Opinion: On Matt Williams And Bullpens

Let us put aside yesterday’s debacle. I believe that was just “one of those games” that happens to every team at least once a year. 

Matt Williams has rendered my “Get to Know Some Nats: Bullpen” preview moot. Why bother knowing the pros and cons of any of these players? Their genetic make-up, the pitches they use, their past failures and successes- all meaningless in the face of the only featureMatt Williams cares about: Which inning he thinks they ought to pitch in.

The follies and foibles in Managin’ Matt Williams bullpen “plan” have been written about far and wide, and fully rehashing them here isn’t going to be hugely helpful. Here is my new favorite Nats writer, Jim Meyerriecks detailing the time Matt Williams went far afield and got lucky. Here he is just a few days later, when the luck didn’t hold up. If you want to know what each of these pitchers can do, you should read his post because it is an excellent summary of the strengths and weaknesses of the bullpen. I’m not saying Jim would be a better bullpen manager than Matt Williams…but I don’t have a particularly good reason to think he wouldn’t be, either.

And that’s just it: As Half-Street Heart’s blog post points out, there isn’t anything confusing or crazy about the Williams bullpen: if anything it is too straight forward. There is no hope that Williams is trying something new or different, and only the slimmest of hope that he thinks maybe, just maybe, a guy like Blake Treinen might ultimately, suddenly, for no good reason, eventually be good against left handed batters.

No, Williams bullpen management is the Billy Goat Tavern Restaurant of bullpen management. The customer might call for a steak with a beer, or an omlette with orange juice, but they’ll get a cheeseburger, pepsi no coke until Dan Akroyd runs out of cheeseburgers.

Matt Williams world doesn’t have match-ups, lefties, righties. He has starters and Nth Inning Guys, where Nth is a particular inning and a particular pitcher is in charge of that inning. At most, the formula has a slightly different track if the team is winning. No thought is given to winning by how much, if the game is tied, if they are losing but close – let alone who is due up in the half inning, who is on the opposing team’s bench, or where the Nationals pitcher is due to hit the following half inning.

It’s not even managing. It’s just… it seems lazy.

Williams exhibits one of the worst qualities a manager can have with regards to the bullpen: He appears disinterested in how it works, only that it should work. When it doesn’t work he can only point at it and say “well it should be working.” He is the most unhelpful mechanic ever. He is the Best Buy Geek Squad or Apple Genius Help Desk Guy that could just give a flying squirrel that your gadget doesn’t work. He’s done all the things he’s been told he should do.

He assigns roles that do not play to the strengths of the pitchers he has, and when they fail it is not on him. Aaron Barrett is a 7th inning guy gosh darn it, and his job is to get guys out in the 7th inning.

This is a bit like hiring a trademark lawyer to be your criminal defense attorney. This is expecting a high school Spanish teacher to just step in and teach Japanese.

For a manager who has made getting to know the guys a priority (indeed, the single hardest thing about his first year of managing) he’s dismissed the most salient details about the bullpen players: How they pitch. Maybe he knows who Xavier Cedeno’s favorite band is, but he has no clue when to use him in a game.

Who knows: Maybe that’s the by product of being a consistently good player. Maybe he simply believes by pushing people and running them out there you find out if they got it or they don’t. Maybe he supposes that’s how people develop.

And maybe they will. But this isn’t Matt Williams Vocational School for Wayward and Orphaned Pitchers. It’s the Major Leagues. Some pitchers are good with lefties, others righties, a few can handle both. I don’t think Mike Rizzo did Williams any favors by trading away Tyler Clippard (a rare pitcher who did very well against all kinds of batters in all kinds of situations) or Jerry Blevins (a very good guy to get lefties out), but to be fair Matt Williams didn’t exactly use them very well either. Why should he have the nice toys if he can’t play with them properly?

Well, because its a super important year. The Nats, like last year, are going to win a ton of games. As the year goes on the score is going to cover up Williams decision making because the margin for error won’t be so close. But the margin is going to be pretty close for the next few weeks, which is a pretty good mirror for how games in October are. Weekend Nats vs. Phillies is probably a similarly tight match to Full Strength Nats and Dodgers/Cardinals. Right now you’re getting a look at what the Matt Williams Nats look like when they are not head and shoulders better than their competition: Something that is bound to come up again in the NLSomethingOrOther Series.

Maybe you think this is all overblown, not such a big deal, and I’m a big-typing blogger with no baseball experience that doesn’t know ships from shinola. And that may be. I’m willing to admit that I, perhaps, am too entrenched in my position to see the full scope of evidence clearly. I might be giving Matt Williams too hard a time.

