When the word “interim” was removed from his title in November, many were surprised that the Nationals had kept Jim Riggleman on board as their manager. Promoted from his bench coach position when Manny Acta was fired in July, Riggleman is more old-school than his predecessor, and some felt that the franchise was in need of younger, more progressive leadership in its quest to become competitive in the NL East. It is not, however, fair to label the 57-year-old former skipper of the Padres, Cubs, and Mariners a dinosaur. Riggleman wasn’t weaned on sabermetrics, but he does understand the importance of balancing statistical analysis with old-school sensibilities. Riggleman talked about his approach to the game, and the role he’ll play in the Stephen Strasburg era in the nation’s capital, during the Winter Meetings in Indianapolis.
David Laurila: How would you describe yourself as a manager?
Jim Riggleman: Oh boy, that’s an interesting question. I don’t really have a concrete way to answer it other than to say that, like most managers, your style as a manager is kind of reflected by the assets of your ball club. If you have a ball club that is young, you manage a certain way. If you have a ball club of veterans, you handle situations a different way. If you have speed, you manage according to the speed. If you don’t have speed, you manage according to what other assets you have, whether that’s power or pitching and defense. So, I think that maybe “adaptable” would be the word. I would hope that I’m adaptable to the roster rather than saying, “I’m an aggressive manager,” meaning that we run, run, run, but that’s not too smart if you can’t run. So, if I had to find a word, that would be it: adaptable.
DL: In a perfect world, would you rather have a speed team or a power team?
JR: I think somewhere in between. I like baseball players. I like guys who can run well enough that they can go first to third, and they can run well enough that they can score from second on a single or from first on a double. Not necessarily base stealers, but good base runners. I like hitters who can put the ball in play. I guess, in a nutshell, I would prefer a 15 home run, 45 doubles guy who doesn’t strike out much over a 30 home run guy who strikes out all the time. Now, if you’re getting 45 homers, that’s different. But I like guys who can put the ball in play so you can start runners in front of them. I also like guys who can field their position and aren’t one-dimensional players.
DL: What do you stand on the school of thought that a strikeout is no worse than any other out that doesn’t advance a runner?
JR: I call them unproductive outs. There are outs that you can make in the game that are productive outs, where you advance a runner or stay out of a double play-that type of thing. I’m obviously… I think that everybody would prefer that their guys don’t strike out a lot, but there are players in the game who are extremely successful with relatively high strikeout numbers, because they hit the ball out of the ball park. We’ve got one of the best in the game, but your home run numbers have to be very high to make that work, and it’s hard to find those people who can hit that many home runs.
DL: How similar are you to Manny Acta?
JR: You know, I think that Manny and I have a lot of similar traits, or qualities, about how we manage a ball game. We’re both somewhat old-school guys, but I think we both like to feel that we’re current enough with today’s world, and today’s player, to… again, I’ll use the word “adapt,” to what makes players tick, and so forth. But I think that maybe the thing that we both have in common, more than anything, is respect for the game. Manny has a tremendous respect for the game, as I do, in terms of how you play the game, and how hard you play the game, and your respect for the fans, for the umpires, for ownership. There’s a protocol there that Manny really respects, and I’m very much with him on that.
DL: What about when it comes to statistical analysis? Acta is regarded as being pretty progressive in that respect.
JR: Well, I’m probably not as astute on the computer as Manny is, but the information that comes out of that computer…I like getting that information. I like to sort it out and see what I want to use, just as Manny does, but he’s probably a little better at going into the computer himself and getting it than I am.
DL: Do you use data in your decision-making process more than you used to?
JR: Well, we get more data. I would have been using that data back in the day if I had it, but with the amount of information that we have available now, you have to sift through it. You can get overloaded with it, and some of it starts to contradict itself, but it’s all at my disposal. I know what I want to get, and I go to that. And then, I know that other people in the room, and on the staff, are picking and choosing some other things that they like to draw from, so the ideas get exchanged and you add a little bit to what you’ve always had. And maybe you take away a little something that you’re not getting any use out of. You don’t want to have so much there that your mind just clutters. You want to have some usable stuff in front of you that is good information and good data.
