It was that time. Matt Williams had to earn his stripes as a manager. He had already made some tough decisions in his rookie year as a skipper but none like this with so much at stake.
The Nats were already down one game to none in this best-of-five NLDS to the Giants. His starter, Jordan Zimmermann, was turning out a gem and the Nats were leading 1-0 in the ninth on Saturday. In the top of the inning, Zimmermann struck out pinch-hitter Matt Duffy. One down. Gregor Blanco flied out to center. Two down. The Nats were an out away from tying this series at one game apiece. Giants rookie Joe Panik then walked, putting Zim at 100 pitches. Buster Posey strolled to the plate, Williams took Zim out.
How could Williams possibly justify taking out Zimmermann in that spot? Zimmermann threw a no-hitter in his last start. Some people will say that despite drawing the Game 2 assignment, Zim is actually the ace of the Nationals. I will tell you how Williams can justify taking out Zimmerman, and there are two ways to get there.
1. By trusting his eyes
There are lots of ways to figure out if your pitcher is tiring. First, you look for body language, is he lagging and working harder to stay in his mechanics? Is he getting more irritable when he can’t execute a pitch, or is he losing patience with teammates or an umpire? These could be signs that mental and/or physical fatigue is starting to set in. Then I look for command, is he missing his spots more regularly? Is he missing up? That is a sign of fatigue and that his legs might be tiring.
If someone tells you a pitcher is not tired because his velocity is about the same as it has been the whole game, you run from that person. They are trying to make you dumber. Velocity never tells a story of fatigue. If you wait until velocity drops, you have waited too long and have risked injury to your player.
Let’s go to the Panik duel. Zim missed with his first two fastballs just off the plate; they were close, borderline pitches. Great takes by the rookie. After the second ball, Zimmermann showed a visible sign of frustration with the umpire. His body language told the story, as did a close up on his face as he said a naughty word. He then looked to the dugout.
That’s a tell. Managers never want to see their pitcher looking in the dugout, that only gets them thinking. Is my player getting tired? Is he telling me he wants out of this game? He’d never actually say it, but maybe he’s done.
On the next pitch, Zimmermann missed his spot and threw a fastball right over the heart of the plate. Panik hammered it for a long foul "home run." On the next pitch, Zimmermann overthrew a fastball and missed his spot badly up. The count was then 3-1. His fifth pitch of the at bat and 100th of the night was a 93 mph fastball just off the plate, ball four. Tremendous plate appearance by Panik, you have to tip your cap.
Williams remembers that no-hitter last Sunday. Do you? On Zimmermann’s 104th and final pitch of the game, Miami’s Christian Yelich drilled a 94 mph 2-1 fastball into the left-center gap. It looked like a sure double, but Washington left fielder Steven Souza made an incredible diving play to preserve the no-hitter. Yelich is a good player, but he’s not Buster Posey.
Williams also used his eyes to make the decision to bring in reliever Drew Storen. The right-hander had a great year in the regular season, one of the best of his career. He took over in the closer role from Rafael Soriano in September, and after that he looked like a new man. The energy and intensity levels were up. Storen was as confident as Williams had ever seen him this year, and it was obvious. The Nats didn’t miss a beat after replacing embattled closer Soriano with Storen.
2. By trusting the data
Williams is a calculated man. I’ve said many times he reminds me a lot of Buck Showalter, a manager we both once played for (Williams played for Showalter in Arizona). He has a very similar demeanor and seems to be prepared as well as Buck, who may be the most prepared manager in the game.
With that prep comes access to data. No doubt Williams had these numbers or something similar to them and much more as part of his game prep:
— Zimmermann averaged 92 pitches per game over his past 19 starts, with no game going higher than 107.
— Zim had only pitched in the ninth inning five times in his career of the 145 starts he has made as a major leaguer. Twice in 2014.
— When facing a batter for the fourth time in a game, like he was about to do with Posey, Zimmermann’s batting average against (BAA) over his career skyrockets to .338. His career BAA is .249.
— When Posey is facing a pitcher in the same game for a fourth time, he is batting .341/.400 over his career.
— Posey hit .414 with nine homers in his final 33 games of the season.
— Storen was 10 for 10 in save opportunities since being moved to full-time closer.
— Storen did not allow an earned run or a walk over his last 10 1/3 innings pitched to finish out the season.
Williams knew these things and I’m sure much more. When he popped out of the dugout, his mind was made up, Zimmermann was done for the night. Williams took what his eyes showed him and his data told him and made a calculated decision. A fresh Storen was better than a 100-pitch Zimmermann for this situation.
Could Zim have finished that inning and the game? Maybe. Could Storen have closed the door? It was certainly a fair assumption. But neither of those things happened. Storen allowed the game to become tied up and the Nationals eventually lost 2-1 in 18 innings.
It’s easy to second guess Williams’ decision and even first guess it as I’m sure many did. But Williams was prepared for this moment, he had his eyes and he had his data. His decision using all of those things was certainly justifiable.
I know this. Had Zimmermann allowed a two-run homer to Posey or even an RBI hit to tie the game in that situation, he would have never forgiven himself. He was armed with information and instincts that told him that it was the right move to take out Zimmermann and put in Storen. And then baseball happened, like it so often does.