But no one is picking up the sword on behalf of Matt Williams bullpen use. No one is arguing that he’s making good choices with the bullpen. Time after time there is no reasonable reason to justify a decision he made, and generally there are several good reasons not to have done what he did. I’m trying to make that argument to myself now and I have no idea where to start.

This early in the season sample size is too small to quibble with results, but it is plenty big enough to quibble with process. Make no mistake, this first week has been a test for the Nats on their road to a championship. The biggest roadblock to the Nationals achieving their ultimate goal is probably injury. Second, and nearly as devastating, is the self-inflicted injuries visited upon the players by Matt Williams. In the spring I asked if he could grow as a manager, and the early returns do not look good.

Exactly How Good a @MASNCommenter #Nats Team Would Be #MLB15THESHOW

SOON.

MORSE!!!

UPDATE: I’ve determined I should be able to broadcast a computer simulated game featuring the MASNCommenter Nats vs. The Mets in an “Opening Day” Tilt. I will post the link here and on twitter. Should be a 1:05 start.

I am new to the world of Playstation, but I got one around Thanksgiving and I do enjoy it. As a baseball and video game fan, I’ve been anxiously waiting for MLB The Show to debut its 2015 edition, which did indeed “drop” on Tuesday. I’ve never played this game before and, frankly, I’m terrible at it.

Like with most baseball games you can play whole seasons at a time, or even set yourself up as the GM of a franchise and build your team from the ground up. I was iffy on whether I wanted to start that particular campaign last night, but a thought occurred to me:

There is a whole cottage industry of video game simulations being used to demonstrate theoretical concepts in sports. Breaking Madden being king amongst them. Routinely, as a blogger and a baseball fan, folks ask me “well, what about…” or “what if…”.

Some ideas are crazier than others, and there is perhaps no greater repository of don’t-know-it-all Nats thoughts than those archived by @MASNCommenter. We profiled MC last year, who faithfully copies the comments section of fans on the MASN Facebook page, generally the crazy/insane/overly emotional/poorly spelled ones. James O’Hara wrote a piece theorizing what a Nats team might be like if we made many of the trades proposed in tweets.

So here I am: Holding back the real bullpen and bench preview posts until the dust settles a bit more, a week away from baseball starting, I have this video game I am terrible at…why not turn to the experts for help?

So, yes. I created the 2015 season for the Washington Nationals in MLB the Show 15. I then proceeded to put together the most MASNCommenter 25-man roster I could. My plan is to then simulate the whole season (I won’t be playing the games, just telling the computer to play itself) and see how the Nats do.

Mike Taylor in CF. Nice, young, up and comer.

What Kind of Roster Does MASNCommenter Like? 

When I solicited help from twitter, I got one answer over and over. MASNCommenter would clone 25 Steve Lombardozzis and field them all. Sadly, the game won’t let me do that.

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Podcast! 2015 Nats Season Preview with @NoahFrankWTOP

EDIT: I fixed the audio so it is properly mixed.

Noah Frank joins our show to talk about where the Nats are right now and how they look for 2015. On the show: the 25 man roster, the rash of injuries suffered by the team, how good is the Nationals rotation, is this bullpen sustainable, Strasburg, Harper, a little Matt Williams, an NL East preview, a rest of the MLB preview, and plenty more. Enjoy!

Friday Round Up: #DCisReady

The 1895 Washington Senators 43-85 in the National League. via Cool Old Photos (Click for link) but H/T to @GhostsofDC

The 1895 Washington Senators 43-85 in the National League. via Cool Old Photos (Click for link) but H/T to @GhostsofDC

The Walking Dread: With any luck, this tweet from Chelsea Janes bodes well for the Nationals walking wounded:

-or, lightly running, as the case may be. But too bad, I wrote all of this out before I saw this tweet, so I’m going to continue with my “how ugly could this get?” post.
The worst news first: Anthony Rendon went from sitting out for a few days to having no timetable. That’s really scary.  CL strains (of any kind) can get ugly quick, even if they are mild. As HarperGordeck from Natsbaseball blog points out, the prospect of Kevin Frandsen at third for a month, or longer, is laughably scary.

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Spring Training Question 3: Old (and New) Faces in New Places?

Nationals Logo

The Nationals will feature four position players not playing the position they primarily played last year.  In his Monday chat, T. Boswell (oh Lord save me I am linking to a BOZ CHAT) remarked that the Nats shaky 2014 defense (which is a suspect sentiment given he’s employing fielding percentage, and Fangraphs ranked the Nats 7th overall) would now feature Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and the newly added Yunel Escobar all playing different positions on the field.

