Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Washington Post Sports Watch: Once Again, The Sports Columnists Forget About the Caps

Hey, remember how after the Nationals made the Denard Span trade last November, Tom Boswell had a whole column about what this trade meant to the Nationals lineup and the lineup possibilities for the upcoming season? And remember less than a week later, when the Nats signed Dan Haren, how Boswell wrote another column examining whether these were smart moves and praising the Nats' self-assurance and quick decision-making on these moves? Or maybe you remember how earlier this summer, Jason Reid wrote a whole column after the Wizards made their big move this summer -- drafting Otto Porter -- and how the Wizards roster looked for next season? Well, if you don't remember those columns, surely you must remember the other day, after the Caps made their big offseason move by signing Mikhail Grabovski, the piece by one of the Post's top columnists analyzing how this improved the Caps' lineup for this upcoming season and what it meant for the Caps' Stanley Cup chances....Oh, I'm sorry, of course you wouldn't remember that. As usual, no Post columnist bothered to write that column.

For some reason, the sports columnists at the Washington Post treat the Caps differently than the three other major sports teams in the area. Whenever the Redskins, Nationals, or Wizards make a trade, sign a key free agent, sign their own player to a contract extension, even send someone down to the minors, at least one--if not multiple--columnists write about the move, adding (hopefully) some perspective and analysis and discussing what it means for the team in the future. Not so for the Caps. The failure of any columnist to write anything about the Grabovski move just continues a long tradition. This spring, when the Caps traded one of their top prospects, Filip Forsberg, for Martin Erat--a trade that was pretty controversial among Caps fans--no columnist wrote a word about it. Last summer, when the team acquired Mike Ribiero in a trade and let go one of the most fascinating and frustrating athletes in the city, Alex Semin, the moves went unremarked on by the columnist crew. I could even go back to 2008, when the Caps signed Alex Ovechkin to a 13-year, $124 million contract and not one columnist wrote about it at the time.

And yes, I know that Neil Greenberg wrote a piece about the Grabovski acquisition on Monday. It was an interesting take. It also wasn't by a columnist--it didn't appear in the print edition--and Neil's brand of advanced statistical analysis isn't unique to the Post's Caps coverage. Both Nats Journal and the Redskins Insider blog have stat analytics guys who write regularly there (Harry Pavlidis right now for the Nats and Brian Burke last season for the Skins). That doesn't mean it's not valuable, it's just not what I'm talking about.

Why does this matter? Because a good sports section should be acting as a watchdog over a city's local teams with both reporting and smart analysis that at least puts some pressure on the team to succeed--but with the Caps, serious discussion of the team's flaws and strengths (other than Ovechkin) is rare. It's somewhat amazing how every year, the Post columnists do turn out to slam the Caps after they get eliminated early in the playoffs. This May, for instance, Boswell wrote a column which criticized General Manager George McPhee for building teams that achieve regular season success but aren't built to succeed in the playoffs. It was a fair criticism looking at the team's track record. But when it comes time to actually tracking what the team does to build that roster, Boz is AWOL--that column last May is his only column on the team in the last 15 months. (I actually asked Boz in a chat a couple months ago why he hadn't written a Caps column in so long--his answer, to paraphrase, was basically that he was too busy vacationing and writing columns from spring training on how great the Nats were going to be this year...)

I don't want to give the impression that the Post doesn't have some quality analysis of the Caps. Mike wise had a handful of very good columns last season--both his "Blame Ovechkin, and everybody else" piece in March and his column on the Adam Oates-Ovechkin relationship were excellent--and Barry Svrluga had a few columnesque pieces (called "On Hockey") that were interesting until he disappeared for the last couple months of the season to cover college basketball and the Masters. But as far as serious discussion of the team's offseason, or inseason, roster moves, one has to go to the great Caps blog Japers Rink to find any breakdown of what, for instance, Grabovski's addition means for the Caps' forward lines this year.

