Monday, September 7, 2009

Fire Jim Riggleman

No, I'm not changing the name of the blog, and I'm not starting a new petition or printing new t-shirts, but I have come to the conclusion that Jim Riggleman should not be retained as manager of the Washington Nationals.

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."

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.
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.

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.


Unknown said...

This team doesn't have very good luck with guys named "Jim." Maybe we should just avoid Jim's all together, or make sure to give them nicknames/ call them by their real name (James) and avoid developing a true curse of Jim!

dcbatgirl said...

I'd like to see your analysis of all the pitchers who have pitched for Jim and *did not* break down.

I think that all of this is more complicated than you imply. Jim was not and is not the only person involved in decision-making in the examples you cite, and even if he was/were, you suggest simple cause and effect when other variables are also important.

Often, I have enjoyed reading what you write, but my assessment of your various analyses has changed over time. Increasingly, I think that you make up your mind first, and then look for whatever information you can find to back up your foregone conclusion.

Steven said...

If you look at all the young prospect pitchers Jim has broken in to the major leagues in Chi and here in DC, pretty much all of them are cited here. I haven't found an example of a good young pitcher from his time in Chicago who successfully transitioned to the big leagues. Not one.

Steven said...

If you know of one, feel free to share.

Unknown said...

I am curious Steven, I have seen you nail Riggles to the cross and I agree that he probably isn't the man for the job. But my question is who would you want to manage the Nationals? We have heard names like Valentine and some of D-backs coaching staff but to rephase the question, who do you trust with our young pitching staff? Will we need to do away with McCatty as well?

Steven said...

Sadly, I can think of a lot more people I don't want than people I do.

I don't want a retread. I don't want someone who thinks no good ideas have been had since 1975. I think chances are that the best candidate out there is someone whom I haven't heard of.

An Briosca Mor said...

Riggleman has nothing to do with the number of innings any of these young pitchers has thrown this year. It's Rizzo's decision (with input I'm sure from Riggleman and the rest of the organization) when to put any of them on the big league club, and the assumption is of course that if a starter is on the 25-man roster he's pitching every fifth day. Riggleman does have the call on how far they go into the game once they start, but he is absolutely not leaving any of them in games too long. If anything, his hook is quicker than Acta's was.

Riggleman also has no say in whether or not a pitcher chooses to speak up about pain or gut it out. That's the pitcher's decision alone, and on any occasion that one of them has spoken up about pain, Riggleman/Rizzo have always erred on the side of caution and shut them down immediately. Perhaps seeing one or two of their peers being shut down like that has caused the rest of them to clam up about feeling pain, so as not to have the door shut on their own careers?

There might be many reasons to fire Riggleman, but this is most certainly not one.

Unknown said...

I pretty much feel the same way, I just don't wanna see another Manny Acta but I think Manny is one of a kind so getting lighting striking twice there would be difficult...

Bland Moniker said...

I'm not sure if the question is so much who manages the Nats pitchers as it is how they should be managed differently. How do we find when out a player is hurt if not by asking? Weekly MRI exams? Atlanta and Oakland have had luck developing young starters, but their guys throw a lot of innings (Stammen, by the way didn't) and those teams have injuries too (Steve Avery, Rich Harden). Avoiding overuse is a good plan, but eyond that, what can be done?

Anonymous said...

Steven, I think you're dead-on. His answer to Chico's question is just the last in a series of very troubling answers he has given lately.

This is the critical issue:
"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."

Since Riggleman is obviously creating exactly that kind of clubhouse culture (his remarks really can't be understood otherwise), he's jeopardizing the health of the young pitchers and thus the future of the entire franchise.

That alone is reason enough to conclude he needs to go.

(And please, send Dibble with him. The next time I hear him argue that the most important stat for a pitcher is how often his team wins when he's pitching I will stop watching MASN.)

Steven said...

@bland--it's not that complicated actually.

The first thing is to actually understand the health issues at play here--what's risky, what's not, what prevention strategies have worked, what haven't.

