I have gripes about his over-managing in the running game and other relatively minor issues, but the big problem that could be deadly to the team and should be fatal to his prospects as manager is his dangerous abuse of young pitchers.
Let's review the track record. In Chicago, he had more or less two young pitchers who could be considered prospects, Geremi Gonzalez and Kerry Wood.
Riggleman, managing a last-place team going nowhere, whipped the 22-year-old Gonzalez for 206 total innings in 1997 (combined major and minor league IP), a 113-inning jump over the previous season. He broke down the next year, three surgeries followed, and he didn't pitch again in the majors until 2003, at a shadow his previous self.
A year later, Riggleman threw the 20-year-old Wood 166.2 innings, including pitch counts of 133, 129, 123 (twice), 122 (twice), and 121 (twice). It came in a pennant race, but regardless the team paid a steep price for a first-round Wild Card exit, as Wood had Tommy John and missed all of 1999.
This season, two young pitchers have gone down on Riggleman's watch, Jordan Zimmermann and Craig Stammen. Both pitchers pitched through pain before finally giving in to surgery.
Zimmermann only had one major-league start on Riggleman's watch. It's tough to blame him entirely (or even mostly), but we do know that Zimmermann had pain for a least a couple weeks prior to getting shut down, and Riggleman hasn't given us any indication that the team was or should have been more proactive.
Stammen on the other hand says he had elbow pain for months--months!--before finally getting shut down, and most of those risky innings did happen on Riggleman's watch.
While this track record raises flags, Riggleman's comments are giant blinking lights. His comments about pitching injuries are mostly a study in stubbornness.
A few weeks back, I asked him about Kerry Wood, and though he did say he would do things differently in hindsight, is reasoning basically broke down as: 1. I did the right thing; 2. My usage had nothing to do with Wood's injury; 3. I would have used him less just to protect myself from public criticism after the fact, even though it would have been the wrong thing to do.
Then this week Chico Harlan gave us this Q&A:
Sunday, interim manager Jim Riggleman was asked about Stammen's arthroscopic surgery (it was successful!) when he added, unprompted, that the rookie this season "exhibited a toughness that you like to see in pitchers. You know, the attitude -- if something's wrong here, I'm still going to pitch."The problem is that the line between pain and injury often isn't that clear. Pitchers can "gut it out" through all kinds of bad injuries. That's how "cascading" injuries happen. Start with a lat strain, overcompensate with other muscles, and end up with a torn labrum. And "normal soreness" can feel an awful lot what you or I would consider a real injury.
Hmm, I thought.
So I followed up with this question.
Q: I'd imagine there's a fine balance where maybe a team wants its pitchers to tough it out, maybe you want to know every ache and pain. As a manager, what would you tell a young pitcher about when to speak up about arm pain?
RIGGLEMAN: That's a tough question. It's very pertinent. What I have tried to tell guys, the earliest in your career that you can figure out the difference between pain and injury, the better off you're going to be. Normal soreness that you get from pitching, you've got to [determine], Is this just something that is normal from pitching? It's an exhausting thing to your body to throw a baseball that violently for six to nine innings. So when you recover from that through the week, you've got to know what that feels like. You've got to know your body. And when you get to a point where something is more than normal soreness, you've got to speak up. Because that might be the indication of something that could blow up on you.
Riggleman's lip service to wanting pitchers to "speak up" doesn't hold up when he puts the entire onus for monitoring the situation on the player. That's not encouraging communication--it's deferring responsibility.
And he simply can't expect players to speak up about pain at the same time that he's praising the toughness of an injured 25-year-old who pitched for months with "something wrong" before surgery.
If you talk to experts in this area, they'll tell you that pitching injury risk goes up not so much from pitching a lot, but from pitching tired. That's why pitch counts and innings counts matter. So when you're creating a clubhouse culture where caution equals lack of toughness or competitive fire, you're just asking for pitchers to keep quiet and hurt themselves.
But preparation also matters. Spending time in the weight room, building up leg strength, cardiovascular fitness... these things matter tremendously. Praise toughness and endurance in off-season workouts, not pitching through pain and getting yourself hurt.
The list of good young pitchers who have been cut down by overuse is almost endless: Steve McCatty, Mike Norris, Mark Fidrych, Mark Prior, Don Gullett, Gary Nolan... the list could go on for days. Because to make sure the Nationals do everything possible to keep Steven Strasburg (and Drew Storen, etc...), Riggleman needs to go.