Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Washington Post Sports/Caps Media Watch: Is Anyone Going to Ask McPhee A Tough Question?

Last Thursday, while most local hockey fans had their attention on the epic U.S.-Canada women's gold medal match, Caps General Manager George McPhee held his first press conference in almost three months. You would think that reporters who have gone so long without being able to talk  to the general manager of a disappointing team like the Caps would be bursting with tough questions to ask about some of the team's odd personnel moves in recent months, as well as want to press him on the reasons behind his team's poor showing this year. Well, you'd be wrong. The Caps press corps both failed to ask enough tough and pointed questions about the many issues surrounding this team during the half-hour they had with the GM, while also almost completely ignoring one of the most newsworthy statements McPhee made last week.

Let's start with that newsworthy statement I mentioned. In response to one of the best questions of last week's session --"Is there any regret on making that Erat deal last year?" -- McPhee came really close to saying yes (he certainly didn't say no) and also said something that will trouble a lot of Caps fans for the next week until the trade deadline is here:

"Time will tell. You guys will be the judge of that, I’ll have my own opinions of it, sometimes a trade doesn’t go your way, I’m never going to bat 1.000, but I will always continue to try and help the club that’s on the ice, and if there’s something at the deadline that we think’s going to help this club that’s been battling all year, we’re going to do it--and I will trade picks and young players again to make this team better if that’s what’s necessary."
Two things about this McPhee quote--in particular the part about trading picks and young players--and its treatment by the Caps media bother me. One is that while it strikes me as the most important quote of the press conference, it has barely appeared anywhere. Other than in Sky Kerstein's Twitter feed, and buried a the bottom of a lengthy Chuck Gormley blog post on his Caps' blog on the CSN Washington website, this quote, which both begs for elaboration and goes to the heart of figuring out what this team will do in the next few days, has not been printed or discussed in the Post or any other Caps mainstream media news source.

But perhaps even more disappointing is what happened after this McPhee answer -- the
Caps beat reporters passed up the opportunity for asking any followup questions that would draw the general manager out and make him explain how he sees his team. The next question was "Are you damned if you do and damned if you don't?" (well, of course, GMs are always going to get criticism for the moves they do or don't make--that's part of the job--the question is why is he making the moves he's making), followed by a reasonable question --"Do you have one area that you would pinpoint, try to bolster" at the deadline--that GMGM avoided by saying he didn't want to single one position out because that would be seen as criticism of those players. And then the assembled press corps moved on to discussing when Martin Erat would return from visiting his wife and new child in Nashville.

The logical followup, in my opinion, would be a question asking McPhee how he sees this Capitals team if he's willing to trade young players and draft picks this year. Does he still consider it a Stanley Cup contender that with a move or two has a legitimate shot at a long playoff run, or would he trade a young prospect for a veteran in order to make the playoffs (a move that many observers might see as trying to save his job at the expense of the future of the team)? And if he avoids that question, ask it a different way: "George, from 2009-11, this team was finishing near or at the top of the conference every year and clinching a playoff spot weeks before the end of the regular season, and was considered a legitimate Cup contender. But this will be the third consecutive year that the team has been in the middle of the pack in the conference and will once again likely go to the last week of the season before clinching a playoff spot, if it does so at all. Should we really still consider this team a Stanley Cup contender?"

And then there's perhaps the most puzzling question of the Caps' season: "When this team has struggled in the past couple years, the thought was that if Alex Ovechkin could get back to scoring on a 50-goal pace, the team would be fine. Well, now he's scoring at a 55-goal pace, and yet this team is still struggling. How do you explain that?" These are the kinds of questions that really go to the heart of where this Caps team is and where it may be going--why aren't they being asked?

That's not to say there weren't valuable questions asked during the press conference. (A full list of the questions asked appears at the end of this post.) The simple "How do you evaluate this team?" and "Right now, you're 11th in the conference. Is that a fair assessment of how good this team is?" are good questions that give McPhee a chance to explain himself. But when he comes back with "we can be better than how we played" but that "we're in an excellent conference with a lot of good teams" when in fact they're in a not particularly good conference with a lot of mediocre teams, isn't someone going to call him out on that? When McPhee says that he's happy with the way the Caps played over the last eight games because the "metrics" were good, is anyone going to ask him what "metrics" he is using and why he thinks the last eight games--in which the team was a good but hardly scintillating 5-3-1 against a slate of mostly mediocre or worse teams--are more representative of this team than the first 51?

And then there were the questions that weren't even asked, but were probably of interest to many Caps fans. Here are five I came up with:

  • You were quoted by Joe Micheletti on television a couple weeks ago as saying that your goaltenders had cost you ten points this year. Is that a correct quote, and, if so, can you explain what you meant by that? Do you think goaltending is the major reason this team is underperforming this year? (McPhee did bring up, unprompted, the "soft stretch" the goalies had in response to a question, but didn't get into detail)
  • Nate Schmidt and Michael Latta were both pretty good players up here in the early part of the season. With the recent injuries at both defenseman and center, why were they not brought up to the big club and will they be brought up for the playoff push?
  • Tom Wilson has only been playing a few minutes a night, he's had lots more fights than goals, and his role has basically become the team's enforcer. Do you think that's the proper role for him? FOLLOWUP: When do you foresee him getting a chance to show more of his offensive skills, and does the fact that the three right wings ahead of him on the depth chart are signed through next year make it tough to find a bigger role for him?
  • You've had a lot of changes at the third-line center position this year, and lately Adam has been playing Eric Fehr out of position there. Do you miss Matthieu Perreault, and can you explain why you let him go for such a low return? (Remember, George McPhee, as far as I can tell, has NEVER been asked about anything to do with the Perreault trade, from why he basically gave him way to what was the rationale for the move in the first place. And yes, I know it was likely a salary cap based transaction, but can we at least get him on the record on that?)
  • You've previously said that almost all players benefit from some time to develop in the minors. If that's true, then why is Connor Carrick in the NHL right now? He has shown some offensive skills, but has struggled in his own end. Is it just because this team is really thin on defense, and are you worried you may be impeding his development by rushing him?

