Matt Williams and the Great Bullpen Screw-Up

 

There is so much more to managing a baseball team than what we see during the games. We see only the lineups, the batting order and the pitching changes; we don’t see the human interactions, the coaching and all of the work that goes into keeping so many large personalities pointed in the right direction. Managing a baseball team is about a lot more than just in-game strategy. 

But in-game strategy is part of the job, and on Tuesday night, Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams failed at that part of the job in the most important game of his team’s season. And while we cannot know what would have happened if different decisions had been made, we do know that maybe the best team in baseball just got bounced in the first round due, at least in part, to a series of decisions that strain credulity. 

Let’s just walk through the pivotal seventh inning of Game 4. Bryce Harper had just tied the game in the top of the inning, so the score was 2-2 with the top of the Giants order coming up. The Giants’ No. 1 and No. 2 hitters both bat left-handed, so Williams countered with Matt Thornton, the team’s only remaining left-handed reliever. Perfectly logical.  

Thornton got a groundout from Gregor Blanco, then gave up a single to Joe Panik. That put the go-ahead run on base for Buster Posey, the Giants’ best hitter. The Giants’ best right-handed hitter. Here is what Buster Posey has done against left-handed pitchers in his career:

631 at-bats, 210 hits, 53 doubles, 2 triples, 32 home runs, 61 walks, 77 strikeouts.

That’s a .333/.393/.578 batting line, which when you account for his home park, translates to a 168 wRC+, meaning that Posey’s performance against lefties has been 68 percent better than a league-average hitter. Do you want some context for that? In 2012, when Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown, he had a 166 wRC+. Posey’s performance against left-handers has basically been the equal of the game’s most feared hitter having one of his best years.

In the seventh inning of a tied regular-season game, you probably wouldn’t let Posey face a left-handed reliever. To do so in an win-or-go-home playoff game defies basic reasoning. And that’s exactly what Williams did, sticking with Thornton against Posey, even though Thornton had just put the go-ahead run on base. 

Predictably, Posey hit a line drive to center field, and the Nationals are lucky that it was hit right toward Denard Span, so Posey got only a single, and Panik advanced only to second base. So now the go-ahead run was in scoring position with one out, and Hunter Pence, another quality right-handed hitter, coming to the plate. 

Williams rightfully decided that Thornton shouldn’t be the guy to face Pence, and went to the bullpen to get a right-hander. But no, he didn’t call on Tyler Clippard, the team’s best relief pitcher, who held right-handed batters to a .126/.197/.226 line this season, even though the Giants would be almost 90 percent favorites to win the game if Panik scored and they took the lead into the top of the eighth. Preventing Panik from scoring in that inning was of the utmost importance, but Clippard wasn’t called upon because he wasn’t even warming up. 

That’s right. Not only did Williams let Posey hit against a left-handed reliever with the go-ahead run on base, but also he didn’t even have his best reliever warming in case it didn’t work. He did have rookie Aaron Barrett warming up, however, and that’s who he called on to go after Pence. 

Now, despite being a rookie, Barrett isn’t a terrible choice to be pitching for the Nationals in the playoffs. He had a good first year in the big leagues, striking out 28 percent of the batters he faced, and more importantly, 31 percent of the right-handed batters he faced. Righties hit only .190/.277/.253 against him his year. He earned his way onto the playoff roster, and we’ve seen plenty of live-armed youngsters come up big out of the bullpen in the postseason before. 

But Barrett has one primary flaw right now: His command isn’t very good. He threw only 45 percent of his pitches in the strike zone this year and walked 12 percent of the batters he faced. His best pitch is a strong power slider that he gets hitters to chase out of the zone, but with the go-ahead run at second base and only one out, Barrett couldn’t afford to miss out of the zone and push that runner to third base with a walk. Doing so would remove the Giants’ need for a hit, and allow them to take the lead with simply a medium-depth fly ball. 

So instead, Wilson Ramos called for Barrett to throw seven consecutive fastballs to Pence; unfortunately, only two of them were in the strike zone, and he walked Pence anyway. Because of the situation, Barrett was asked to pitch in the biggest game of his life, and do it without his best pitch. Pence’s walk pushed Panik to third base, and brought up switch-hitting Pablo Sandoval. 