DL: Data aside, how much have you changed since you got your first big-league manager’s job in 1992?
JR: I’ve changed some. I think we’ve all had to change, because the game has changed a little bit. We’ve gone through a steroid era, and we’re out of the steroid era, so I’ve managed before the steroids, during the steroids, and after steroids. But your basic principles pretty much stay the same; you try to have some things you believe in and you stay strong with your convictions. There are always going to be some basic rights and wrongs, and certain principles, that you have to live by, and manage by, but there have been some changes. There has been some education. You see some things that happen in the game, and you see some things that people do, and you realize, “You know what? I like that. I like what he did there. I like where he played that hitter. I like how he pitched this hitter. I like what they did offensively there.” You kind of pick some things up from other people, so it’s a continual learning process.
DL: How closely are you working with Mike Rizzo to shape the team?
JR: These meetings have been great, because Mike has been so busy putting his major-league staff together, in the last five or six weeks, that I was really looking forward to these meetings and getting a chance to discuss player personnel a little more aggressively, and we’ve been able to do that. Mike has held great meetings while we’ve been here. He’s really been able to get his staff together and get me and others together to talk about our needs.
DL: The Seattle Mariners significantly upgraded their defense this past season, and it helped pay dividends in their won-lost record. Do you see that as a good model for the Nationals?
JR: It’s been an issue for us. Last year we did not feel like we caught the ball as well as we should have, and we’ve used the Mariners as an example of a ballclub that has… their pitching was first in the league, and one of the reasons that their pitching was so effective was because their defense was so good. The two go hand in hand a little bit, and we feel like we need to upgrade our pitching, but we think that our pitching will upgrade itself alone if we can improve our defense.
DL: From what you’ve seen of him, where is Ian Desmond defensively?
JR: I only saw him in September, but he was really good. And Tim Foli managed him, so I talked to Tim, who made it very clear that this is a special player. He’s got some growing to do yet in terms of the routine play, and that idea has been imbedded into his head. But he’s a good player; he can make all the plays.
DL: What did Nyjer Morgan bring to the team last summer?
JR: He added… I don’t even know where to start. He added so much. He added energy, enthusiasm, he added on-base percentage, he created chaos on the bases, and he also played such a great center field that he changed the dynamic of our ballclub.
DL: It is often said that good players make a manager look smart, and vice versa. Just how much impact does a manager have on a team’s won-lost record at the end of the year?
JR: Well, nobody can quantify that. There’s no way that anybody can ever put a definitive number on that. Something I heard Billy Martin say one time-and I kind of take it from what Billy said-is that the best managers in the game lose the fewest games during the season opposed to the other managers. In other words, if Billy felt like, over the course of the season he screwed up four ballgames, but he knows that around the league the best anybody else did was so and so, who only screwed up seven. And he watched somebody else and knows that they screwed up 12. Well, he feels like he did a heck of a job in only losing four games for his club. Your decisions, that you make… somebody has to make those decisions, and some of those decisions will backfire. You just hope that it’s a minimal number, and if Billy felt that he was a good manager, it was because he felt that he lost fewer games for his team than the other managers lost for theirs.
DL: Do individual wins or losses stand out to a manager?
JR: Oh yeah, there are games that eat away at you. As we sit here right now, I can’t specifically point to a game, but I know that I’ve had some agonizing losses where I was amazed that we lost that game, and how we lost it. And there are games that we won that we never should have won. That thing of putting it behind you and forgetting about it… you definitely go home that night and it eats away at you. You’re really anxious for that next game to start so that you can really and truly put that other one behind you.
DL: Do you ever sit back after a game and think to yourself, “I over-managed”?
JR: Yeah, I think I’ve done that through the years. Over-managed is something that… you can get into that if you get too much information. But, basically, more often than not, if I question myself about something after a game, generally it’s because of something I didn’t do, more so than something I did. You know, the over-managing thing is maybe somebody from the outside looking in; they might think otherwise. But, as for myself, internally, I’ve been more upset with myself when I didn’t make a move rather than when I did.