I know beat writers have a tough job--they can be on the road a lot, they have to interview players who often say the same unexciting things after every loss, etc. And I know that there's a reason why they ask, for instance, nine different questions about Ovechkin and his father's health situation (including stuff like how well McPhee knew the senior Ovechkin)--because they all knew their editors would want them to write a story about that later that day and they need as much info and color as possible to fill out the story. But I don't think it's too much to ask that when the GM of one of the most disappointing teams in the league--and one that has been in a steady decline for the last three years--speaks to you for the first time since Thanksgiving, he should at least spend that half hour on somewhat of a hot seat. And yet after watching that press conference, it appears McPhee didn't even really need to break a sweat.

Questions asked of George McPhee at the Feb. 20 press conference (this is a rough transcription from the video posted on the Caps website):
Adam said you’d be able to give us an idea on Ovi’s timetable and when he’ll be able to leave Sochi
So he’s in Moscow?
Probably one of those things—that careful balance between family and sports—he didn’t know…
Can you appreciate that … relationship that they have, because they appear to be very close…?
That obviously puts things that have happened in the last day in perspective. ..Given that extra emotional strain, are you worried about him?
He is OK now?
Is that a concern of yours…you probably know [the senior Ovechkin], he’s around a lot, do you feel that on a personal level?
Knowing what was expected of that team and some of the criticisms and nastiness that can come out of that, how do you want Ovi to walk away from this?
You’ve spoken with him directly? How’s he doing when you combine everything that’s going on?
Is it your expectation that Kuznetsov will be a part of this team this season?
Can you clear up what the process is once he finishes [his season]?
How would you evaluate this team?
Are you worried—you guys have a very tough schedule…
Through the first 59 games, what did you see as the biggest shortcomings, areas of concern?
How concerned have you been—you mentioned the soft stretch the goalies had—with the depth you have, the group you have now…
You’ve had so many defensemen come up—do you feel that’s an area that needs to be addressed before the deadline?
I feel like all season how close so many teams are, does that make it less likely to have moves of any real magnitude unless you’re swapping salary?
Does this trade deadline pose a different challenge—two and a half week break and then four or five games before the deadline—you have very little time to see where you are
You are able to discuss [trades with other teams while under the freeze]?
Right now this team is 11th in the conference. Is that a fair assessment of how good this team is?
You would prefer to not live on the edge?
What have you thought of Brooks? Last year was rough year, what about this year?
What have you learned this season, in Adam’s first full season, ab out him as a coach and things going not the way everyone would like them to?
Coaches go through evolutions like players do. Do you see a difference in him as he goes through this process, just like they would?
You’ve had three players ..ask for trades. I’m sure it’s not an easy situation you’re put in when that happens. Can you walk us through where things stand with those players?
Do you respect that [a face-to-face trade request] in a player?
You’ve seen how this year has gone—is there any regret on making that Erat deal last year?
Are you damned if you do and damned if you don’t?
Do you have one area that you would pinpoint, try to bolster?
Marty Erat, what is the plan for him coming back?
Did she have the baby while she was in Sochi?
Do you have any expectation of [Alex] being with the team when the season resumes?
There’s no a required report back date?
There’s been a lot of debate about the NHL participating in the Olympics in the future? Where do you stand on that?
Do you also feel that with the Olympics that it has to be all in or not?
Do you have a rooting interest tomorrow?
USA cap and Canada cap? Which one would you wear?
You root for health above all?
Do you not see the exposure, the interest in Olympic hockey helps your game grow?
Callups today—is that more to have some bodies here for practice?
We’ve seen injuries and players come up from Hershey. Any impressed you more than you thought?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Washington Post Sports Watch: Why the Post's coverage of the Caps Isn't Comprehensive

On Wednesday afternoon, in the middle of a Twitter discussion/argument about the Washington Post's coverage of the Washington Capitals, Neil Greenberg of the Post tweeted this:
I don't get the obsession with the term "columnist." WaPo provdies comprehensive Caps coverage. Full stop.
I don't think Greenberg is correct about that. Does the Washington Post provide the closest to "comprehensive" Caps coverage of any mainstream media organzation in the DC area? Yes, no question. But do they actually provide "comprehensive Caps coverage"? No, I don't think they do--and that has a lot to do with the term that Greenberg mentions,  the word "columnist."

The foundation of a newspaper's coverage of a team is the beat writer, who covers games, practices and everything else happening on a day-to-day basis with the team. Katie Carrera does a fine job with this, and especially in the last few weeks has been writing some really strong articles analyzing the Caps' problems--this one from Friday which deals with the team's lack of defensive depth and failure to find chemistry among the forwards was a particularly good one.

Greenberg's specialty is advanced statistical analysis, and once (sometimes twice) a week he posts on the Capitals Insider blog a piece in which he uses "fancy stats" to explore some aspect of the team. His piece, for example, on Monday, built on Carrera's piece from last week in analyzing the team's possible top-two line combinations. His sobering conclusion is that the Caps don't really have the players to create two effective scoring lines--noting along the way that some combinations don't play well together, one combination that is fairly effective Coach Adam Oates dislikes because it causes Eric Fehr to play on the "wrong" wing for a right-hander, and another that seems unlikely because it involves Martin Erat--who has asked for a trade.

This was good stuff, very good reporting and analysis of the Caps. But the final piece of what I'd call "comprehensive coverage" of the Caps is missing. That's a strong columnist that can take what we've learned from the beat reporting and analysis and goes further and deeper than a beat writer and statistical analyst can--taking a stand, expressing an opinion, asking questions in print and of team players and management, giving readers, hopefully, a perspective through which to see these developments. A good columnist looks at the Carrera and Greenberg pieces and says, "So how is it that the Caps are 50 games into the season and can't even put two good forward lines together? Is this because the players aren't playing well? Is it because Adam Oates is making weird lineup decisions based too much on what hand a player shoots with? Or is it because General Manager George McPhee hasn't put together a lineup with the right parts to fit together--or even worse, just doesn't have enough good forwards on the team who can score goals besides Alex Ovechkin?"

