapons--from RGIII to Alfred Morris to Pierre Garcon, along with Trent Williams on the offensive line--are poised to continue dominating on the offensive ball as they did last year, when the Redskins had the top rushing game in the league and the third highest passer rating. That's fine, and he may be right. But after noting RGIII's quick recovery from his knee injury, there's no mention of whether RGIII will be truly healthy at the start of the season, and, probably more importantly, whether the tweaks that apparently will be made in the offense to lessen the injury risk to Griffin will have an impact on the effectiveness of the offense. He also doesn't mention that with teams now having a full year to study Griffin and the increasing popularity of the zone-read offense, it's likely many teams will have new ideas on how to defend it. And what about the Redskins' difficult schedule this year, which includes trips to Atlanta, Green Bay and Denver? That could make a 12-4 record a challenging proposition, but there's no mention of that--or their NFC East opponents, or any other team in the league for that matter. It's almost as if the Redskins exist independently of the rest of the NFL in Reid's column, and what other teams do doesn't matter because the Redskins' offense is so overpowering. That, of course, means he also never addresses the nature of the NFL--that teams finish in first place one year and go 6-10 the next year (and vice versa) routinely, and no one really seems to know why.

I will give credit to Reid for at least noting that one of the players he identifies as a key to the Redskins' season, Pierre Garcon, missed a bunch of games due to injury last year and that there are still questions about his health as we enter this season. But considering Garcon is, at the moment, the only true threat the team has at wide receiver, Reid offers no insight or explanation into what the team might do if injuries plague Garcon once again. (Much of the team's winning streak at the end of the year came only after Garcon returned to the lineup.) And as for the biggest question mark facing the Redskins--the defense--Reid spends one paragraph on that, basically saying that Brian Orakpo's return from injury will make the defense better (OK) and that the team's defense was lackluster last year and they still won 10 games because of their offense, so there's no reason they can't win two more this year (really--that's pretty much his argument.)

Jason Reid may be right--the Redskins could win 12 games. But simply asserting that, with no consideration of the challenges that the Redskins might face in getting there, isn't very convincing. It just comes off as hyping the local team, and after watching a much-hyped Nationals season fall apart, and a much-hyped hockey team continually collapse in the playoffs, do we really need more of that from the Post?

*In response to my earlier article on premature excitement for the local teams, Jason Reid tweeted me that he thought I had "misrepresented" his Wizards column by describing it as "the Wizards will make the playoffs just because they drafted Otto Porter." After reading his column again, I think he does have a point--"just because they drafted Otto Porter" may be overstating his position. So I've changed the original blog post to read "Jason Reid declared that the Wizards would make the playoffs next season now that they've drafted Otto Porter."

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Washington Post Sports Watch: Stuff I liked, and a couple updates

If I'm going to spend so much time criticizing, it's only fair that I go through some of the stuff I liked over the past week or so in the Washington Post sports section. So let me run down some links:

Really enjoyed this profile of Jordan Zimmermann, going back to his hometown in Auburndale, Wisconsin--gave me a sense of what kind of guy he is and how different life in Washington, D.C. must be from his hometown.

Mike Wise's column on two Ryans was very good.

This piece on when Washington might get an All-Star Game was interesting, most of all for the Mark Lerner quote in which he complains about the pace of development around the park: It’s not a pretty sight when you walk out the door and see holes in the ground and the thing they have next door — the Bullpen, or whatever they call it." Hey Mark, you and your dad made hundreds of millions of dollars building buildings for a living--if you don't like the pace of development, you can probably buy some land and change that. (To be fair, they do apparently have one building under construction down in the area.)

Dan Steinberg's post on Mark Lerner's sales pitch to Osceola County on a new spring training site was very interesting, not just because of Lerner's grandiose predictions of "greatness" for the team but because of his stretching of the truth in a few places--from saying the Nats were last in the league when his family purchased the team (they weren't good, but they weren't last in the league)  to calling the team's current farm system "one of the deepest" in the game (unless you consider 13th in the Baseball America rankings "one of the deepest.")

Was very happy to see this post Tuesday morning on Nationals Journal answering the question every Nats fans was asking: Will firing the hitting coach really matter? The answer: Probably not.

And nice to see Tom Boswell continuing to get tough on the Nationals, this time starting to criticize the team's front office--comparing the Nats' firing of the hitting coach to the Redskins' annual cutting of the field goal kicker was a nice analogy (although for the first time in a decade, the Redskins cutting their field goal kicker in the middle of the season last year actually worked, so who knows...) I'm not sure I totally buy Boz's contention that the team's reputation in baseball went down because of the firing of Rick Eckstein (it's not like team don't fire hitting and pitching coaches to jumpstart their teams all the time), but I also didn't buy that the Nats became more attractive to other players because they shut down Strasburg, as Boz also claims, so that's a wash. Still, it was an interesting column.

Finally, a couple updates. My first "Washington Post Sports Watch" made fun of Tom Boswell for dreaming that the Nationals would score 32 runs in their next four games and rocket up the runs per game chart in Major League Baseball. Somewhat amazingly, the Nats have played 12 games since then and still haven't gotten to 32 runs--after last night's game they're at 30.

And I'm still waiting, Washington Post Sports section, for that article about what the refinancing of Ted Leonsis' loan on the Caps means for the team. I hope that wait isn't indefinite....

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Washington Post Sports Watch: What's Tom Boswell Leaving Out?

