Monday, April 30, 2012

Redskins' confidence in RGIII paved way for Cousins pick

I've gone back and forth on the Redskins' selection of quarterback Kirk Cousins in the fourth round (No. 102 overall) of the NFL Draft, and I'm still not sure which side I'm on. I can see both sides:
  • Mike Shanahan wanted Cousins because he thinks he's one of the best quarterbacks in the draft and believes he was too talented to let him pass in the fourth round. It was all about value.
  • The Redskins had (and still have) holes they needed to fill in the draft, and instead of picking Cousins, they should have taken another position of need.
Maybe the Redskins should have chosen a different position. They certainly could use more talent on the offensive line and in the secondary. But they made the bold move of gambling on Cousins instead. 

Does it make sense? It seems ridiculous to have to say this, but Robert Griffin III will be given every opportunity to shine and start from day one. Unlike what some analysts like Ron Jaworski have speculated, there will be no quarterback controversy unless Griffin is absolutely atrocious and Cousins is phenomenal -- which is not realistic. And if that ends up being the case, the real concern will be why Griffin is playing so poorly -- not who the backup quarterback is. Because if Griffin fails, the Shanahan coaching experiment fails.

Redskins fans have been thrilled about the prospect of taking Griffin ever since the team made the deal for the No. 2 overall selection with the Rams, and having Cousins on board will not eliminate that excitement. Even after the Redskins drafted Cousins, no one is hurriedly crafting or looking to order a Kirk Cousins Redskins jersey. Griffin has already won fans over. 

One thing that makes little sense to me, though, is how this all is somehow a slap in the face to Griffin. Honestly, this move suggests the exact opposite. The Redskins and Mike Shanahan must be so impressed with the talent level and maturity of Griffin that they'd even think about making this type of draft choice. If you've heard Griffin speak or read some of his quotes from various interviews, do you really think he's the type of person who's going to get rattled by a little competition (and I use that word loosely)? Griffin has handled everything beautifully and is clever enough to know to stay focused on the job at hand. In essence, he's been the starting quarterback of the Redskins for several weeks now: He's done everything in interviews but been introduced as the starter of this team only because that's not really how the process works. But just like the starting quarterback in Indianapolis is already Andrew Luck, Washington's quarterbacking job is Griffin's to lose. Still, on-field play is whatever matters, which Griffin is aware of.

And by the way, players get hurt, and there's no way to always adequately prepare for it. But having Cousins on the team will help. The Redskins already parted ways with John Beck, and Rex Grossman will really only be the backup because he's the only quarterback on the roster with NFL experience heading into this season. If the Shanahans learned anything from last season, it's that Grossman/Beck is not the answer. That's why they made the move to get Griffin. And getting Cousins may not have been on their to-do list, but the opportunity was too good to pass up. Maybe the Redskins hold on to Cousins and he backs up Griffin for several years. Maybe Griffin fails to live up to the hype and flames out in a couple seasons, with Cousins there to take the job. Or maybe the Redskins trade Cousins after a season or two, allowing them to restock some of the picks lost in the trade for Griffin. Or maybe something else happens entirely.

Here's the point: The Redskins believe taking Cousins was the right move. They think he's talented, and talent equals value. Regardless, I doubt the Redskins would have made a similar move with a quarterback who they weren't absolutely sure was the guy they wanted to play quarterback for the next decade. If anyone is going to be able to withstand the pressure of impatient fans calling for his job after a rough patch or know exactly the right things to say when asked difficult questions, it's Griffin. And the Redskins know that.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Redskins select G Josh LeRibeus in third round

Unquestionably, the Redskins' biggest move of this draft was the trade up for and subsequent selection of Robert Griffin III. The future of the Redskins is basically in his hands, and his development over the next couple of seasons will be the deciding factor in how far this team can truly go. But the Redskins still have several other holes on the roster, and they tried to take a small step last night by filling an area of weakness in the third round.