But the Washington Post, while having five columnists (Boswell, Wise, Feinstein, Reid and Jenkins), almost never provides this last piece of comprehensive coverage when it comes to the Caps. Besides the top-two line issue, the last couple months have seen three Caps ask for trades, the prospect the Caps traded for Martin Erat get named MVP of the World Junior Championships, an awkward goaltending situation which seems to have affected Braden Holtby's confidence, and a continued mess on defense. And no columnist has asked any questions or gone in depth on any of those subjects. Those same columnists cover such subjects and ask those questions when it comes to the Redskins, or the Nats, or, to a lesser extent, the Wizards. And they make news--a column by any of those columnists taking a strong stand or finding a new perspective to view developments around those teams can often set the agenda--it is featured prominently on the Post website and talked about on sports radio, Twitter and in offices around the area all day. Not only that, but columnist can provide external pressure on the team--in addition to the much bigger metrics of ticket sales, fan satisfaction, and embarrassment over not winning, having the most important sports outlet in town offering informed, passionate criticism of a floundering team (in other words, putting team management or players on the "hot seat") plays a role--even if a small one--in encouraging change when it might  be warranted.  But when it comes to the Caps, those columnists just don't seem to be interested in doing any of this on any regular basis. That is why when it comes to the Caps, it's just not correct to say they get comprehensive coverage from the Post--they get something less.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Washington Post Sports Watch: Analyzing Sally Jenkins' Lazy, Inaccurate, Unfair RGIII Column

Just like Sally Jenkins does in her columns, I won't beat around the bush: Her column today on RGIII's alleged selfishness and entitlement is awful. It's not awful because of her opinion that Griffin's attitude is a major problem for the Redskins --she's free to hold that opinion and she may even be correct. No, her column is awful because it is so lazily written that most of the facts she uses to make her argument are either questionably sourced, inaccurate or out of context.

Jenkins starts off her column with some previously unreported information: according to people she describes only as "insiders," she writes that
"Griffin’s public campaign to have the offense altered for him was just the tip of his egotism in his second year. Behind closed doors, Griffin had fierce finger-pointing tensions with his wide receivers, and he bragged to teammates that he could procure favors from the owner and influence the franchise’s direction." 
These are pretty explosive charges that haven't, to my knowledge, been reported elsewhere, but these charges lack pretty much any context. For instance, since Jenkins didn't hear Griffin bragging about his relationship with Snyder, is she sure that he wasn't making a joke that was misunderstood by whoever reported it to her? And Tom Brady yells at his receivers, too--during the game! (Here and here.) Is he entitled and spoiled, too?

More importantly, the sourcing for these claims is the completely undescriptive "insiders." Who are these "insiders"? Are they other players? Perhaps, but probably not--if they were, a good reporter would probably try to mention that and get her source to agree to such identification because it would add credibility to the report. Are these "insiders" just people who work at Redskins Park and have heard stories about what goes on in closed meetings? If so, then they've likely heard these stories second-hand and not necessarily reliable. That leads most readers to believe that these "insiders" are former coaches, probably with the name Shanahan--which doesn't mean the reports are wrong, but considering the Shanahans have a huge axe to grind with Griffin, the charges warrant a solid dose of skepticism from the reader. And yet, Jenkins gives whoever these "insiders" are a cloak of anonymity to hide behind as they make personal attacks on Griffin. Post executive editor Martin Baron was quoted in the Post just a couple weeks ago saying that "reporters are encouraged to negotiate to identify people as much as possible and to provide honest reasons for their anonymity." Where was that here? There were no "honest reasons" for the anonymity of Jenkins' insiders provided whatsoever, and she was reporting about the locker room on a football team. This wasn't Dana Priest talking to whistleblowers about CIA black sites and waterboarding.

But after that weak sourcing, the column just gets worse. As more evidence of how much Griffin is disliked by his teammates, she notes that his linemen weren't helping him up after sacks, even though Chris Chase at USA Today thoroughly debunked that talking point weeks ago by showing that NFL quarterbacks are rarely helped up by their linemen. (His random sample found it happens 5 percent of the time. Does Jenkins get the Internet up in New York where she lives?) Then Jenkins notes Pierre Garcon's "barely contained anger," and links to a story in which Garcon is quoted as saying:

“I guess we’ve got to make mid-game adjustments,” Garcon said. “That’s the thing that we need. It sucks. We’re 2-5 and defenses are changing and I guess we’re not changing, we’re not doing something, we’re not communicating and doing what we need to be doing.”
That doesn't sound like Garcon is mad at Griffin, that sounds unmistakably like Garcon is blaming the coaching staff for not being able to counter what the defense is doing.

After that, Jenkins links to Santana Moss' "remarkable public lecture that Griffin needed to quit blaming others and take responsibility for his own failures." Calling Moss' comments "remarkable" is overdoing it, but I suppose she's correctly describing Moss' quotes. Still, Moss' "lecture about standing up and saying "me or I" was a little odd at the time, since it was a response to Griffin's explanation of an interception at the end of the Eagles game in which the quarterback did say, after noting that no receivers were open, that "I was trying to throw the ball to the back of the end zone. It didn't get to where I wanted it to go." That's not the most abject taking of responsibility I've ever read, but he's using the word "I" and taking blame.

Jenkins goes on to wonder why any coach would come to the Redskins when they can be "trumped on any decision, from play-calling to personnel, by a third-year QB?" Ah, play-calling. Finally, Jenkins gets to something where there are actually facts undergirding her criticism--there's no question that Griffin, and his father, have complained about too many read-option plays being called for Griffin and their desire for RGIII to be a drop-back quarterback. In fact, if she wanted to base the whole column on this issue, she'd be OK. But, of course, Jenkins then sullies this breakthrough by adding "personnel," apparently charging that Griffin has some say-so over the roster or the lineup--which I'm not aware of ever hearing. Furthermore, if Griffin has such unlimited influence with the Redskins, as Jenkins seems to think, why was he unable to stop being benched for the final three games of the season?

Remarkably, Jenkins then writes that "not every story about [Griffin's] ego is true," even though she's just spent her entire column telling exaggerated, not really accurate stories about his ego. And to top it off, she claims that "reports are that the Redskins are indeed pursuing Griffin's college coach, Art Briles." That's despite the fact that Briles has publicly denied he has had any contact with the Redskins or has any interest in leaving Baylor, and the only report since Briles made those statements about the Redskins and Briles comes from Jason LaCanfora on Sunday, who reported in a tweet that he continued to hear the Redskins had interest in Briles. Strangely, in his CBS Sports story, La Canfora says something significantly different, that "many believe" the Redskins "could still explore" Briles. Whichever you believe, it's hardly evidence that the Redskins "are indeed pursuing...Briles," as Jenkins lazily writes. (I'm presuming that Jenkins hasn't done reporting of her own to confirm that "fact," and since she references no "insiders," I think the answer is no.)