Now, the usage of Thornton to go after Blanco and Panik meant that the team didn’t have any more left-handed relievers, so Sandoval was going to bat left-handed, his much stronger side. For his career, Sandoval has a 132 wRC+ against right-handed pitchers, but just a 95 wRC+ against left-handers, and this season the split was even more extreme: 136 against righties and 59 against lefties. Sandoval’s biggest strength as a hitter is driving the ball against pitchers like Barrett. 

Barrett, by the way, had even more severe command problems against lefties this year, since his slider is mostly ineffective against them. Forced to just pound fastballs, and without a real out-pitch to throw them, Barrett walked 15 percent of the left-handed batters he faced this year, and struck out only 22 percent. Barrett is a good righty-on-righty reliever when he can use his slider, but you don’t really want him facing a lefty in a big situation, and you definitely don’t want him facing a lefty who kills right-handed pitchers with the bases loaded. In a tie game. In the seventh inning. Of a game that ends your season if you lose.

But even after watching Barrett walk Pence, Williams stuck with his youngster. Sandoval ended up not even mattering, as Barrett’s wildness led to a wild pitch that scored Panik from third, and then he uncorked another wild pitch while attempting to intentionally walk Sandoval once first base was open. That was the final straw for Williams, who removed his young right-hander from the game rather than letting him face the left-handed Brandon Belt, still with two men on base even after Posey was out at home trying to score on the second wild pitch. 

To replace Barrett, Williams called on Rafael Soriano, who had such a poor second half that he lost his job as closer and almost didn’t make the playoff roster. Soriano is basically just an older, diminished version of Barrett, a fastball-slider right-hander who doesn’t do as well against lefties. And yet, even though any hit to the gap essentially would end the Nationals’ season, Williams brought in Soriano to face Belt. 

Clippard never even warmed up that inning. Neither did Stephen Strasburg, the team’s dominant starter who was available out of the bullpen, and who could have bridged the gap to get to the eighth inning if Williams was completely insistent on maintaining his regular season roles. After the game, Williams said Strasburg was available only in an emergency, but he didn’t clarify why pulling his starter after four innings in an elimination game didn’t qualify as an emergency. 

But I can at least see an argument for why Dan Storen or Strasburg wasn’t ready to go in the seventh inning. Clippard, though, is on the roster for these exact situations: getting big outs with men on base in extremely high-leverage at-bats. It doesn’t get any more high-leverage than if-this-guy-at-second-scores-our-season-is-probably-over, but Clippard simply sat and watched his less-talented teammates give up the run that eventually decided the game. 

Before the game, I suggested that the Nationals use Strasburg in a pre-planned relief role, allowing him to pitch as normally as possible out of the bullpen, and in that piece, I made this statement: "The team’s best chance to win two games is likely to maximize the percentage of innings thrown by (Jordan) Zimmermann, Strasburg, Clippard, and Storen."

Those four pitchers combined to throw zero pitches in Game 4, and due in part to that decision, Game 5 won’t happen. The Nationals lost because Thornton — given to the team by the Yankees in exchange for only the waiver fee, as New York just didn’t want him anymore — and Barrett couldn’t keep the middle of the Giants’ order from scoring one run, and because Williams wasn’t willing to use his best relievers to escape a jam that didn’t even need to happen in the first place. 

There is no parallel to this in other sports. NFL teams that trail by a touchdown don’t put in their backup linebackers until their offense takes the lead again. NBA teams don’t use their worst bench players in the first half, saving their good reserves for the end of the game, as long as they’re winning when the fourth quarter rolls around. Baseball is the only sport where it’s perfectly acceptable to lose a game because the worst players on your roster didn’t create a lead for your best players to protect. Not using your best relievers in a tie game, or even down a single run — while employing them to "save" a game where you need to get only three outs before you give up three runs — just doesn’t make sense. 

As an outsider, we can’t know about the internal dynamics of the clubhouse and how well Williams might or might not have handled the aspects of his job that we never see. But part of his job is also to make decisions during the games that give his team the best chance to win, and in the biggest game of his managerial career, he made a series of poor decisions that directly led to the run that eliminated his team from the postseason. The Nationals’ offense didn’t do Williams any favors in this series, and it’s tough to advance when your team just doesn’t hit. But on Tuesday night, they scored at least enough runs to earn the right to keep playing. 

They didn’t get that chance, though, because Williams was unwilling to use his best pitchers in a tie game. In many ways, baseball is getting a lot smarter. In this particular way, baseball has a long way to go.