DL: Looking at the won-lost records, 1998 has been your best season as a manager. Was it your best season, or do you feel that you actually did a better job in another year?
JR: I don’t think there are many years where I felt I was particularly better or worse, in any particular situation. I feel like I did what I could do. You try to get as many wins out of that ballclub as you can get, and for the most part I’ve walked away at the end of those years, regardless of when they were, and I’ve felt like I don’t know if anybody else would have gotten many more wins out of that club. The only year that I felt… I was the interim manager in Seattle, and when that season was over, I wasn’t happy with what was accomplished. I felt like we had left some things undone and I wanted to go back there and get it right. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.
DL: During Tony La Russa‘s media session [at the Winter Meetings], he said that there was a manager in Washington who he thought had done a pretty good job when he was in San Diego and Chicago. What does it mean to hear something like that from someone like La Russa?
JR: That’s very flattering. You know, Tony and I go way back, in our relationship, to the 1970s. We’d lost track of each other over various years, but then when I started managing in the big leagues, and Tony was in Oakland… you know, I’ve called on Tony a few times for some advice, and stuff. He’s the guy. For me, right now he’s the guy in the game that is at the top of the list. He’s the best, so I’m very flattered that he feels that I’ve done a good job, because he’s a guy that I respect as much as anybody out there.
DL: Stephen Strasburg is the most highly regarded pitcher to come around in some time, and if he were to suffer a career-threatening arm injury under your watch, you would likely go down in history-fairly or not-as “the manager who broke the best young pitcher since sliced bread was invented.” Does that concern you?
JR: I was there with Kerry Wood when he went down, you know. I was talking to some people about this yesterday, and so many pitchers have been hurt. We had a pitcher this past year, Jordan Zimmermann-an outstanding young pitcher with a great arm-and Jordan was monitored as closely as any pitcher could be monitored. His pitch count was limited, his innings were limited, he was not going to be allowed to pitch in September; we weren’t going to let him get that many innings. And that ligament blew out. So, sometimes it’s just unavoidable. Guys are just going to…a shoulder, or an elbow, is just going to blow out. Something is going to happen. Sometimes it’s unavoidable. In the case of Stephen Strasburg, we will do what we did with Jordan Zimmermann. We’ll be extremely careful, and as careful as we can be, there is no guarantee. That’s the thing where the ownership has really shown great courage in making this kind of financial commitment to a pitcher, because he clearly was the best in the nation, but there is nothing saying that he isn’t going to get hurt. We can try to minimize the risk, but we minimized the risk on Jordan Zimmermann, and he got hurt.
DL: Injury risk aside, how do Wood and Strasburg compare?
JR: They’re probably very similar. I would say that Kerry, at that point in his career, probably his mechanics were not as solid as Strasburg’s mechanics are, in terms of the stress you put on your arm. But in terms of the ability to throw the ball, the way the ball comes out of their hands, is very similar.
DL: As a manager, is there a degree of excitement-maybe you could call it a thrill factor-to have a premier player on your roster?
JR: Yeah, but only in the sense that he’s going to help your ball club. I mean, somebody is going to be thrilled when [Matt] Holliday signs, and when [Roy] Halladay is traded. You’re thrilled just to add talent to your organization and to your 25-man roster. It’s a very good feeling to have talent, because ultimately, that’s what wins and loses ballgames. It’s whoever has the most talent.
DL: Any final thoughts?
JR: Not really. Just that, in Washington, we know that we have a lot of work to do. We’ve got our nose to the grindstone and we do see some light at the end of the tunnel. We think that we’re starting to accumulate some talent in the organization that is going to reward these great fans, and our fans have been outstanding. They’ve supported us in tough times. The enthusiasm our fans have at the ballpark is unparalleled for a team that has had as many losses as we have the past couple of years. Toward the end of the year, you would have thought that we were a playoff team the way the fans were responding. I can’t wait to see how they’ll respond when we do finally get there. And we will.