Sally Jenkins is an award-winning reporter and columnist. But just because she has an opinion doesn't mean she's allowed to stretch the facts and level anonymous, unsubstantiated personal attacks just to prove her point. She should be embarrassed by this column, and so should the sports editors of the Washington Post. Are there any standards for a sports columnist at the paper? And if so, were they followed in this case? I think Post readers would like to know.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Post Sports Watch: Failing to Put McPhee and Grunfeld on the Hot Seat, While Obsessing Over the Redskins

When it comes to determining whether George McPhee and Ernie Grunfeld will remain as general managers of their respective teams, Ted Leonsis is the ultimate decider. But the local media also plays a role. The media doesn't hire and fire general mangers and coaches of sports teams, but their job is to hold those GMs and coaches accountable. They're supposed to analyze and criticize their performance, just as the media is supposed to do when it comes to the president or the mayor or Metro. And yet in the last two and a half weeks, when the Caps' and Wizards GMs both deserved to have the media put them on the "hot seat," the Washington Post Sports section didn't even make their seats lukewarm.

Let's got back to Monday, Nov. 25, a pretty bad day for D.C. sports teams. It started off with the revelation that Martin Erat had requested that the Caps trade him -- making a trade that was controversial at the time it was made ook like a disaster now (considering that the chances of the Caps getting much of a return on a player who has asked to be traded, has a salary cap hit of $4.5 million and has scored one goal in his 37 games with Washington are low.) Later that night, reports came out that Bradley Beal had a stress injury in his right leg, the same leg (but in a different place) where he had a stress injury last spring which caused him to sit out for four months. The troubling thing about this injury is that a player who was only a couple months removed from a stress injury had, to that point in the season played the most minutes -- and run the most distance -- of any player in the entire NBA. And then the Redskins were crushed by the 49ers, and any faint playoff hopes they had were extinguished.

Of course, anyone who is breathing in the Washington, D.C. area is aware that the Post has covered the aftermath of that Redskins loss (and the next two) extensively, to say the least. Since that day, there have been a total of 23 articles written by Post columnists about the Redskins --- in just 17 days! (And in the time it took me to write this sentence, that number might have risen...) Meanwhile, the number of columnists weighing in on the Erat and Beal situations were zero. (For the record, in this time period, there were two Post columns about the Wizards, one about Marcin Gortat and the other, ironically, about the injury problems of Nene. As for the Caps, that number is still zero--even with a four-goal Ovechkin performance Tuesday night -- although Tom Boswell did write a piece about Ovechkin which appeared in the print edition the day of the Erat trade demand.)

Now of course, the Post covered both the Erat and Beal situations as news stories, with articles in the next day's paper by the beat writers and some additional material on the team blogs. But there was a noticeable lack of any followup by any of the paper's columnists or any other writers on these topics. A good sports section is supposed to have columnists who ask questions that go beyond what the beat reporters are reporting, asking additional questions face-to-face to those running the teams or rhetorically in the newspaper -- calling out those GMs when calling out is called for. Why exactly did George McPhee make this trade in the first place -- giving away a hot young prospect to add a veteran to a team that, at the time the trade was made, no serious fan of the team felt had much of a chance to go anywhere in last year's playoffs? How disappointing is a trade that looks like it will wind up both not helping the Caps in the present and hurting them in the future? As for Ernie Grunfeld, why did he construct a roster that, as Kyle Weidie of TruthAboutIt and Mike Prada of Bullets Forever point out, required a player coming off a serious injury to play more minutes than necessary because there aren't enough ball-handlers on the team? I think these are really interesting questions. Why is no columnist at the Post asking them?

(For the record, at Tuesday night's Post Sports Live event at Hill Country BBQ, I asked Mike Wise about the Post's failure to hold McPhee accountable, or even criticize him, for the disaster of the Erat trade. He said it was a fair criticism of him and his fellow columnists-- although he didn't promise to write about it either. He also said he believed if McPhee didn't get to the Eastern Conference finals this year, he thinks it's time for a change.)

Yeah, yeah, I know, there's a lot of drama at Redskins Park. That's fine--of course it's an interesting story, and the Redskins are the most popular team in town. They should get the most media coverage. But should the Redskins media coverage be so overwhelming that important stories involving other teams in town should just be ignored? The Redskins game against the Chiefs, on a day when everyone was home because there was an ice storm going on, received a 20.7 television rating. That's a good TV rating, the highest rated show on television in Washington last week. But in context, it's actually pretty terrible. The local NFL team's game is the highest rated TV show in just about every NFL city every week, and there were only five cities, at most, that had lower ratings for their team's games on Sunday. Three of them were what most people would consider three of the worst sports cities in the country: Atlanta, Tampa and Miami. The other two were New York (where the audience is split between two teams) and St. Louis. That's it. Meanwhile, places like New Orleans and Pittsburgh routinely get numbers double that, well into the 40s, even when their teams aren't particularly good.

There's much talk about how intense the D.C. sports fan is about the Redskins, to the point that nothing else matters -- Washington is like an SEC college football town, according to 980's Kevin Sheehan - but the numbers just don't back that up. Unless the Redskins are beating the Cowboys in the last game of the season to win the NFC East, TV ratings for the Redskins, compared to other cities, are nothing more than middle-of-the pack in an average week. And yet, when you look at the topics the columnists have written about since November 1, and notice that the Redskins have been written about 39 times, while the Wizards have received five columns, the Nats three and the Caps two -- yes, a team in the offseason has been written about more than the Caps, a team currently playing -- it makes one scratch their head.