Originally, the Redskins had the sixth choice in the third round, No. 69 overall, but they swapped picks with the Bills and moved down two spots. By doing so, they also picked up a seventh-round pick (No. 217). Then with pick No. 71, the Redskins picked guard Josh LeRibeus from SMU.

Whenever the Redskins pick an offensive lineman with the Shanahans around, his fit into the team's zone-blocking scheme is important. Predictably, LeRibeus should fit that scheme well. Here's John Keim, writing for Sporting News:
How he fits: Leribeus adds depth inside, something the Redskins desperately need. He started two seasons at left guard, but also played right guard and worked out at center for teams before the draft. Leribeus played in a man-blocking scheme at SMU, but will play in a zone scheme with Washington. However, he said he felt more comfortable in the zone scheme he played in during the East-West Shrine Game. He’s not considered a great athlete, but has good footwork.
Next, here's ESPN's Dan Graziano on the pick:
Not among the highest-ranked guards on the Scouts Inc. draft list, LeRibeus appears to be a pick the Redskins took for scheme-specific reasons rather than because of particularly good measurables. He's had some issues with his weight and has had to lose dozens of pounds to get down to his current 312. And he didn't [grade] out especially well as a blocker. But the Redskins look for specific characteristics in their offensive linemen because their running game relies on a zone-blocking scheme. And LeRibeus' strengths, according to the scouting reports, are his initial quickness, his awareness of what's going on around him and his ability to pick up and direct scheme changes. He was a team captain at SMU and, given the right amount of time to develop in and learn the scheme, could be the kind of guy who's a leader on the offensive line.
Here's a quick scouting report via CBS Sports:
Strengths: Understands body positioning and angles. Quick-footed with the ability to pull and cover a large area. Gritty attitude and competitive drive. Brute strength and raw power. Strong hands to take defenders where he wants. Stayed football-focused as a senior and had very good senior year. Nice job sinking his butt to anchor. Weaknesses: Missed all of 2010 (academics). Weight needs to be monitored after dropping over 75 pounds prior to senior season. Stiff hips and body movements. Lacks burst off the snap and is more of a one-speed player. Doesn't show the lateral quickness to shuffle in a flash. Needs to be more aggressive at the point of attack.
NFL Network's Mike Mayock also had this to say about LeRibeus: "He's a tough guy. Short arms, but he's got a nasty disposition."

The Redskins arguably reached for LeRibeus, but they must believe he's an ideal fit to what they're doing offensively. And because of what they ask their linemen to do in the running game, it's harder to accurately judge how a player will fit on their offensive line. Some places had LeRibeus as a third- or fourth-round prospect, while others had him as a fifth-rounder or later. It's also not great news to find out that he was academically ineligible in 2010 and that he's had some weight issues. But he also seems like a funny, good-natured guy, so as long as he works hard and picks up the Redskins' schemes relatively quickly, it's at least possible that he finds himself starting by the end of the season.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Hammel's secret weapon: his two-seamer

Coming into this season, Jason Hammel was thought of as an average, fifth-starter type. He's never finished a season with an ERA under 4.33, though that's not an easy thing to do when pitching in Coors Field. But in 2009 and 2010, his peripheral numbers weren't that bad -- he was striking out a decent amount and not walking many while inducing a bunch of ground balls -- which partially explains him posting 3.9 fWAR (FanGraphs WAR) in each of those seasons. In 2011, though, Hammel's walks were up, his strikeouts were down, and his ground ball rate dropped a few percentage points. All of that happened while his BABIP (.280) was actually more than 45 points lower than those previous two seasons. So Hammel wasn't exactly a hot commodity.

Regardless, Hammel pitched more than 170 innings in each of those seasons in Colorado, and the Orioles, always looking for at least average-ish starters who can eat innings, pulled the trigger on the offseason move to bring Hammel and reliever Matt Lindstrom to Baltimore in exchange for Jeremy Guthrie. Neither Hammel nor Lindstrom is a prospect, and the move didn't really save the O's any money, so Dan Duquette either saw something in Hammel that no one else did or simply wanted to shore up the bullpen a little while also acquiring an OK starter.