Why does this failure by the columnists persist? I don't really know, but it seems to come down to one of two reasons: the columnists don't feel they know enough about the Caps to write intelligently about their roster decisions, lineups, etc. Or they or their editors don't care enough about the Caps to bother writing about those decisions. If it's the first reason, the Caps have been here since 1974--they should know about hockey by now. And I hope it's not the second reason. Whatever the case, though, I do know one thing: they're letting down their readers.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Washington Post Sports Watch: Boswell's Statistics Don't Quite Add Up

Tom Boswell wrote a really interesting column the other day about baseball catchers and the importance of pitch selection, or  "calling the game." Part of the piece talked about how pitch selection is somewhat of a dark art -- no one really talks about what might make one catcher better than another -- and it noted that in many cases, there may not be one "right pitch" to call for, but there is probably is a "wrong pitch." The bottom line of Boswell's column was that Wilson Ramos might be particularly valuable to the Nats because, according to the statistics Boswell cited, he's really good at "calling a game." But as I read the column, one big problem stood out: While Boz's argues that Wilson Ramos could be an elite pitch caller, the statistics he cite don't actually prove that --they merely demonstrate that Ramos is a better pitch caller than Kurt Suzuki.

Boswell uses catcher ERA as his statistic to measure a catcher's proficiency in calling a game, and that's fine. But because catcher ERA is a statistic that is so dependent on the quality of pitchers the catcher is catching, it's virtually impossible to use that statistic to compare a catcher from one team to a catcher on another team. For instance, the catchers on the 2006 Nats could have been the greatest pitch callers in the major leagues -- they still would have had a pretty high catcher ERA because that pitching staff was so lackluster. So when Boswell notes that Ramos has a 3.30 catcher ERA this year, while Kurt Suzuki has a 3.96 ERA, they tell us that Ramos is better behind the plate than Suzuki, but it is meaningless in telling us how either of them stack up with other MLB catchers --  neither of those ERAs can be compared to any other catcher in baseball this year because those other catchers are dealing with completely different pitching staffs. So in order to prove Boswell's point that Ramos is not just better than Suzuki, but could be better than many other catchers in the majors in pitch selection, we have to find other catchers who have worked with the same pitching staffs that Ramos and Suzuki have.

(And by the way, there's a huge caveat with all these numbers -- a pretty small sample size. Wilson Ramos has only caught 71 games in the last two years, less than half a season, and just 46 this year. But that's what we've got, and that's what Boz is using to make his point, so that's what I am going to use as well to poke holes in Boz's argument.)

So let's go back to 2012, when Jesus Flores actually caught more games for the Nats than either Ramos or Suzuki. Flores' catcher ERA was 3.36, Suzuki 3.46 and Ramos a very low 3.07. So based on those numbers, Boz might be right--although considering Ramos caught a very small sample size of just 24 games that year, I wouldn't really use these statistics to prove much of anything. So let's go to Oakland, where Suzuki played the bulk of the year in 2012. Suzuki had a 3.52 catcher ERA in 75 games, while Derek Norris (a former Nats prospect!) had a 3.08 ERA in 60 games. Based on those numbers, Derek Norris might be a really good pitch caller ... or perhaps Suzuki just isn't a good pitch caller. He's now trailed both Ramos and Norris by at least a half run the past two seasons We really don't know.

So let's take a couple more stats Boz provides us--catcher ERA using history catching particular pitchers. Suzuki has a 3.66 ERA in 101 starts catching Gio Gonzalez. Considering Gonzalez has a 3.60 career ERA, that would indicate that Suzuki is a pretty average catcher. But then there's Dan Haren--who has a 5.25 ERA when caught by Suzuki (including a number of starts when Haren was in Oakland and "younger and better," to quote Boz.) and a 3.72 career ERA. That, of course, seems to indicate that Suzuki perhaps is a below average catcher.

I could go on, but you probably get the point. These statistics appear to tell us that Ramos probably is better than Suzuki behind the plate, but it's entirely unclear whether that's because Ramos is above average or Suzuki is below average (or, perhaps, both!) So while Boswell's optimism is nice about Ramos--that he can truly be a difference-maker with pitchers--his evidence he presents for such a contention is, right now, fairly slim.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Washington Post Sports (And Business) Watch: Failing to Ask Leonsis Some Tough Questions

OK, today's post isn't technically about the Washington Post Sports section. But when I opened up Monday's Washington Post Business pages and saw that Post business writer Thomas Heath had spent "the better part of an hour last week"  talking to Washington Capitals and Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, I got excited. And then I read the interview.

The interview, this week's edition of Heath's Monday column, was pegged to the sale of the Post to Jeff Bezos and its similarity to Leonsis buying the Caps and Wizards--they were both tech entrepreneurs who bought a well-known D.C. business from one of the city's best-known families. It had some interesting stuff in it, such as Leonsis saying he has volunteered to help Bezos and the Washington Post going forward because his sports teams and investments "need a healthy, thriving Washington Post," and his statement--not all that surprising having watched Leonsis run the Caps all these years--that Monumental Entertainment is an "e-commerce platform and media company and social media company. Oh, and yes, we also own sports teams." And I was really puzzled that Leonsis said his son, Zach, who is 24 years old, has "never read the physical paper." Either his son didn't read much when he was a kid, or Ted is just exaggerating for dramatic effect.