On Sunday at 1 p.m., the Redskins play the Falcons in Atlanta, and Kirk Cousins will start. It's a big local sports story, and I'm sure multiple Post columnists will be there and write about it. At 3 p.m., the Capitals will play the Philadelphia Flyers in Verizon Center, in their first meeting since the ugly incident last month in which Ray Emery assaulted Braden Holtby. That's a big local sports story, too. Will anyone from the local newspaper besides Post Caps beat writer Katie Carerra be there to cover it? And if someone does come by, hopefully they can corner George McPhee and ask him a few questions about the Erat trade, too.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Washington Post Sports Watch: Ted Leonsis Came to the Washington Post And All Readers Got Was A Story About A Guy Singing "American Pie"

Three weeks ago, back on Oct. 31, Ted Leonsis spent two hours meeting with reporters and editors of the Washington Post. He talked about the Caps and Wizards' profitability, about his Monumental Sports Network and the reason why he hasn't changed general managers since he's owned the teams. How do I know this? Because the Post told its readers this meeting happened -- and yet they never printed one article or blog post recounting what Leonsis said about those topics.

They did print a weird story Leonsis told that day about how he paid a guy 100 bucks to stop singing "American Pie" under his office window, as well as his feelings on the Redskins name (smartly didn't want to get involved) and whether he might change the name of the Wizards back to the Bullets (unlikely). All of that information--including the list of the other, more important topics covered in the meeting -- was mentioned in a D.C. Sports Bog post by editor Lindsay Applebaum that afternoon. When asked in the comments (by me) whether we'd hear more about those other topics, Applebaum responded that she hoped so, and that she figured others at the meeting would be reporting on them. It seemed like a reasonable assumption--I don't know who was in the meeting, but I would presume, at the very least, Sports Editor Matt Vita was there, as was business writer Thomas Heath, Caps beat writer Katie Carrera, Wizards beat writer Michael Lee and columnist Mike Wise (because Applebaum mentioned he was there in her post.) It's not unreasonable to think that probably at least a couple other sports columnists were there, perhaps an additional editor or two from the Sports section -- perhaps even a managing editor or two from the paper. And still, all we heard from this meeting, in which important, interesting issues that every Caps and Wizards fan would be interested in were discussed, was a story about a guy singing "American Pie" outside of Ted Leonsis' window.

I really don't understand what happened here. None of the explanations really make sense. Was the Post holding all the information gleaned from this two-hour lunch for some large profile or investigative piece in the future? I suppose it's possible, but it seems unlikely. Did everyone at the meeting get their signals crossed--they all thought someone else was going to write about it and no one did? Come on, this is the Washington Post--I would think an editor would have organized who was going to write about it beforehand. Or did the Post writers and editors at the meeting just not think anything Leonsis said over the course of those two hours was newsworthy? This seems almost impossible to believe--in addition to the topics Lindsay mentioned above, there are a number of other questions that are relevant to D.C. sports fans and Leonsis has never really answered adequately (I wrote about some of them here this summer). And any doubts about that was removed last week, when the Associated Press had a similar meeting of reporters and editors with Leonsis and printed multiple stories where Ted said interesting stuff or made news, including this one where he said the Capitals get a "failing grade" in terms of performance on the ice, this one where he said he wants better police presence at Verizon Center (although I wish someone had asked him why the place needs to wand every ticketholder with a metal detector before they can get in) and this one wrapping up a number of other topics he discussed during their 90-minute meeting. A number of the things Leonsis was quoted on in these articles (particularly his analysis of the Caps) was interesting to local sports fans--did the Post editors and reporters just not ask any good questions to elicit such answers, or did they just not think these things were relevant to their readers?

Whatever the case, the Post could still recitfy the situation for its readers pretty easily. The Web site has plenty of space to just print excerpts, or even an entire transcript, from the Leonsis meeting on the Caps or Wizards insider blog, or the D.C. Sports Bog. (I presume someone recorded the session.) I'd love to hear Leonsis talk about the profitability, or lack thereof, of his teams, for instance. I'm very interested in his Monumental Sports Network, and whether he's trying to control the message or just get more coverage for his teams (or both). I'm pretty sure many Caps and Wizards fans agree with me. So, come on, Washington Post? Can you do us a favor and print some excerpts from that Oct. 31 meeting? Or at least explain why you dropped the ball and never wrote anything about it at all?

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Washington Post Sports Watch: Ray Emery Wasn't Suspended, and The Post Virtually Ignored It

You probably saw or heard about the Friday night "fight"--better characterized as an assault--by Philadelphia Flyer goalie Ray Emery on Washington Capitals' goalie Braden Holtby. And you might have read the very good Washington Post coverage that evening or the next day in the paper's print edition or on its website. You also may have heard that Emery was not suspended by the NHL for his actions, that the NHL said no further discipline was permitted because there was no "rule" in the rule book that allowed it, and that the incident has led to a fierce debate in the hockey media (and among fans) about the place of fighting in the NHL over the weekend and into Monday. If you did hear about any of that, though, you probably weren't reading the Washington Post--other than one sentence reporting Emery wouldn 't be suspended (attributed to in a Caps Insider blog post about the lineups for the next day's game in Florida, the newspaper and its website has virtually ignored the incident

Yes, really--the Post hasn't even mentioned the news in its print edition or anywhere else on its Caps Insider blog that Emery wasn't suspended and the (pretty lame) explanation by the NHL for it. It hasn't carried any follow-up from reporters or columnists questioning or discussing (or asking NHL officials) whether the referee should have jumped in and tried to stop the fight instead of standing by watching and preventing Caps players from protecting their goalie from a pummeling. It hasn't mentioned that other sources have reported the NHL will review the rules on goalie fights and possibly make changes at the GM meetings next week. It hasn't asked whether this incident leaves a black mark on the NHL, particularly when the NHL hands out no discipline for it. Let me repeat, the Post--aside from an brief mention in a post about the next day's game (and the 24th paragraph of a wire service story on Saturday's night's Flyers-Devils game that I only found because I typed "Ray Emery" into the Post's search engine)--hasn't done any reporting, hasn't even done a stand-alone blog post, on the lack of supplemental discipline for Emery.

When the Post fails to write enough about the trade of Matty Pereault or the signing of Mikhail Grabovski, I'm disappointed, but not really surprised--since the Post for years has not paid enough attention to matters like Caps' personnel moves. But this complete whiff on reporting anything in the aftermath of the Emery-Holtby incident--this really is surprising, in addition to being disappointing. The lack of discipline for Emery was important enough in the hockey world to rate an article in the Los Angeles Times and was something that Aaron Portzline at the Columbus Dispatch asked NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman about when he visited Columbus over the weekend. There are articles debating whether fighting should be banned from the game, and how this incident affects that debate, on hockey websites too numerous to link to. How can this debate--directly involving the Caps and one of their most crucial and popular players--not be important enough for more than a sentence about it in the Post?