After pitching seven shutout innings against the Blue Jays in a 3-0 win on Wednesday night, Hammel is now 3-0 with a 1.73 ERA. In 26 innings, he's struck out 25 and only walked eight. He's also getting a ton of ground balls, thanks to what appears to be a much-improved two-seam fastball. I don't remember reading much on Hammel's two-seamer in the offseason or its development, but I'm sure it was reported. Then again, pitchers, catchers, and coaches work on  a lot of things in the offseason, and obviously not all of them work or continue to be utilized throughout the season.

Here's a quote from Hammel after his first start of the season, against the Twins:
"What I did in Spring Training, [and] at the end of last year was a huge help," said Hammel, who called Sunday's start the best of his career. "[I] changed my focus on the mound, I was starting to wander, think of the wrong things instead of what I could do. It's really changed my game a lot."
Hammel and O's pitching coach Rick Adair apparently put in some work on improving Hammel's two-seamer in spring training, and so far it's paying off. Here's a more recent quote on Hammel by Lindstrom:
"When we came over together, I knew what kind of pitcher the Orioles were getting in him," Lindstrom said. "He's mixing his pitches well, and what I'm also seeing is Jason mixing in his two-seam fastball and utilizing it a lot more in counts where hitters think they're getting a four-seamer, and it's devastating. I'm his catch partner every day, so I think we're helping each other every day."
So what's the difference? Hammel is getting much more movement on the pitch, and because of that he's confident enough to throw it more often. Via PitchFx, Hammel hasn't thrown a whole lot of two-seamers prior to this year. This year, 40.5 percent of Hammel's pitches have been two-seamers; last year he was at 13.1 percent, and 6.3 percent the year before that. It's possible PitchFx lumped lots of those offerings in with other fastballs, but it's more likely that he's throwing many more of them now.

Hammel's mostly throwing fastballs and sliders, and he's been extremely effective doing so. It's also helpful that his fastball velocity (currently about 93.4 mph) is the hardest he's thrown in his career, though again, it's very early in the season.

In a post yesterday on Hammel, Daniel Moroz of Camden Crazies noted that Hammel's increased velocity is causing more movement, leading to more swings and misses. He also mentions that Hammel's slider is getting more swings and misses, which may be directly related to how efficient Hammel's fastballs have been. If opposing hitters are worried about Hammel pounding the corners with fastballs, they may be caught off guard with a well-timed, well-placed slider.

I'm required to mention that this is a small sample of innings and that Hammel is due for a rough start in the near future. But if he keeps throwing this hard, getting similar movement on his pitches, and mixing up his repertoire well, he could end up with his best season as a pro. And that would make a lot of O's fans happy.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Ernie Grunfeld keeps his job, for some reason

As reported by Michael Lee of The Washington Post, Ernie Grunfeld will remain with the Wizards for at least one more season. It had been widely, and reasonably, speculated that Grunfeld would lose his job and that Ted Leonsis would go in a different direction, but that is not the case.

I'm on the replace Grunfeld bandwagon -- and so are 52 percent of people who voted on the poll in Lee's article (they are "strongly opposed to Grunfeld's return"). I've already presented most of my thoughts on Grunfeld in previous articles, but this should speak for itself. Grunfeld was hired in June 2003; here are the Wizards' regular season records under his watch:

2003-04: 25-57
2004-05: 45-37
2005-06: 42-40
2006-07: 41-41
2007-08: 43-39
2008-09: 19-63
2009-10: 26-56
2010-11: 23-59
2011-12: 18-46 (2 games remaining)

That's not good enough. Are those the results of someone who a team really wants to have around for nearly a decade? I don't think so.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Robert Griffin III on the Redskins' offense and McNabb

Don Banks of Sports Illustrated recently spoke with Robert Griffin III, and like most people who do so, came away very impressed with the 22-year-old quarterback. You should certainly read the whole piece, but there were a couple of quotes from Griffin that I found particularly interesting.