But what stood out the most to me was what wasn't in the article at all. Thomas Heath, the reporter who writes about local sports business issues when they arise for the sports section, spent "the better part of an hour" with Leonsis and yet apparently never asked him anything about why he refinanced the team's debt, how that affects the Caps and why, despite the claims that he's never made any money on the Caps, the loan was oversubscribed--meaning more people wanted a piece of it than could be accommodated. Sure, this wasn't totally in line with the theme of his column, so it would have been perfectly fine to have written another story or blog post with Leonsis' comments on this matter--but I can't find anything on the Post website about it and haven 't seen it in the paper. I guess I should assume that the question wasn't asked.

Even more glaring in its absence is the other question I brought up when I first broached this subject last month--Leonsis' invention of a story about the Bullets' championship trophy being hidden in a closet when he took over the team, a story whose only purpose was to make him look better and Abe Pollin look bad. I can understand how information on the refinancing of the Caps' loan wasn't directly relevant to Heath's piece, but how can this story not be? Heath specifically notes that the reason that he called Leonsis is because he "has experience in buying legacy family businesses" and then "shaking up the organization." The fact that after the trophy story was printed, Abe Pollin's widow, Irene, reportedly called Leonsis to dispute his story and the two "cleared the air"--that could certainly be an example of a possible pitfall in buying a company owned by one of the "city's leading families," couldn't it? That if you say something that makes the former owners look bad--especially if it's not true and only serves to make you look good--that they're going to be pretty mad and it's going to be written about in the newspaper?

Sure, I understand asking a question about this topic isn't easy. Leonsis may have refused to even address it if it was asked (although you don't know until you ask it.) But I am amazed that this incident wasn't even mentioned in Heath's piece, even to say that Leonsis declined to talk about it. It's directly relevant to the topic of the story! (And Leonsis has never spoken publicly about this incident, only releasing a statement admitting that the trophy story wasn't true to the Post last spring.)

Furthermore, can you imagine Heath calling up Dan Snyder and doing an interview where all he talked about was Snyder's marketing background? Or calling up Ted Lerner just to talk about building shopping centers? Ted Leonsis is much more media-accessible than those two, but that doesn't mean that a Post reporter shouldn't be asking those questions.

I don't think either of these questions are unreasonable or out-of-line. In fact, they're just logical questions a business reporter should want to ask the owner of the Caps and Wizards. For some reason, it seems Heath didn't ask them. Heath's Monday column is called "Value Added." Unfortunately, there was a lot of value that was missing from this one.

(By the way, there is some really good stuff in today's Post sports section, including the Davey Johnson piece.)

Washington Post Sports Watch: What does it mean to be "talented," and stuff I liked!

What have I liked in the Post Sports section lately? Well, as their playoff chances pretty much died this week, it was nice to see Post columnists Tom Boswell and Mike Wise finally give us some honest, clear-eyed views on the Nats and their problems. To be fair, both men have raised some questions about the Nats in earlier columns--Wise had one column in June in which he questioned whether the team as constructed was truly going to contend for years into the future as everyone seems to expect, and Boswell has noted that the Nats had deficiencies in various areas this year--but almost always couched it with the bottom line that they were probably just on the cusp of figuring everything out (You may remember his "Hey, don't worry, the schedule gets easier" piece in late May, or his "the hitting has been so bad, it's got to get better--just like last year!" column in mid-June).

Last week, both Boswell and Wise pretty much said, "Hey, this team isn't very good right now, and it doesn't look like they're going to get much better in 2013." And most importantly, Wise raised the question that I think any Nationals fan or observer should be asking themselves right now: Is this year the aberration or was last year? Is this a really good team playing poorly this year, or was this a good, but not great, team having a great season last year?