Why isn't anyone at the Post calling Gary Bettman or other league officials to get some kind of on-the-record explanation for the decision on Emery? Or ask why the commissioner didn't use the discretion he has in the rulebook to impose discipline no matter what the rule book specifically says? Furthermore, why has no one at the Post asked George McPhee or Ted Leonsis what they think of the way their team was treated by the Flyers and, now, the NHL? McPhee was very vocal in complaining about the officiating last year after the Caps were eliminated from the playoffs--which was silly both because it came off as sour grapes and because if he was going to complain about the officiating, the time would have been during the series, because at least then one might derive some benefit from "working the refs." But after their goalie was assaulted and his teammates were not allowed to come to his aid, the Caps management and owner have been missing (other than the strange, defensive Facebook bickering Leonsis has done with Thom Loverro on this subject the last couple days in which Leonsis didn't really address the issue.) Is it too much to ask for the most important sports media outlet in town in D.C. to take the team and the sport seriously enough to want answers to these questions?

Perhaps the Post's coverage of this matter was affected by the fact that regular beat writer Katie Carrera is taking some days off, and has been temporarily replaced by Barry Svrluga (one of the best writers and reporters in the Sports department) and Chelsea Janes (who is new but wrote a great blog post on Monday about Adam Oates' lines.) That may explain it, but it shouldn't be an excuse. The fact that the aftermath of a huge hockey story involving the Caps was basically ignored by the Post just makes me sad--it's bad for hockey fans in D.C. and a black mark on the paper.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Washington Post Sports Watch: Anyone Want To Talk About the Marcin Gortat Trade?

On Friday afternoon, the Wizards traded Emeka Okafor and a 2014 first round pick for Marcin Gortat. On Monday afternoon, the national sports site Grantland had extensive analysis of the trade posted. First, they had a lengthy piece by their NBA writer Zach Lowe which argued that it made sense for the Wizards to make this deal because making the playoffs this year might help them attract a top free agent next year, but wondering whether giving up a first round pick was too high a price to pay for it. And then, there was a piece by Wizards fan and Grantland writer Andrew Sharp, which linked to a number of Wizards fan blogs criticizing the trade as desperate, but then argued that even though that was true, the trade would help John Wall and Bradley Beal become better players.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post, besides the article reporting the trade, ran this informative blog post by Wizards beat writer Michael Lee explaining the Wizards' thinking in making the trade and...well, that was it. The Post sports section has five columnists and none of them found the time to ask any questions about whether trading a future draft pick for what it seems many agree will be a marginal improvement this year (and maybe only this year, since Gortat is in the final year of his contract), was a wise personnel move for a team that has repeatedly made poor personnel moves for the last three decades.(I'm not going to count the two sentences Mike Wise devoted to Gortat in his Wizards preview column earlier this week.) While fans were lamenting the possible shortsightedness of this move, no one at the Post really delved into that issue -- even if only to argue the other side and defend it as a trade that made sense. (The Lee post did mention that some would see the move as shortsighted, but, as I said, was mainly an analysis of why the Wizards would make the move--which was fine, since Lee isn't a columnist and passing judgement on trades isn't his job as a beat writer.)

I will freely admit that I'm not a big NBA fan, and thus, don't really have a strong opinion on the trade. But the trade's exchange of future for present--and the upset it caused among some fans--did remind me somewhat of a trade the Caps made earlier this year that also received virtually no analysis in the Post, and it troubled me. Washington sports fans, along with some in the Washington sports media, constantly talk about how disappointing our local teams are -- particularly this year. There are a number of reasons, some unique to their teams, why each of these teams have not lived up to expectations, but what's the one commonality among all those disappointments? It is deficiencies in personnel.

The Nationals didn't have a good enough bullpen and bench and lacked starting pitching depth this year. The Redskins just don't have enough good players at positions like receiver, safety and offensive line. The Caps, for years now, haven't had enough secondary scoring and can't find more than 3 or 4 good defensemen most years. And the Wizards...well, as I said earlier, they're been a trailblazer in offering horrible contracts, making bad draft picks and consummating shortsighted trades since the 1980s. And yet, too often the Washington Post, the most important and influential sports news source in the area, just doesn't show enough interest in these personnel moves (particularly when it comes to the Caps and Wizards) -- or, perhaps more importantly, holding accountable those who make those personnel moves for the local teams. If anyone can find a serious examination and critique of Caps General Manager's George McPhee's tenure that has appeared in the Post over the last three or four years, please leave a link in the comments -- because I haven't seen it. And while Tom Boswell certainly does analyze Nats' personnel moves, he seems to go out of his way to avoid mentioning team architect Mike Rizzo too much -- in the case of these three post-mortems on the Nats in September, two avoid mentioning the GM entirely, while the other lets Rizzo say that Davey Johnson"threw him under the bus" by placing too much blame on the GM for the team's personnel deficiencies. (That doesn't mean there aren't occasional Post articles that do hold the Nats' GM accountable -- this excellent Adam Kilgore blog post outlined how the hiring of Matt Williams demonstrates the huge amount of power Rizzo holds in the organization -- but such pieces are rare.)

As much as DC sports fans, and the local sports media, lament how the local teams need to show more effort, or their superstars need to play better, or their coaches need to coach better, none of our local teamsbare going to win championships -- or even come close -- without the right personnel. That's why tracking how our teams are built and asking why those building the teams are making (or not making) certain moves is so important. If you look at blogs about the local teams, fans are doing a pretty good job at debating these moves. Why can't the Post do the same?

Friday, October 18, 2013

Washington Post Sports Watch: Martin Erat, Mathieu Perreault and the Post's lack of interest

So imagine that back during the Nats' 2012 season, they had traded their best hitting prospect, Anthony Rendon. It was in July, during Ian Desmond's stint on the disabled list, and the Nats traded Rendon to the Brewers for a solid but unspectacular veteran -- someone like Ricky Weeks, a 30-year-old making $9 million a year not having a real good season but with a history in recent years of hitting more than 20 homers, an OPS over 800, etc. Weeks ended up getting injured late in the season and the Nats lost in the first round of the playoffs, but when the next season arrived, Weeks ended up a bench player -- pinch hitting with a start once or twice a week even as Danny Espinosa struggled to hit. Oh, and also imagine that the Nats, right before the season, decided that they had some hot pitching prospects in the minors they wanted to use, so they traded Ross Detwiler for an A-ball reliever who scouts said was unlikely to ever make the majors. And now imagine that the Washington Post Sports section, other than reporting that these things happened, virtually ignored them.