I thought Tom Boswell's column Monday morning on the state of the Nats was generally pretty good. Finally, for pretty much the first time all season, he didn't make excuses for the team or try to come up with explanations for why the team was just bound to turn it around any day now. Instead, he basically said, "Look, this team isn't very good right now, and they haven't really provided any reason this season to think they're going to get any better." But there was one thing that was missing.

Boz, as he has a few times over the last year or two, noted that the team that's now on the field for the Nats is essentially the team that the Nats will field for at least the next two years after this one, and, for the most part, the two years after that--since every major player on the team, other than Adam LaRoche, is either under contract, or under team control, until at least 2017. And his criticism of the team is premised on the idea that the Nats are a very talented team that is underperforming offensively. But the issue he's never even explored, even though he's seemingly written an average of three columns a week on the Nats since February, is this one: What if this team, at least offensively, just isn't as good as everyone thought? What if, for whatever reason, this team is less than the sum of its parts? What if the second half of last year was the aberration, and the team's offensive production this year is more or less normal for this group?

I'm not the first one to broach this general idea--Chris Needham blogged on Monday that the Nats' starters are all, more or less, performing in line with their career norms, and Harper Gordek had a post  in the same vein as well. Boz doesn't really disagree with that--he just thinks that at some point these hitters are going to become an offensive juggernaut. In n a column last month, Boswell wrote that with so many solid hitters, the Nats were bound to start scoring runs in bunches, and then in Monday's chat, reiterated the theme of that column:

FWIW, Davey is totally mystified by the "ability" of the offense not to score. It's like a reverse "gift." Last year, through 71 games, they scored ~3.7 runs-a-game (same as this year, so far). After that, in '12, the Nats scored OVER 5.0, which would be No. 2 in baseball this year behind Boston. Will that happen again? Or even some milder version?

Yesterday's Nats lineup had seven hitters (ex-Span) who have an average OPS this year of .808 -- all fall between .750 and .879. No outliers or abnormal seasons, though plenty of games lost to injury. The average CAREER OPS of those seven is .798 -- all fall between .749 (Desmond) and .835. If you normalized Desmond, it would probably be ~.808. The NL's OPS is only .707! Span doesn't even distort this metric -- .670 this year, .736 career. Even if the Nats pitchers hit very little, even if the bench stinks, it should not be possible for a lineup with such component parts -- seven ~.800 OPS players and a .670 hitter -- to be 29th out of 30 in scoring.

But it is happening. Earl would say it can't continue. We'll see. 
But Boz is only comparing this year and last year's run production. What about 2011? Sure, that team wasn't as good as the 2012 team and didn't enter the season with the expectations of this team. But when you look back at their lineup, it really wasn't all that different than the team's current lineup. Ramos was at catcher back then, Desmond as SS, Zimmerman at 3B and Werth in RF. Some are having better years in 2013 than 2011, some worse, but they're the same guys. At 2B you had 2011 Espinosa, having, of course, a much better season than the 2013 version of Espinosa, but now with Rendon in that spot, there's not much difference between the two as far as Boz's favored state of OPS (Espi was at .737 that year, Rendon is now at .762). In center field, Span has a .670 OPS, while Rick Ankiel, who played the most games in that postion that year, had a .657 OPS--so basically a wash. Over at first base, there was Michael Morse's .910 OPS in 2011, a big improvement compared to Adam LaRoche's .750 OPS this year. On the other hand, Bryce Harper has an .879 OPS, considerably higher than Laynce Nix's .750 in that position. So how many runs did that 2011 lineup, with a lot of similarities to that 2013 lineup, score per game? Just 3.88 runs.

Sure, there are injuries one could factor in, but injuries are a factor for every team every year. The fact is by just looking at the small sample size of 2012 and 2013, and leaving out 2011 entirely, Boz is giving us a misleading picture. When you put it all together, this team has averaged less than 4 runs per game for about two full seasons (around 330 games) and had a little over half a year (about 90 games, according to Boz) where it averaged 5.5 runs per game. Isn't is possible--even probable--that the fluke may have been the second half of last year, that for whatever reason (bench playing out of its mind, Morse's bat in left field supplementing everyone else, a magic potion Mike Rizzo discovered) this team overperformed in the second half of 2012 and has returned to something approximating its true offensive level? When looking at the numbers, that seems a more likely outcome than the one that Boz keeps waiting for.

Which brings me back to something I wrote last week about the premature excitement and lack of perspective on the local teams that the Post and the local media often gives us here in D.C. As I wrote then,
It not only creates unrealistic expectations among fans, but also ends up unneccessaily venerating the general managers and coaches of these teams--because fans are basically being told that the personnel on those teams are so good all the time that it must be the players messing up or not trying hard enough if the team is bad (and not the fact that the players acquired for the team just may not be good enough.)
Is that what has happened here? Instead of just saying the players are all slumping, should the top baseball columnist at the Post be looking more closely at the construction of this team and its architect? Or are we going to treat them like the Caps have been treated by the local media the last few years--blaming the players but never really looking seriously at whether the architect has built a sturdy foundation?

Friday, July 19, 2013

Washington Post Watch: What's the deal with Ted Leonsis?