The one question raised by both columns, though,  (other than the fact that the contract extension given to GM Mike Rizzo in the middle of a disasatrous season is barely mentioned) what does it mean  to be "talented." Both columnists talk about how "talented" the Nats are (Boz says at one point that the Nats should stop talking about how talented they are, but still calls them "really very talented."), and there's no question that the team has a number of very good players--from their big three starting pitchers to younger position players such as Bryce Harper, Wilson Ramos and Ian Desmond, to older veterans like Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmermann. But whenever I read that the Nats are "very talented" (similar to when I read and hear the media refer to the Caps as "very talented"), it seems to always come across as another way to say, "This team is good enough to be contending for championships." But just having talent doesn't mean you have enough talent, or the right talent. The Nats may have talent, but after watching the Braves last week, with their deep starting pitching, their really good bullpen and guys like Heyward, Freeman, Justin Upton, Brian McCann, etc., those guys look really talented, too. The Cardinals already have a really talented team, and have a bunch of guys from MLB's number one ranked farm system waiting to get their chance. The Pirates may be the 2013 version of the 2012 Nationals (a team with a lot of young talent that may be playing a bit over their heads this year), but they still have a lot of young talent in the minors that may be getting to the majors in the next year or two (two of the top 15 prospects right now). And the Dodgers are just loaded with talent. So, yes, the Nats are talented, but are they more talented, or even as talented, as any of those four teams? I hope Post columnists will be looking at that issue in the weeks ahead (or at least until everyone gets distracted by the Redskins.)

What else did I like? Here are a few articles:

Glad to see the Post did this article the day after the Redskins' Jarvis Jenkins was suspended for PEDs, trying to figure out why the Redskins have had eight guys suspended for violations of the drug policy in the last couple years:

This blog post by Harry Pavlidis trying to figure out why Dan Haren is suddenly pitching well was interesting, even if it didn't come to any clear answers:

Adam Kilgore and James Wagner are doing really good stuff on the Nats' beat, such as doing a deep dive on why the Nationals offense is so bad ( and, among other articles, examining why Adam LaRoche is shrinking:

And I thought Mike Wise's piece on anti-steroid activist Don Hooten, Sr., was interesting because of Hooten's discussion of Alex Rodiguez--that A-Rod was great at getting through to kids and giving them the right message, even though he was doing the exact opposite in his own life:

And of course, Dan Steinberg on the Twitter fight the other night during the Nats-Braves game:

Tomorrow: I think we need to talk about that Ted Leonsis piece in today's paper.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Washington Post Sports Watch: Mike Rizzo was extended. Did Any of the Columnists Notice?

The Washington Nationals gave Mike Rizzo a contract extension and promotion on Thursday evening about 9 p.m. As I write this, more than three days later, no Post sports columnist has yet written a word about it. Which raises the question: What's the point of having sports columnists if they're not going to weigh in on an important local sports story like this one?

Sure, it wasn't particularly surprising that Rizzo got the contract extension--although making him one of the five highest-paid general managers in baseball was somewhat eye-raising. The team is certainly in better shape now than when he was given the job four years ago (and although one can say that a primary reason they're better is because they were bad enough to draft Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper back-to-back, certainly the Gio Gonzalez and Wilson Ramos trades, among other moves, were key as well.)

But it also was announced at a very strange time--the day after the Nats had been beaten 11-1 and dropped to 11 games back of the division-leading Braves in a season where they picked as World Series favorites, and just a few days after one of the team's top relief pitchers had publicly ripped the team for its treatment of a teammate. Oh, and two players who this time last year were seen as key pieces of the team's next few years--Danny Espinosa and Drew Storen--are now in the minors, while most of Rizzo's moves in the offseason have turned out anywhere from disappointing to awful.

Yes, the Post's preeminent baseball columnist, Tom Boswell, is on vacation. And I know what some of you are now thinking--none of the other columnists know as much about baseball as Boz, so why would we want to hear what they have to say, anyway? Even if that's true, it's beside the point. They are all columnists at a major newspaper in a city with a baseball team--their job is to write with knowledge and perspective about the local sports teams. If they can 't do that, then they shouldn't be sports columnists. And it's not like the other Post columnists haven't written about the Nats this spring and summer--just last week, they faced off over the Storen situation, and Wise, to his credit, identified the Drew Storen issue a couple weeks before Tyler Clippard made it public.