Yes, that would be ridiculous. Tom Boswell would have written multiple columns analyzing the thinking behind these decisions and whether they were wise, and Jason Reid probably would have chimed in with a column (probably something saying he trusted management to make the right decisions and that the Nats were still likely to win 100 games). Mike Wise might have written a column, too, interviewing Ricky Weeks on how he felt about not playing (perhaps including Ricky Weeks' opinion on the Redskins' name while he was at it.) And the Nats' beat writers probably would have multiple blog posts examining the issue.

Of course, none of these trades were made by the Nationals in the past two years. But similar moves were made by the Washington Capitals. They traded future for present by dealing top propsect Filip Forsberg for the 32-year-old solid but unspectacular Martin Erat, making $4.5 million in a sports with a salary cap. After he got injured last season, he came back this season and has so far been relegated to the fourth line, playing less than 10 minutes a game. And right before the season, the Caps traded Matthieu Perreault, a guy who was their third-leading goal scorer in 2011-2012 and tied for the team points lead last year in the playoffs for the Caps, for pretty much nothing (a fourth-round pick and a player who isn't expected to play in the NHL). And the Washington Post Sports section has virtually ignored them.

When the Erat trade was made last April, it was extremely controversial among fans --many who felt the team had made a shortsighted move. The Post, of course, had an article about the trade. They also printed a relatively brief, 400-word piece by Neil Greenberg backing the trade by noting that Forsberg hadn't proven anything yet in the NHL while Erat, based on statistical analytics, was a solid top-six forward. That was a perfectly legitimate opinion, but it didn't delve into the broader issues that a trade like this represented for the Caps--are they in a "win now" mode with a trade like this and willing to jettison other prospects to acquire veterans for a Cup run? Was this a trade more about short-term gains (making the playoffs last year) at the expense of a better team with a better shot at the Cup two or three years down the road? Those questions were never addressed by the Post -- after Greenberg's piece, the Erat-Forsberg trade and its implications and questions it raised for the future were never discussed again, aside from a piece this preseason by beat writer Katie Carrera when the Caps played the Predators about how both Erat and Forsberg were adjusting to their new teams.

Erat, though, would remain controversial when the new season started. He was placed on the fourth line, playing just nine minutes in his first game and even less in most subsequent games. To her credit, Carerra authored a blog post after opening night with quotes from Erat questioning his role and a very interesting quote from Adam Oates which appeared to be somewhat of an admission that the trade was made more to acquire a stopgap replacement for Brooks Laich than out of some actual plan for the future ("Last year, when we made the trade, Brooksie was hurt, and Brooksie's healthy right now," Oates said.) That was on Oct. 2. It's now 16 days later, Erat remains on the fourth line playing less than ten minutes a night and Caps fans on Twitter and on blogs express puzzlement and anger at why a player making $4.5 million, who was acquired for a top prospect, is being utilized this way. And in those 16 days, no one at the Post has written anything more about it--not Carrera, not a columnist, not Barry Svrluga in an "On Hockey" piece (and actually, this would be perfect for him -- but he's covering the baseball postseason.) It doesn't even seem like anyone (from either the Post or other local media) has even asked Adam Oates or General Manager George McPhee about this puzzling deployment of personnel (I haven't seen either one answer a specific question about it since that Oct. 2 interview, but I'd be glad to be corrected if anyone has evidence to the contrary.)

But the relative silence on the Erat situation is topped by the virtual news blackout on any kind of analysis or discussion of the Caps' trade of Mathieu Perreault for, well....virtually nothing. Perreault had his faults as a player -- he was small and wasn't considered a top defensive player -- but he had good offensive skills, was fun to watch and was popular among fans. And for a team that struggles to score when it's not on the power play, a guy with offensive talent would seemingly be of some value. But when the Caps decided that they wanted rookie Tom Wilson in the lineup and needed salary cap space, they jettisoned the low-priced Perreault (and replaced him in the lineup with Eric Fehr, who had never played center before this preseason.) It was another deal that caused bafflement and upset among Caps fans, but other than the article reporting the trade, there's been no commentary or analysis on anything related to the move (unless you count the one sentence mentioning the trade in this John Feinstein column previewing the season). In fact, that article didn't even contain a quote from George McPhee explaining the rationale for the trade--nor has McPhee been quoted in the Post (or anywhere, for that matter) giving any explanation or answering any questions about why this trade was made. How can that be?

My complaints about coverage of the Caps in the Post have long boiled down to two major issues: that the Caps aren't covered the same way other professional teams in the city are covered -- with serious attention paid to their personnel moves -- and that the team's coaches, front office and decisionmakers rarely, if ever, face any kind of accountability from the media -- and even when they do, it's dwarfed by the attention paid to Alex Ovechkin, who is usually blamed for any loss or setback the Caps sustain. And both criticisms apply here. If the Nats or Redskins or even Wizards traded a young player full of a potential for an older player, and then rarely used that older player, would the Post write one article and then pretty much ignore it as the team started off the season 2-5 and had trouble scoring? And is anyone going to ask Oates and McPhee about the Erat situation and the Perrault trade, either directly in a press conference or interview, or rhetorically in columns and analysis pieces in the paper?

Ironically, after years of the local media incessantly asking what's wrong with Ovechkin, he's the only thing really going right with the Capitals. But from the front office to the coaching to the other players on the ice, there are problems. And, unfortunately, those problems include the Post's coverage of the team.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Washington Post Sports Watch: The RGIII story the Post Missed

It seems hard to believe, but could it be that even with the tens of thousands of words and dozens of articles the Washington Post Sports section printed on Robert Griffin III's knee the last eight months, there was actually an important story they missed? Believe it or not, I think there was.