First, on what he's learned about Kyle Shanahan's offense:
"It's pretty tough to gauge how much of it I know already," he said. "By no means did I know what they wanted to do with me specifically within that offense after our session. But I know the offense has a lot of formations, a lot of motion, and they're going to try to disguise things. You can get a base feeling on an offense, but you can't say within three hours I'm familiar with their offense.

"It's an offense that asks the quarterback to specifically stay within the system. I think a lot of good systems do that. If you're going to one-hitch throw here, you do a one-hitch throw here. But once everything breaks down, and you go through all three or four of your reads, that's where you can be creative. I think whenever you can work within the system out, rather than outside the system in, it's better for you. That's what I tried to do at Baylor."
With Griffin's strong arm, accuracy, and athleticism, it's hard not to get excited every time he discusses the Redskins' offense. Griffin also commented on Donovan McNabb's recent critical comments of Mike Shanahan and the Redskins:
"All respect to Donovan McNabb, he had a great career," said Griffin, when I asked him if he understood McNabb's point. "He was one of my dad's [favorite] quarterbacks when he was a Philly fan. He's not a Philly fan any more, because I'm about to get drafted. But what [McNabb] said probably did come from a place of just bad taste. He had a bad taste in his mouth from his experience with Coach Shanahan, and I understand that. He never said anything bad about me, he was just trying to warn me, trying to say, 'Don't let egos get in the way.'

"But that's part of the job at quarterback, to be able to manage different types of egos and different types of people. So I'm looking forward to going up there and managing whatever it is that needs to be managed. All respect to Donovan, but it just didn't work out for him in Washington, and that's why he thought it didn't work out."
It's hard to think of a more perfect response to McNabb than that. Well done, RGIII. (Or is it RG3? This really needs to be settled.)

Also: You should read the outstanding article of Griffin's legacy by ESPN's Tom Friend. Fantastic insight.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Reynolds could done as the full-time third baseman

Remember when the Orioles signed Garrett Atkins a couple years ago and tried to sell fans on him being the team's primary first baseman? (The O's do a lot of things like this.) Even in the face of mounting evidence that Atkins had taken a considerable step back and wasn't a full-time player anymore, he was signed to be the guy at first. Well, as you know, after a few months of him barely doing anything, the O's released him. Atkins hasn't played for a major league team since.

When the O's traded for Mark Reynolds, he was brought in to play third base. Unlike the Atkins signing, that seemed fine. Not only did the O's not have any reliable options at third, but Reynolds actually had an average defensive season at third in 2010 (2.2 UZR in 1,214 innings). So the O's hoped he could continue to play average (or even slightly below average) defense and give them more production at the plate.

Reynolds had an OK offensive season, posting a .221/.323/.483 line that most O's fans hoped would be better, but probably couldn't be that surprised with. But what was truly terrible was Reynolds's defense: Instead of reverting back to a below-average defender at third, Reynolds skipped that level and went all the way to abysmal. Of all major league third basemen, Reynolds was far and away the worst, with a UZR of -22.8. The next closest awful defender was Houston's Chris Johnson, who finished with a UZR of -14.5. I had to go back to 2007 to find a third baseman who had that kind of horrible defensive season at third. That guy's name is Ryan Braun, who had a -27.7 UZR and was so terrible that he moved to left field and has played there since. (I'd say that's worked out well.) It's actually funny to go back and look at players who have posted major league worst UZRs at third. There are a few former O's from various seasons: Tony Batista, Ty Wigginton, and Melvin Mora.

Reynolds is terrible at third, and the O's made the decision to bring him back as the team's starting third baseman. All spring, fans heard about his renewed dedication to third-base defense and how he had improved. Considering some of the other team options at third -- Chris Davis, Wilson Betemit, and Ryan Flaherty -- it's not like the O's had any other slick-fielding player to take his place if he faltered.