There's a really interesting tidbit of news buried in Friday's Washington Post Sports section. It's only two paragraphs, at the bottom of page 2 in the digest section, but it raises some questions that I hope the Post will answer in a subsequent, more detailed piece. The two-paragraph brief (in the second section of the digest, under hockey) notes that the Washington Capitals ownership recently refinanced the team's debt. Here it is, in full:

Washington Capitals ownership recently refinanced the team’s debt with a $100 million loan led by Citigroup, according to people close to the team who requested anonymity because the organization’s policy is not to comment on finances. The move was in response to the maturation of another loan, which was used to help finance the 2010 purchase of the Washington Wizards and the portion of the Verizon Center that Ted Leonsis and his investment group did not own.
Forbes, which reported the refinancing, values the Capitals at $250 million, three times what Leonsis paid for the team in 1999. Leonsis owns the teams and building through Monumental Sports and Entertainment, a holding company that includes several local investors. One person with knowledge of the situation said the loan was oversubscribed, and that the proceeds will be reinvested in the holding company. 
This piece raises all sorts of questions that aren't answered, and that I imagine most Caps fans are wondering about. First, what does it mean for a team to take on more debt? Is that good for the team--giving it more money to work with--or bad? Second, Ted Leonsis has repeatedly said, as recently as early this year when the lockout ended, that he has never made a "penny of profit" from the Caps, and that the team, even selling out every game for the last four years, is still losing money. But not only was Leonsis able to refinance the loan on the Caps, but the loan was "oversubscribed," which means, according to the original Forbes piece, that more people wanted to buy the debt than there was debt available. Why exactly are so many people eager to get a piece of a loan on a business that allegedly doesn't generate a "penny of profit"? Is Ted not telling the truth, or is the fact that the Caps lose money every year irrelevant--considering that, according to Forbes, the value of the team has tripled in the last 14 years?

This brings up other questions about Leonsis and his ownership of the Caps and Wizards that the Post has either mostly ignored or, in the case of a story the Post actually broke, not done nearly the kind of follow-up reporting and analysis one would hope a top sports section would provide. There was Leonsis' involvement on the owners' negotiating committee during the NHL lockout last year. He was widely portrayed in the hockey media as somewhat of a hardliner on the lockout, but the Post wrote nothing about this until the lockout was over--when it merely quoted Leonsis as saying that he really didn't do much and he just wanted a good deal. Then there's the report that Leonsis and the Caps "failed to declare hockey related revenue." Once again, the first time the Post reported on this was Leonsis' denial that it happened after the lockout ended, and that was it. Was Leonsis telling the truth? Steve Whyo of the Washington Times did some investigating, and found out that actually, Leonsis' claim that the players union gave the thumbs up on the Caps' books was a lot more complicated than the Caps' owner had claimed. But the Post did no followup.

Finally, there's the odd and unfortunate incident earlier this year, when Leonsis claimed the Wizards' 1978 championship trophy was found in a closet when he took over the team--which turned out to be a story Leonsis apparently made up (apparently for the main purpose of making himself look good and former owner Abe Pollin, who died four years ago, look bad.) To its credit, after printing Leonsis' original story (even though anyone who had been to the Verizon Center and walked around a little bit had seen the trophy displayed there for years before Leonsis took over the Wizards), it then printed the story correcting the record. And then that was it. No further attempts to find out why Leonsis would make up such a story, and, even more surprising, none of the Post's columnists wrote anything about the matter--even just to ask questions about why a rich, successful owner of two local sports teams would invent a story that makes the guy he bought the teams from--a man who may not have been the greatest sports owner ever, but is widely agreed to be one of the most important and generous philanthropists in the history of the Washington D.C. area--look like someone who didn't care about his teams' greatest accomplishment.

For years, the Post used to have a full-time sports business reporter. A few years ago, when the Post, like most newspaper, had to cut back their staffs because of financial difficulties, they lost that beat at the sports section--the reporter who wrote the two paragraphs on the team's refinancing, Thomas Heath, used to have that sports beat but now is a full-time business reporter who occasionally does a foray into the Sports section if a big sports business story occurs. But Ted Leonsis is, after Dan Snyder, the second most important non-athlete on the Washington, D.C. sports scene.  The Post has done a pretty good job covering Dan Snyder. Isn't it reasonable to expect the Post to bring some real reporting and scrutiny to Ted Leonsis--whether what he's telling the public is true, and if it isn't, why not?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Washington Post Sports Watch: They sent two writers to Europe and none to the Stanley Cup Finals?

The primary reason I started writing "Washington Post Sports Watch" was because of what I think are deficiencies in the way the Washington Post cover the Washington Capitals and the NHL in general. Actually, the Washington Post doesn't really cover the NHL--they cover the Caps, put any other NHL news in a paragraph in the Digest section and run wire stories on the playoffs after the Caps are eliminated. Other than a Game 7 during one or two of the Detroit-Pittsburgh Stanley Cup Finals series in 2008 or 2009 that Tarik El-Bashir covered, I'm pretty sure the Washington Post hasn't sent a writer to cover the Stanley Cup Finals in at least a decade (they sure haven't done it in the last four years.) Meanwhile, the Post covers the playoffs in MLB and the NBA much more extensively--and even golf and tennis.

When it came to the baseball playoffs this past year, the Post sent staff writers to both of the League Championship Series and then the World Series, with Tom Boswell also writing columns from Detroit and San Francisco during the Fall Classic. As for the pro basketball playoffs, Michael Lee covered at least one game of the Pacers-Knicks second round series, some of the Heat-Pacers semifinal series and all of the finals--while Mike Wise joined in at the end of the Heat-Pacers series for a couple columns after games 6 and 7 and wrote columns after games 1-5, before Jason Reid took up the slack for games 6 and 7 in Miami (and Wise still wrote two more columns about the NBA finals after he returned home.)