For months now, ever since Dr. James Andrews called Griffin "superhuman" in his recovery from knee surgery and Griffin commenced his "All In for Week 1" ad campaign, it has just been assumed that as long as the doctor said the knee was OK, Griffin would quickly return to being the dazzling player he was before the injury last year when the season started. But that leaves out some important history: Before Adrian Peterson's amazingly quick recovery from ACL surgery last season, the idea of any player returning to his old form so quickly after such surgery was seen as extremely unlikely, even dangerous. (The only other one I can find is Carson Palmer, but it's tough to compare a relatively stationary quarterback like Palmer to either a running back like Peterson or an extremely mobile QB like Griffin.)  And while Peterson's great season last year was regularly proclaimed miraculous, the "best ACL recovery ever," he had two weeks more than Griffin to recover from his surgery. So in other words, what Griffin did by coming back on Monday night, eight months after reconstructive knee surgery, was virtually unprecedented. And yet, I can't find any article from the Post during the offseason really examing whether, despite Dr. Andrews' claims of Griffin's superhero status, we should have expected the old RGIII this year. Why didn't anyone at the Post raise the question: What if RGIII is "superhuman," but not as "superhuman" as Adrian Peterson?

Yes, the Post has, at times, raised the possibility of whether "he'll be the same" (this Dave Sheinin piece the day of the opener the most recent). And there's been lots and lots and lots of talk about whether Griffin's knee is healthy. But the better question is  not whether Griffin's knee is perfectly sturdy and healthy, but whether his problems Monday night were not "rust" for lack of practice, but more the lack of time to build up the strength, confidence and muscle memory than an athlete needs when coming back from such a severe injury. Check out this USA Today article entitled, "Don't Count On Others to Come Back Like Peterson Did" from February:

"Adrian Peterson came back so well that in some ways it gives people somewhat unrealistic expectations," says Andrew Pearle, orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. 
"For every Adrian Peterson who comes back like he has, there are lots of athletes who struggle the first year," Pearle says. "It doesn't mean they're not working hard. … But that's an example of somebody who came back in a very, very remarkable way. We hope for recoveries like that. We don't always get it." ...
"It's such a hot subject because of Adrian's extraordinary success," says Leon Popovitz, orthopedic surgeon and co-founder of New York Bone & Joint Specialists.
But, he adds, "A lot of people end up returning six months to 12 months later and not being at their ideal, peak level until sometime the season afterwards, after the 12-month period."
And why is that? Well, this May article from Newsday explains how recovering from knee surgery is about more than just the strength of the ligament:
Craig Levitz, chief of orthopedic surgery at South Nassau Community Hospital, sat back in a chair in his Lynbrook office. With his eyes closed, he reclined, lifted his leg and placed his right foot flat against the wall. Had he undergone a recent ACL reconstruction, he might not have been able to do that simple task. 
"I can sense where my knee and foot are in space,'' he said. "There are proprioceptors that live in the ACL, but when you tear your ACL, they're gone. The reconstructed ACL has nothing in it.'' 
Proprioception may be the most important word in returning from an ACL injury. It's the difference between Adrian Peterson and Bulls star point guard Derrick Rose, who has yet to play in a game since tearing his ACL more than a year ago. It is the sense of the relative position of neighboring parts of the body and the effort needed to create movement. In other words, it is what allows an athlete to feel like himself again. 
The body must redevelop those fibers into the new ACL through repetitive activity. 
"When you tear your ACL and you come back, the game is too fast for you,'' Levitz said. "You're used to seeing a guy [on the field] and your whole body goes that way before you think about it. When you tear your ACL, you have to tell your leg to go that way . . . The muscle loses all its memory when you tear an ACL. You've made a baby again. So you have to teach it.'' 
The Vikings did not use Peterson in any preseason games in 2012, but they did allow him to practice in training camp. That helped the muscle memory of those dizzying cuts and bruising bursts to return to his knee. And it took Peterson a little while to get going once the regular season began. He had one game with more than 100 rushing yards in his first six, and that was for 102. In his last 10 games, he ran for fewer than 100 only once. 
"He did not show that lack of proprioception,'' Levitz said. "Most guys need that one year . . . He very well could have had muscles that were able to re-learn at a rate faster than the average guy's.''

In all the words spilled on Griffin's knee, proprioception wasn't one of them--a search of the Post's website reveals two appearances of the word since the beginning of the year, both in the Health and Science section and neither in an article about Griffin. In fact, I can't find any article from the Post Sports section delving into ACL recovery in anything like the details that the two articles quoted above do--even though it seems directly relevant to the biggest sports story in Washington over the last year. Yes, Sally Jenkins wrote a column over the summer questioning whether Griffin would try to come back too fast, but no one brought up the idea that Griffin's knee might be healthy but he just might not be the same guy he was until late this season or even next year. (Ironically, such a result after such surgery was often cited last year in coverage of a different local team's star--Tom Boswell frequently wrote about how a pitcher coming back after Tommy John surgery is inconsistent and usually isn't the same pitcher he was until the following year.)

After game one, of course, many observers said Griffin didn't look like himself, and Jenkins wrote a very interesting column arguing that the quarterback just wasn't himself and shouldn't have played. But why was this possibility not reported about or really even discussed by Post sportswriters and columnists all spring and summer? Just because Griffin and Andrews and the Redskins were all spin and smiles about how the recovery is going, isn't there anyone at the Post to play the doom-and-gloomer and delve into whether all the talk was medically unrealistic? (And yes, I know that on Sunday Griffin could go out and be the RGIII of old--but, as of now, we're left with what we saw Monday night.)

In light of Monday night's game, it's funny to look back at Tom Boswell's column last weekend, in which he criticized Vegas oddsmakers for making the Redskins too much of a longshot to win the Super Bowl and said that the rest of the country was still in thrall to "entrenched Redskins hating" that prevented them from seeing how good the Redskins really are. As Boz wrote:
Do the 35-to-1 people think Griffin is still horizontal on the gouged heath of FedEx Non-Field?
 No, they just choose to ignore his recovery. Somewhere there is someone dim enough to think that RGII’s knee is not 99.9-percent healed; but that person has not been exposed to the Post’s occasional coverage of this joint; or, during warmups, seen Griffin sprint from end zone to end zone, doing a handspring into a triple back flip with a halfgainer.
No, maybe the rest of the football-watching world just knows that coming back from reconstructive knee surgery isn't as easy as RGIII and the Redskins have claimed it is--and don't want to bet their money on it.

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?