So do the Post columnists just not have anything interesting to say about the Rizzo signing? Or do they just not consider the Rizzo signing an important story? I really don't have an answer to that. But here's a suggestion on a angle they can take if they want to finally get their act together. Buried in Adam Kilgore's Friday follow-up blog post to the Rizzo signing is this:

The Nationals’ underachievement remains baffling to Rizzo. He believed the roster he built was going to continue their success from last season. Even in the face of steady losing, he has not lost that belief. 
“I’m surprised it’s been sputtering,” Rizzo said. “You look at the roster we have out there. You look at the track record of the players that are on the field, in the bullpen, in the rotation, on the bench. You say to yourself, if these guys play up to their career norms, we should have a really good ballclub. For a player to struggle and not have a good season is understandable. It happens. But to have a group of players struggling at the same time and not have the continuity is a little bit puzzling.
Is it a good sign when the GM is "baffled" about why his ballclub is underperforming, especially one who just got a promotion and a contract extension? I don't think so. And that his only explanation, that "a group of players" are struggling, isn't even really true? (Excluding the bench, the only  regular players currently on the team that one could really say are having a bad year are Dan Haren and Adam LaRoche--everyone else is having seasons that are either better, in line or only slightly below their career norms.) Isn't there a column here?

Championship teams aren't just about having players play well. They're also about general managers putting the right talent on the field, and sports columnists should be looking just as critically at their work as they do at the players playing the games. When are the Post sports columnists going to do that?

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Washington Post Sports Watch: Wise, Reid, Storen and the Elephant in the Room

Over the last two days, Mike Wise and Jason Reid  have written dueling columns on the Drew Storen demotion, and what it says about the Nats and Storen. I'm less interested in what the treatment of Storen says about the Nationals and more interested in what these columns say about the Post's coverage of the Nationals and D.C. sports.

Wise's column is just puzzling. He runs down a litany of examples of what he calls poor treatment of individuals in the Nationals organization. Many of the examples he cites, though, were actually pretty smart baseball decisions (letting Riggleman walk in 2011, not wanting to give a 33-year-old Adam LaRoche a three-year contract, not wanting to extend Ian Desmond's contract before seeing more than one year of solid production.) He then absolves General Manager Mike Rizzo of any blame for any of these decisions--because he's "done what was taught to him from above, what's been done to him" and chalks the problems with the team this year to  bad chemistry resulting from the culture that the Lerner family has created. (The "culture" Wise talks about is never explicitly named or described, but it appears to this reader that he's saying they're cheap.)

If Wise believes, via reporting or other means, that this "culture of doing business" created by the owners is a problem for the Nationals, that's fine. But how does Mike Rizzo get none of the blame for it? He put the team together in the first place. Many of his offseason moves have backfired (Haren signing, Span trade, not having a lefty reliever in the bullpen, lack of starting pitching depth going into the season), and he hasn't done a very good job of fixing them during the season. And whatever one thinks of bringing in Rafael Soriano to take Storen's job, it certainly seems obvious now that it could have been handled better on a personal level. But he's blameless because the Nats refused to extend his contract?

(My view: Storen obviously deserved some of the blame for the Game 5 meltdown, but the organization and the media allowed him to essentially become the scapegoat: Davey Johnson's questionable managerial decisions, "ace" Gio Gonzalez' failure to make it past five innings after being giving a six-run lead and the lackluster performance of the rest of the bullpen that night all deserved much more attention than they received in the days after the game, and signing Soriano just exacerbated that. But once Storen knew his new role, it was on him to produce better than  he has, and at this point, sending him to the minors makes sense.)

As for Reid's column, I might argue with some of his smaller points, but, in general, it mostly makes sense. What struck me reading it, though, was that these two Post columnist have engaged in a much more extensive, detailed and robust debate on the merits of the demotion of Drew Storen than it ever did last year when the much bigger issue of the Stephen Strasburg shutdown was being debated by pretty much everyone except sports columnists at the Post. How does that happen? (Back in 2012, Reid didn't even question that decision, saying that anyone criticizing the Nationals was "misguided" because of a conversation he once had with Frank Jobe, while Wise essentially said the Nats had to shut down Strasburg because Scott Boras told them to do so, which seemed ridiculous at the time and even more so now.)

Here's the bottom line: Last week, Tom Boswell argued that the Nats were diminished in the eyes of some around the game because of their firing of Rick Eckstein. This week, Mike Wise is arguing that the Nats look bad to some around baseball because they're treating their employees poorly. But Wise, Boswell and Reid are all likely missing the main thing that baseball people are saying about the Nationals: With the best record in baseball last year, Nationals management shut down their best pitcher three weeks before the playoffs, bragging all the way about how they planned to have many more opportunities to win the World Series. And on August 1 of the following year, they're 11 games out of first place and kind of a mess. It's proof that nothing is guaranteed in sports. Sure, it's not the reason that the Nats are playing so poorly this year--but four months into the season, doesn't it at least deserve a discussion in the pages of the Post that approaches the one that's being held about Drew Storen?