As for the Stanley Cup Finals? No staff writer covering the games on site, no columnist, nothing but wire service articles, other than this Katie Carrera piece analyzing what the Bruins and Blackhawks have that the Caps don't--a piece I was happy to see--but pales in comparison to the dozens of staff-written articles and columns on the playoffs in the other two sports.

(I'm leaving aside the NFL because it's far more popular than any other sport, and thus I can't in any way argue with the Post choosing to send staff writers and/or columnists to any and every NFL playoff game, as well as multiple writers to the Super Bowl.)

Now I'm not going to argue that the Stanley Cup Finals are as popular to the mass audience as the World Series or NBA Finals. But do those other two sports' playoffs--particularly in the city where the Caps are without question more popular than the Wizards and until the Nats started winning last year more popular than the baseball team--really warrant THAT much more coverage? No, according to a poll the Washington Post conducted less than two years ago. When it asked local sports fans which sports they cared about, 37 percent said the NBA and MLB and 31 percent said they cared about the NHL. So a six percent difference in interest is the difference between no staff coverage and a staff writer and a columnist?

What really got me mad, though, was when I saw that Barry Svrluga was in Scotland this week. Not that I have anything against Barry Svrluga (he's a great writer and should be a columnist for the sports section), but because the same Post editors who couldn't send a reporter to Boston to cover Game 6 of a great Stanley Cup Final sent him all the way to Scotland for a week to cover the British Open--just a couple weeks after they sent Liz Clarke to Wimbledon for a week. Why are these events deemed worthy of coverage while the Stanley Cup Finals aren't? I really have no idea, and it doesn't really make much sense.

Post editors have said in the past that television ratings are one metric for how they decide whether to cover a particular event. If that's the case, then there's not much defense for covering Wimbledon at the expense of the Stanley Cup Finals. This year's hockey championship garnered a 3.3 average rating for its six games, while the Wimbledon men's final this year had almost half that at 1.7. (The women's final was even lower at a 1.3). But I know what you're saying--you're saying weren't the 2013 Stanley Cup Finals the highest-rated in years? Yep, they were, so let's look at the 2012 ratings--they were the lowest ratings a final had received in five years, but at 1.8, they were still higher than the men's Wimbledon final this year. In fact, the better number to use for SCF ratings is the four years from 2008-2011, when the finals all rated between a 2.6 and 2.9--which was still better in every year than the 2.5 that the Federer-Murray final received in 2012.

As for the British Open, last year it earned a 3.6, the year before a 2.3--certainly not much different than hockey, and a much farther and more expensive plane trip for a reporter.

So, you might ask, why do I care so much? Do I really think that the Post is going to provide me with insight on the SCF that I can't find elsewhere? No, probably not. But by basically ignoring the league whenever the Caps aren't playing, it's almost as if the Caps, to Post readers, play in some kind of odd vacuum. Readers are rarely given any perspective on how the Caps compare to other, more successful teams in the league because they never hear about the other teams in the league unless they're playing the Caps. (The Carrera piece linked above was a nice start, but the piece didn't even mention things like talent and personnel differences between the Finals teams and the Caps and failed to even contain the name of the team's general manager.) It is one example of the lack of media pressure on the Caps in this town to get better--outside of the day after they lose in the playoffs every year--and, I believe, plays a small part in the fact that the Caps over the past five years seem to always fall short. Even if you don't believe that, though, it's still a coverage decision that doesn't make any sense when you look at the numbers.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Washington Post Sports Watch: Can We Keep Things in Perspective?

One of my major issues with the Washington Post sports section, and the Washington sports media in general, is its tendency to overhype the quality of local teams--a premature excitement  or optimism about teams before they've accomplished much at all. I thought of this a couple weeks ago when Jason Reid declared that the Wizards would make the playoffs next season now that they've drafted Otto Porter.  It was prevalent last fall, when Tom Boswell was not just celebrating the Nats' division title, but comparing the Nationals to the Jeter Yankees and the 90s Braves as a juggernaut in the making. (By the way, that's a link to an excerpt of the early print edition column--for some reason, perhaps because Boz thought better of those comparisons late that night, that was changed in the final edition that ended up on the website.) And, of course, there's no team in Washington that gets as much hype as the Redskins, even in years where they're starting Rex Grossman or John Beck at quarterback.

This year, the Redskins, as the NFC East champions last year and with one of the most exciting players in the league leading them, will certainly be deserving of more hype than they have in years. But they certainly have a lot of question marks, from the health of RGIII to the fact that they had a difficult time fixing some of the team's weaknesses in the offseason because of salary cap restraints. That's why I was kind of surprised to see this headline on the Post's Insider blog about the Redskins the other day: In what scenario would the Redskins not win the NFC East?  The article notes that some in New York and Dallas are picking their teams, instead of the Skins, to win the division this season, and then notes with some surprise--it actually uses the word "strange"--that oddsmakers are making the Redskins the second or third choice as NFC East champs. Finally, it asks:

Can you foresee a scenario where Griffin is 100% and uninjured, and one of the other division teams was the favorite? All things being equal, healthwise, could you foresee another division team outplaying these Redskins?
In what scenarios — and of course, the NFL never ceases to amaze with its ability to remain unpredictable — could you foresee the Redskins not repeating as NFC East champions?
In what scenarios could I see the Redskins not repeating as NFC East champions. Gee, the Giants finished one game behind the Redskins last year, won the Super Bowl the year before and still has much of the nucleus of that Super Bowl team--is it really hard to foresee them winning the division? The Cowboys were one drive in the fourth quarter away from tying the Redskins for the division last season--and while I'm not putting my money on it, it's not out of the question that Tony Romo finally puts it all together this year. (OK, maybe that is unrealistic.) And in a league where 4-12 teams one year routinely make the playoffs the next year, would it really be incredibly shocking to see the Eagles, with a new coach, win ten games next year? Yet this article is written from the perspective of Larry Michael, as if anyone who believes the Redskins might not win the division is biased towards one of the other NFC East teams. I thought this was the Washington Post, not

Is this article in the middle of July that big a deal? Probably not. But I would argue that this premature excitement and lack of perspective on the local teams by the city's top newspaper isn't good for D.C. sports teams in the long run. It not only creates unrealistic expectations among fans, but also ends up unneccessaily venerating the general managers and coaches of these teams--because fans are basically being told that the personnel on those teams are so good all the time that it must be the players messing up or not trying hard enough if the team is bad (and not the fact that the players acquired for the team just may not be good enough.) The best example of this is the Nationals, where Mike Rizzo made a couple smart moves (Gio Gonzalez and Wilson Ramos trades), had some draft picks made before he was GM develop, and had a couple free agent signings have good years (LaRoche with his best season in years, Werth playing well enough when he was healthy to make people temporarily forget that his contract is a nightmare). The smartest moves he made, of course, were having a team so bad two years in a row that they were able to draft Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. Considering most of his moves this year haven't really worked out, perhaps the proclamations in D.C. last fall that Rizzo was a genius who had built a team that would win division titles for the next decade was a tad premature--maybe he'd just built a good team that had one great regular season and had enough good young players that, with the right future moves and lots of things going right, could do it again in future years. Maybe everyone should calm down about the Redskins, too--just because a team wins seven in a row at the end of one year doesn't mean they're going to cruise through the next season. If we haven't learned that yet in Washington over the last 20 years, we really should.

Washington Post Sports Watch: Some stuff I liked, and a couple complaints

I don't just want to criticize the Post all the time, so today, I'll give you some stuff I liked in the Post sports section over the last few days.

I thought this post by Adam Kilgore on whether the Nationals should trade for a starter was pretty interesting because it put the Nats' current deficit in perspective--that if the Braves continue on their current pace, the Nats have to play really well to catch them.

James Wagner's piece on speeding up the pace of play in baseball was good (he even got a quote from former National Gary Majewski!), and found Adam LaRoche's quote about how he doesn't understand why people would care (because if you paid to see the game, you want it to last as long as possible, apparently) a good illustration of how tough it may be to change anything.

Dan Steinberg's reporting on that Redskins survey was great, but his two best posts this week were this piece on Redskins fan Mark Lindamood being buried in his RGIII jersey (have some Kleenex nearby) and this one on Kornheiser, Wilbon, the Washington Kastles tennis team and Mark Ein (because it's really funny, and anything that makes fun of Wilbon is always worth reading.)

And I was glad to see this lengthy article on Capitals prospect Riley Barber because we get too little coverage of Caps' prospects of any sort (aside from during training camp, when one might make the team). Would have liked to have seen a little more information on his specific unique skills as a player and how soon exactly the Caps expect him to contend for an NHL spot, but those are relatively minor squibbles.

(And outside of the sports page, this story on the "Governor" of D.C., Jeff Thompson, was superb reporting on the rise and downfall of a key player in the city that hardly anyone had ever heard of until last year. Among the great details--how on primary night, 2010, Thompson went to Adrian Fenty's party, then, when he realized Fenty was going to lose, left and went to Vince Gray's party--who he was secretly supporting financially even as he was publicly backing the incumbent.)

And speaking of the Caps, one of the most important players on the Caps signed a new contract as a free agent this week, and the print edition of the Post sports section tried its best to hide it. The signing of Karl Alzner to a four-year deal got four sentences in the Digest section at the bottom of page 2. Really, guys? When Martell Webster signed a new contract with the Wizards a week earlier, that got a full article and front page treatment in the Post--and I can't imagine Martell Webster is any more important to the Wizards than Alzner is to the Caps. And I'd understand if there was just too much news that they couldn't fit an actual full article into the section, but that just wasn't the case--the article on the front page about Bradley Beal and Otto Porter had not one, not two, but three photos accompanying it--two of them very large.

Finally, why exactly was there a front-page article on Sunday on Andy Roddick becoming a television commentator on the new Fox Sports One channel? I think the fact that the new Fox channel is going to apparently try to challenge ESPN more directly than anyone else has so far is an interesting story, but why the Andy Roddick angle? Was it just to anger me more about the fact that the Post sent a reporter all the way to London to cover Wimbledon, but couldn't send anyone to Boston or Chicago to cover the Stanley Cup Finals?

Friday, July 12, 2013

Washington Post Sports Watch: Trying to Take Tracee Hamilton's Column Seriously

I've always thought a good sports columnist should do one of two things in their columns. He or she should take a side on some particular pressing issue or debate in the sports world (anything from who should be the starting quarterback to whether colleges should pay their players), and make a good argument for his or her position.  If he or she is a really good columnist, he or she will utilize facts you haven't heard before or make you look at the issue in a new way. The other thing a good columnist can do is teach you something you didn't know--whether it's through an interview with a player or coach that gives you insight into a team or athlete, original reporting on a team, player or issue, or analyzing games or statistics to figure out, say, why a baseball team's offense may be struggling.