And that's exactly what's happened. In the team's first handful of games, Reynolds committed two errors and hasn't looked better. He still doesn't have much range, struggles when charging the ball, and generally makes routine plays look much more difficult.

I'm not sure fans ever really bought the idea of signing Atkins. I don't know if a majority of fans believed Reynolds could play third base competently last season after not seeing a whole lot of him in the National League. But there's one thing I do know: No one bought the notion that Reynolds could transform into anything resembling a decent major league third baseman. I'm glad that he worked hard in the spring and dedicated himself to re-learning the craft. Unfortunately, hard work is not always enough, and Reynolds isn't some up-and-coming player who deserves the benefit of the doubt. He hurts the team when he plays third -- case closed.

Fortunately, it seems that Buck Showalter agrees. Betemit got the start at third base last night while Reynolds served as the designated hitter. And while Betemit is far from a significant improvement at third, he is at least somewhat better. I'd like to see Flaherty get a chance at third, but since he has to be on the O's active roster all season to stay in Baltimore's organization, I guess there's no hurry to run him out there.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

O's lack left-handed relief options

The Orioles made the interesting decision yesterday to put Darren O'Day on the roster instead of Zach Phillips, who will start the season in Triple-A Norfolk. Without Phillips in the bullpen, Troy Patton will be the team's only left-handed reliever. On top of that, Patton may end up as the long man in the bullpen, meaning the O's could be forced to use a lot of right-handed pitching to get opposing lefties out.

Dan Duquette, though, doesn't seem to think that's a problem. Here's a quick comment, courtesy of The Baltimore Sun's Dan Connolly:
All right, well let's see if that's accurate. Besides Patton, here's what the rest of the bullpen will look like on opening day: Jim Johnson, Kevin Gregg, Matt Lindstrom, Pedro Strop, O'Day, and Luis Ayala. Let's look at their abilities when facing lefties (listed as FIP/xFIP -- ERA is not available for R/L splits):

Johnson: 3.47/3.98 (128.2 innings)
Gregg: 3.70/4.16 (282.1 innings)
Lindstrom: 4.18/4.33 (122.1 innings)
Strop: 4.05/4.22 (19 innings)
O'Day: 4.25/3.89 (64.2 innings)
Ayala: 4.71/4.55 (183.1 innings)

That's actually not as bad as I was expecting. It's not surprising that Johnson has decent numbers against lefties since he's the O's best reliever, but besides Ayala, no one in the group is particularly terrible. I expected at least a couple of them being in the high-4s, but that doesn't appear to be the case. Still, none of these guys is overly adept at retiring lefties, which is something every good bullpen needs.

Just because a guy is a lefty doesn't mean he's effective against left-handed hitters, but lefties do have a natural advantage over other lefties. In 18 innings against lefties, Patton has a 2.40/4.56 line. But neither Patton (43.1 career innings) nor Phillips (8 career innings) has extended major-league experience, and those seem to be the best two lefty relief options right now. And that's also why the O's scooped up Dontrelle Willis when he was released by the Phillies a few weeks ago. In 225.1 career innings against lefties, Willis has a line of 2.50/2.88. So if he can demonstrate some amount of control in Norfolk while the O's struggle to retire lefties, Willis could very well be in Baltimore in a matter of weeks.

Coincidentally, former Orioles reliever Clay Rapada made the Yankees' 25-man roster. Rapada, a lefty one-out guy, has a 2.28/2.59 line in 34.2 innings against lefties. While it's a luxury to be able to carry a guy like that in the bullpen, the O's also don't have anyone on their active roster who's even close to being that effective against lefties. So when the game is on the line and an opposing left-handed hitter steps to the plate, the O's may be in some trouble.

For what it's worth, Andy MacPhail deserves some criticism. He was the guy who not only signed Gregg, but signed him to a two-year deal when it absolutely wasn't necessary. The only thing keeping Gregg on this team is his contract, and if not for that, Phillips would probably be on the team right now. So thanks for that, Andy.