Let's kick this off with a couple housekeeping items. First of all, I apologize that this column wasn't in its traditional Monday lunchtime slot this week. But you know how life is: one minute you're composing column ideas and the next minute you're juggling job offers and helping friends move and driving down to the White House to spend some time with a couple thousand of your new best friends. This week kind of got away from me, is what I'm saying.
Second, I'm shelving the traditional three-up, three-down format this week to discuss a subject that's very near and dear to all our hearts. I'm talking, of course, about Jim Riggleman and the groundswell to secure his services as Nationals manager for years to come.
Let's get the full disclosure out of the way first: I covered Riggleman during my time at TBD and always found him to be a decent sort, generous with his time and responses. I have a particular memory of the day Stephen Strasburg's torn UCL was announced last summer. At Riggleman's pregame meeting with the media, I asked him to compare Kerry Wood (who Riggleman managed with the Cubs) to Strasburg. Riggleman gave my question more respect and time than it probably deserved, and I got a pretty good sidebar out of it.
Over the last couple days, certain people in the media have called for the Nationals, who picked up the option year on Riggleman's contract prior to this season, to lock him down for the long term. Jon Heyman of Sports Illustrated argued today that "Washington has stayed afloat without its best pitcher (Stephen Strasburg) or best position player (Ryan Zimmerman). Kudos to Riggleman." Rick Snider wanted an extension drawn up for Riggleman before a ball had even been pitched in anger this season. So did Jason Reid. You get the idea here.
Now, I think most of us realize that there's only so much a baseball manager can do and say in the day-to-day business of running a team. It's certainly not Riggleman's fault that the Nationals are scraping the bottom of the National League in most major offensive categories (they're last in hits as of this writing; next to last in average, on-base percentage and OPS; and third-from-last in slugging percentage). But that doesn't mean we can give him credit for Jason Marquis' rejuvenation or Drew Storen's reliability coming out of the bullpen, either.
The way I see it, there are three ways the manager can pull the strings and directly influence the outcome of the game: in making out the daily batting order, deciding when to make pitching changes, and (particularly important in the National League) deciding when and who to pinch-hit. In these areas, which I may call "direct managing" for lack of a better term, I've been less than impressed with Riggleman. To take the most obvious example with regard to Riggleman's lineup: Rick Ankiel has had no business being in the No.2 hole as often as he has been, especially with these numbers. As for the other two areas, well, I need only point you to this game, which I had the fortune (or misfortune) of attending in person. I can assure you that walking Eli Whiteside, leaving a tired John Lannan in to face Aubrey Huff, and the infuriating stand-up/sit-down game between Laynce Nix and Brian Bixler didn't look any better from Section 110 than it did on most of your TV sets.
To his credit, Riggleman admitted his error after the game, but the whole sequence gave the anti-Riggleman crowd ammunition that will keep dry for the rest of his tenure in Washington, however long it lasts. The concept of Riggleman as a manager who "values the wrong things" was further crystallized Wednesday night when Riggleman got himself tossed for arguing balls and strikes with home plate umpire Alfonso Marquez. Not only was Riggleman's argument wrong on the merits (here's the PFX of the Adam LaRoche at-bat in question. If anything, Phillies starter Vance Worley got squeezed), but it kept an issue alive that should have been long dead. Here's the whole sequence. Marquez allows LaRoche to say his piece as he walks away, as most umpires are wont to do nowadays. Then Riggleman pipes up and gets himself ejected. Others will no doubt disagree and play the "defending his player" card, but to me, getting thrown out arguing balls and strikes in the 4th inning of a scoreless game seems pretty pointless.
But no matter. In the end, Riggleman will be judged as all managers are: on wins and losses, and specifically whether Washington gets more than the 69 wins they notched last year. There's still plenty of time left to determine if Jim Riggleman deserves another year at the helm, and the difficulty of Mike Rizzo's decision in that regard is up to Jim and Jim alone.