Perhaps the biggest fault of the Washington Post sports section is that while some of the section's columnists do those things quite well (even if they often may be too optimistic in their analysis) others, to put it simply, don't. An example of the latter is Tracee Hamilton's column entitled, "Bryce Harper Text Still Being Taken Seriously? ROFL" Not only does this column not teach me (or anyone) something they didn't know, but Hamilton constructs a strawman in order to write about an issue that doesn't even really exist.

First, Hamilton says that Bryce Harper "may end up in New York when his contract is up in 2015." That's just wrong. While Harper's contract is up in 2015, he's under the Nationals' control through the 2018 season, so Bryce Harper isn't going to any other team as a free agent for at least five years. (And considering a number of people made this same point in the comment section underneath the article on Thursday afternoon, when it was first posted, I'm kind of shocked that the error still remains on Friday and made it into Friday's print edition.) She also states that "Washington Nationals fans have been terrified they will lose Harper since the day he signed his five-year deal." Terrified? Really? Sure, there's many Nationals fans I've never talked to, but I haven't heard anyone worrying about this. Who are these people? Has she talked to actual fans who have expressed this sentiment in her chat? Do commenters on the Washington Post website, or fans who write blogs, worry about these things? If they do, could she at least cite something to back up that questionable statement?

All this is leading up to the main thrust of the column, which is that it's silly that "some people" are "taking seriously" the "play me or trade me" text message that Bryce Harper sent Davey Johnson last Friday night after Johnson told Harper he'd be getting the rest of the weekend off. It's true, there was a big kerfuffle about this over the weekend, but this column was written on Thursday, days after everyone had stopped talking about this and started worrying again, after a weekend respite, about how weak the Nationals offense is. Once again, who are these phantom "some people" that are taking this so "seriously"? Sure, when the story came out, some people, like I did, said, "Wow, I guess he really wants to play," and didn't really think Harper was asking for a trade. There might have been a few people on Twitter who were a little more alarmist and literal (because, hey, that's what Twitter is all about) and then the media explained it was all kind of a joke (even though Harper was serious about wanting to play on Saturday) and we all moved on. Except for Tracee Hamilton, I guess.

The oddest part of the column was this sentence: "Amazingly, Harper had to clarify his remarks twice, first to say he was serious about wanting to play, and then again to explain to the very slow that while he was serious about wanting to play, he was not serious about the “trade me” demand." Hamilton doesn't seem to realize that this isn't an indictment of the fans, who weren't in the locker room asking questions, but her fellow members of the media, who apparently were the ones who were so "slow" in recognizing it was a joke.

Anyway, Hamilton goes on in the column to make such non-illuminating points as "if Bryce Harper really wanted to be traded, he'd text Mike Rizzo" and "Davey Johnson is a really smart manager because halfway into the season, he moved Ian Desmond into the second sport in the batting order and he had a couple good games after that." The funny thing is that the whole Johnson-Harper text issue did actually raise some interesting points that would have been worth exploring--such as why Davey Johnson, widely seen as one of the better managers of the last 30 years, seems to making some odd and questionable decisions this year (from some of his lineup and bullpen moves, to announcing you're going to bench your best player for two games less than a week after he returned from a month off because of an injury.) Or one could wonder about the precedent set when a manager makes a decision to bench a player, and then changes his mind after a player complains--is every regular now going to do the same thing? Or how about remembering back less than two years ago, when then Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau didn't put Alex Ovechkin on the ice late in the game because he felt he wasn't playing well  -- and Ovechkin got mad and appeared to mutter some curse words about it on the bench. Ovechkin was roasted in the local media for that, and that incident was cited when Boudreau was fired a few weeks later, even though the reasons for BB's firing were much more complicated and long-running. It would have made for an interesting comparison. (For the record, I like my superstars to want to play, and get mad when their coach benches them--even if their coach has good reasons for it.)

But no, Hamilton just spent her column bemoaning that everyone was taking seriously a trade request that hardly anyone was taking seriously--which makes her column one that I'm pretty sure most readers didn't take seriously.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Washington Post Sports Watch: John Lannan, Dan Haren and Asking Questions

Sometimes, it's not about the stories you write, but about the stories you don't write.

Watching the Nationals-Phillies game Monday night, I'm sure I wasn't the only Nats fan who thought the biggest story of the game was John Lannan. I remembered his first game in the majors, a weekday afternoon game in Philly (it was kind of the 2007 version of Strasmas) in which he was tossed from the game for allegedly throwing at Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. I remember how he was the best pitcher for at least a couple years on some terrible Nats teams. I remember last year, when the Nats decided they had five better starting pitchers and sent him down to the minors for most of the year, before he returned later in the year as the fifth starter when Stephen Strasburg was shut down. And now, here he was, for the second time in less than a month, shutting down the Nats and beating the guy who basically replaced him this year, Dan Haren. In June, he pitched five innings, gave up two runs, and was in line for the win until his bullpen blew the lead (although the Phillies came back to win). And on Monday night, he shut out the Nats for eight innings. Meanwhile,  Haren, was taking his 10th loss of the season, but did lower his ERA on the year to a slim 6.00.