Then, you communicate well with your players. You be proactive. You make sure they know that you prefer young pitchers to err on the side of caution, that you would never ever accuse a player of being weak or a poor competitor because he was overly cautious about injury prevention.

Riggleman has shown clearly that he doesn't have the first part, which makes the second pretty much irrelevant.

Will said...

So I did some searching and came up with a few more pitching prospects Riggleman has handled in the majors. I’m only focusing on "prospects", determined by Baseball America’s annual rankings.
Steve Trachsel
#5 prospect in Cubs system in 94
Debuted in 93 (age 22): 190 innings.
94: 155 IP (mostly in the majors)
Under Riggleman:
95: 160 IP
96: 218 IP
Went on to have a successful career.
Amaury Telemaco
Cubs #2 prospect in 95
95 (Age 21): 147 IP (in AA)
96: 147 IP (split between MLB and AAA)
97: 167 IP (split between AA, AAA and MLB)
Went on to have an average career over 9 seasons
Terry Adams
#3 prospect for Cubs in 1996
94 (age 21): 84 IP (A+)
95: 62 IP (between AA, AAA, MLB)
96: 101 IP
97: 74 IP
Went on to have moderate success over 11 seasons
Tim Worrell
#3 prospect for SD in 93
92 (age 24): 188 IP (between AA and AAA)
93: 188 IP (between AAA and MLB)
94: 15 IP (apparently due to injury)
95: Switched to relief, 60 IP (between AA, AAA and MLB)
Scott Sanders
#3 prospect for SD in 93
92 (age23): 160 IP (between AA and AAA)
93: 205 IP (between AAA and MLB)
94: 111 IP
95: 93 IP
Bounced between AAA and MLB for another 10 seasons
Joey Hamilton
#57 in MLB, #1 in SD in 94
92 (age 21): 119 IP (A to AA)
93: 149 IP (from A+ to AAA)
94: 168 IP (between AAA and MLB)
Went on to have success with the Padres for several seasons, then bounced around the league.

I've been unable to find a historical database of DL stints, so I don't know how much time they spent on the DL. However, with the exception of Worrell, it doesn't appear as if any were seriously injury during Riggleman's tenure. Though several players had concerning IP increases (Trachsel, Adams, Sanders).

I briefly looked at how he handled Hamilton (the best of all the aforementioned prospects), and he rode him pretty hard in 94. Hamilton debuted in late May, and went on to start 16 games, before the strike ended the season early. In those starts, Hamilton averaged 100 pitches/game, and exceeded 100 seven times, all while San Diego played .400 baseball. Fortunately, it didn't faze Hamilton, and he went on to have several more good years.

miseaujeu said...

I think the problem with telling young pitchers that they need to know the difference between normal soreness and an injury -- is that until they're injured, they may not know that it *isn't* (or wasn't) normal soreness. If the Nationals are tying up millions of dollars in pitchers, why not protect the investment by encouraging them to talk to veteran pitchers, trainers and medical staff about what they feel as the season goes on?

bramrok said...

ight now this imbecile Riggleman is destroying the Nationals who actually have talent. He leaves mike morse ,batting .400 ,on the bench while he persists in giving willie harris .150 at bats. he has a different lineup everyday but can not figure out the obvious. roger bernadina .280 should be leading off and playing center. bernadina is a great player and the fastest guy on the team. mike morse hitting .400 should be starting in right field. nyjer morgan . 240 should be benched. willie harris should never be allowed to hit. i would have bernadina cf, morse rf, zimmerman 3b, dunn 1b, willingham lf, pudge rodriguez c, desmond ss, guzman 2b, and pitcher in my lineup and riggleman cant see the obvious benefits of such a lineup. the top of his lineup continues to fail because he uses nyjer morgan .240 who can not hit and can not steal effectively. riggleman recently used a lineup in cleveland that had nieves .170, morgan .240, kennedy .230, and harris .150. he batted willie harris .150 sixth! the next day he used harris as his dh!!! morse has been on fire when used but riggleman continues to bench him