Adam Kilgore's game story did mention Lannan's performance in a few sentences, but focused mostly on Haren's troubles, since it was his first game back since a DL stint, which was fine. But with two full-time beat writers covering the Nats this season--as well as Tom Boswell, who writes so many columns about the Nats, he's like a third--I thought somebody would address the elephant in the room. How and why is it that the Nats went out and signed Dan Haren (when he had a lackluster season last year and some were raising questions about whether he was still a quality pitcher), when they had a perfectly adequate fifth starter in John Lannan who they let become a free agent last year and let go without getting anything in return? How does Mike Rizzo feel about that--is he a little embarrassed? How about Davey Johnson? How about the Nats players--are they happy for Lannan? Are they surprised that a pitcher the team let go could dominate them like he did the other night? (Actually, that's a silly question--the Nats shouldn't be surprised at this point of the season by any pitcher dominating them?) Most of all, how about some analysis--sure we're using some hindsight, but is this the biggest blunder of the offseason for the Nats? (Unfortunately, there's some competition for the title.) Nope, we didn't get any of this from any of the Nats beat writers or Boswell (or Mike Wise, who wrote a column on a totally separate pitching issue--maybe I'll get to that tomorrow). All we got was a "Meet Scott Hairston" piece and more on Haren's return.

John Lannan is never going to win a Cy Young. He doesn't strike out many people. And he's not going to be any team's ace unless that team has a pretty poor pitching staff. But since returning from the disabled list last month, he's got a 3.66 ERA in five starts. I can't be the only one who said, "So why did the Nats get rid of him again?" Weren't the baseball writers and editors at the Post asking that question, too? And if not, how could they miss such an obvious story?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Washington Post Sports Watch: Feinstein, Ovechkin and Kuznetsov

John Feinstein's column entitled "Capitals aren't good enough, but it's not the right summer to make a splash," which appeared in last Thursday's Washington Post, provided lots of material that bothered, frustrated and even angered me. But first, because I've often been critical of the Post columnists for basically ignoring the Caps, I do want to offer some praise to Feinstein and the Post sports section for actually writing a column in the offseason about the Caps. Last year, the Caps got rid of Alex Semin and traded for Mike Ribiero, and no Post columnist ever commented on it (Feinstein and Tracee Hamilton did write about Adam Oates being hired, but never mentioned anything about having the team's second-leading goal scorer depart the team in the offseason.) And I was glad that Feinstein actually said that the Caps right now aren't good enough to win the Stanley Cup, which I think almost all Caps fans would agree with but is something that the media (and for that matter, Caps management) seems reluctant to admit. So I'll give credit where credit is due. Now, about that column...

I could complain about Feinstein's surprising conclusion that the Caps will be able to acquire a key piece for a Cup run (a "big-time scorer") by trading their (overpaid) backup goalie Michal Neuvirth--who has been unable to win the starting job for the last two years and didn't exactly make much of a mark when he was the Caps playoff goalie in 2011--and some of their "good young players" (surprising because the Caps have very few "good young players" available to trade that might be valued by other teams.). But I suppose some dumb team could make such a trade if they were desperate for a goaltender--even if Feinstein sounds a lot like some of the more delusional Caps fans proposing trades on message boards and comments sections of Caps blogs.

No, let's take on two other statements of fact Feinstein makes. First, he writes:

The man expected to replace Ribeiro won’t be here until March. That’s 22-year-old Evgeny Kuznetsov, the Caps’ first-round pick three years ago. The Caps would like to have him here for training camp but he has a $3 million buyout with the team he plays for in Russia and, by rule, the Caps can’t help him pay that off. He will be in Washington as soon as his season ends in March, and McPhee believes he will give them another quality player — with some speed — up front. 
But the problem here is that while the regular season of the KHL, the Russian league where Kuznetsov is playing, ends in early March, the league's playoffs don't finish up until the end of April, and last season, Kuznetsov's team made the finals. So it's certainly possible that Kuznetsov might not even arrive in the U.S. until after the NHL playoffs begin--and considering the Caps are in a much tougher division in the upcoming season, they might not even have qualified for the postseason without Kuznetsov. Even if Kuznetsov, though, does arrive in mid-March, do we really expect a guy who has never played in the NHL to all of a sudden fit right in as a second-line center in the league? We spent two months last season talking about how long it was taking the Caps to pick up Adam Oates' "system"--but we expect Kuznetsov to pick it up by himself in a week or two?

The other Feinstein paragraph I want to discuss is the obligatory "Let's Criticize Ovechkin" paragraph that appears in pretty much every column the Post prints about the Caps:

The Caps need a healthy Brooks Laich this coming season, not only because of his on-ice skills but because he is, in many ways, a captain. That’s not a knock on Alex Ovechkin, who wears the ‘C,’ but Ovechkin is never going to be a vocal leader and — even after winning his third MVP last month — remains something of a question mark, at least in terms of being a truly great player in postseason — when it matters most.
There is no doubt that he responded well to Oates as a coach and made the adjustment to right wing very well as the season wore on. But he didn’t score a goal in the last six games of the Rangers series and, if the Caps are ever to play deep into the playoffs, that simply can’t happen.
Remains "something of a question mark" when it comes to being a "truly great player in postseason"? I know this fits into that simple narrative that many--both in D.C. and in the NHL--cling to that when the Caps lose in the playoffs, that it's always primarily Ovechkin's fault. Of course, as the captain of the team and its best player, he certainly deserves some blame for the team's failures in the postseason, and if you want to say that he hasn't particularly distinguished himself in some of the Caps' Game 7 losses over the years, that's fair (although it's not like anyone else on the team did, either.) But to say it's still questionable if Alex Ovechkin can produce like a great player in the playoffs is just ignoring the facts. If you read the Post, you probably wouldn't know that Alex Ovechkin is one of the top playoff scorers in NHL history. He averages 1.05 points per game in the playoffs--that's 24th all time and the 23 guys in front of him includes a lot of players who played at a time when scoring was more plentiful in the league. Among active players in points per game, Ovi is fifth, trailing just Sidney Crosby, Evgeny Malkin, Claude Giroux and Martin St. Louis. Go to goals per game in the playoffs, and it's even more impressive. Ovechkin is first among active players in playoff goals per game with .534 per game, and ninth all time. (Among those he trails: Gretzky, Lemieux, Bossy, and "Rocket" Richard--pretty impressive company.) And all this includes 2012, when Dale Hunter didn't even want to put Ovechkin on the ice some nights.

Yes, Ovi went six consecutive games without scoring in the series against the Rangers this year. Jonathan Toews of the Blackhawks, who won the playoffs MVP in 2010, at one point in the playoffs this year had scored just 1 goal in his last 20 playoff games. Malkin, who won the playoffs MVP in 2009, went scoreless in four games in the Penguins' series against the Bruins this year, as did his teammate, Sidney Crosby. Are those three, all of a sudden, players who can't perform in the playoffs? Of course not. The fact is that unlike a sport like basketball, in hockey offensive superstars only play one-third of the game--and in the playoffs, they're always going to have to play against the other's team's best defensive players. They can rarely singlehandedly lead their team to victory, and thus factors like that superstar's linemates, and the team's scoring depth are extremely important. The fact that Ovi's two linemates and the four players who played on the second line in the playoffs had a combined total of four goals in seven games--that's a pretty big problem., and when focusing on how the Caps can get better, that's where the focus should lie (along with improving the defense, which goes unmentioned in Feinstein's piece.)

To his credit, Feinstein does, throughout most of the column, focus on areas of the team besides Ovechkin. But it's unfortunate that he had to perpetuate a narrative about Ovechkin that really isn't backed by the facts.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Washington Post Sports Watch: Fun with Tom Boswell and Statistics

Welcome to Washington Post Sports Watch, where I track the problems with the Washington Post sports page--whether it is errors of fact, bad analysis, overlooked stories or other issues that affect the Post's sports coverage and, in the long run, hurt Washington sports teams (I'll explain that in a future post). Why focus on the Post? Because it's by far the most powerful and important part of the sports media in D.C.--sports radio stations frequently refer to articles in the Post, its writers and columnists frequently appear on radio and TV shows, and, most of all, anyone who is a D.C. sports fan checks the Post web site or print edition at least once a day, if not many more. I grew up reading the Post section, still read it every day and want it to be good--my goal is, hopefully, in my own small way, to make it better.

I thought about taking on John Feinstein's somewhat ridiculous column about the Caps from last week, but I'll get to that later in the week. Instead let's start with something that offers some of the best and worst local sports analysis every week--Tom Boswell's weekly Monday chat with readers. Boz often will drop news nuggets and provide interesting analysis in this space (in fact, his comments about the Caps offseason and the team's lack of activity were strong and, I think, pretty accurate.) And then he writes something like this:
BTW, Nats could move up in offensive ranking by a LOT very quickly. They were 29th a few days ago in runs-per-game. Just to illustrate how far they have come already, if they score as many runs in the four game series in Philly as they just scored in their last four games (32), they would move up to 4.02 runs-a-game and move up 10 spots in 10 days to 19th overall. And, if they do that, either in Philly or fairly soon, maybe in M iami over the weekend, the teams they'd pass in scoring would include the Dodegrs, Pirates, Phils, Giants, Yankees and Brewers.
This is a great example of Boswell--who I think is often a very good sports columnist--succumbing to his biggest Achilles heel. While he can be critical of the team, he's become such an cheerleader for the Nats that he too often can't see clearly through his optimism. In this case, his rose-colored glasses have led him to come up with a wild scenario that is both unrealistic and not even statistically sound.

Sure, the Nats could score 32 runs in their four-game series with the Phillies. Of course, that would entail averaging eight runs a game for four games--with two of those four games being pitched by Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. Sure, they did that in their previous four games, but that seems wildly optimistic for a team averaging 3.82 runs per game over the season. And now that they've only scored two runs in the first of four games against the Phils, that means they need to average 10 runs in the remaining three games to reach that pace. Does any serious person other than Boz who has watched the Nats play this season think that's likely? (This is a team that has averaged 3.45 runs per game on the road this season.)

But even if they were to reach those remarkable run numbers in the next three games, the Nats don't exist in a vacuum. Boz doesn't have any idea how many runs the teams between the Nats in 26th place and the Padres in 19th place are going to score. What if three or four of them average seven or eight runs a game themselves? The Nats aren't going to pass them. And to top it off, Boz also says that, well, they may not score that many against the Phillies, but if they score that many against the Marlins, they'd still move up to 19th. Well, if they continue their pace of two runs a game against the Phillies, no, they're not--because, then, instead of averaging eight runs a game over four games, then they'll have averaged something a little over four runs a game over seven games--which could move them up the rankings, but certainly not seven places (Actually, to be fair, I don't know what those other teams are going to do--so I suppose if many of them were shut out for seven games straight, the Nats could move up to 19th....)

 Tomorrow, Feinstein on the Caps.