If I put aside the general grating against my brain every time I read something Boz writes, he’s right that this is a pretty big question. How will these guys fare in their different spots? We’ve touched on this already in our outfielder post (positing that Harper ought to flourish in right, while Werth may be able to handle left a bit better than he handled right). Shortstops tend to do well at second, and I’m not sure anyone has assumed anything other than Ryan Zimmerman can do a passable job at 1B, where his throwing (typically considered his weak spot) ought not come into play nearly at all.

Now with this post: I could postulate, what-if, speculate or pretend I can give you some direct, informative answer on how these guys will do in their new position. Or, I could fear-cast, telling you this will all end poorly based on nothing . I don’t want to do either of those things mostly because neither really answers the question. Frankly, nothing short of spring training and, ultimately, the 2015 season will tell us how they will fare.

Even though we can’t know what will happen, we can take a look at the reasons behind some of these moves. When faced with a question without a certain answer, we can only do the best we can with the information we have. So, instead, (in 101 style) let’s ask why these moves are being made at all, and look at some evidence for why.

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Spring Training Question 4: Can Tanner Roark Fit In the Starting Rotation?

@aNatsFan gets Roark on the mound.

@aNatsFan gets Roark on the mound.

So you may have heard in December that the Nationals have the best starting pitching rotation in baseball, or darn close to it. You may have heard more recently that the Nationals made that rotation even better with the addition of free agent Max Scherzer.

The rotation was already stacked. Ranked by fWAR across both leagues, The Nats featured Jordan Zimmermann (#10) and Stephen Strasburg (#13), two top 20 pitchers overall. Gio Gonzalez didn’t pitch enough innings to be a qualified starter (thanks shoulder issues), but still posted a 3.1 fWAR and would have slotted him around 30th overall. Doug Fister was technically the worst of the bunch, at 54th overall and a 1.3 fWAR, but I don’t think you’d find a Nats fan who’d complain about him (or wouldn’t agree that fWAR may be cheating him a bit based on how its calculated).  The rotation, as a whole, finished first overall in fWAR – and then they added the 7th best pitcher by fWAR to that.

A pitching rotation we thought was the the X-men turned out to be the Justice League, and now it is a Justice League with three Supermen (probably from alternate timelines), a Batman and a Wonder Woman (and you’re a damn fool if you’re snickering at Wonder Woman. She’s awesome).

And then there is Green Arrow, personified in this case as Tanner Roark. Resourceful, not super powered, but still one of the better Justice League alum: We all remember the time that the Arrow saved all his super powered bretheren (yeah, yeah, yeah: Batman doesn’t have super powers: But anyone who can go toe to toe with Superman and win counts). But is there room for Arrow on a Justice League of heavy weights like-

Sorry, I totally got side tracked. Point being: One of the questions that will resolve in spring training is whether there is room for 3+ WAR pitcher on a rotation of Ubermenches? The deck is stacked way against him, but let’s go through the possibilities anyway.

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Division in Review: 2014 New York Mets

New_York_Mets

NL EAST W L WIN %
Washington Nationals 96 66 .593
Atlanta Braves 79 83 .488
New York Mets 79 83 .488
Miami Marlins 77 85 .475
Philadelphia Phillies 73 89 .451

New York Mets 2014 Preview

Mets 2014 Overview:

In the spring, I wrote that the Mets had essentially replaced like for like their offseason losses in terms of production. On the hitting side of the ball, this was very much the case. As a team, they hit marginally better (.297 to .299 wOBA) and scored a few more runs (619 to 629). But they won five more games this season than they did last season, and much of that gain rests on the pitching. While the FIP was relatively the equal (3.75 to 3.79), the Mets gave up 65 fewer runs this season as compared to 2013. Almost all of that gain came from the bullpen, which is still a team weakness, but much less of one at least in 2014.

The Offense:

The big success story for the Mets offensively was that someone finally stepped up and won the first baseman job. Ike Davis continued his struggles from 2013, and after posting .208/.367/.375 in 12 games, he was given a change of scenery. This left Lucas Duda as the undisputed champion, and he rewarded the Mets with a career year. Duda hit 30 HRs while driving in 92; he also had a wOBA of .361 (good for a wRC+ of 136) and an ISO of .228, putting him in a power peer group of Andrew McCutchen and Justin Upton. If Duda can keep up these numbers, he should remain a cornerstone of the Mets offense for the next three seasons.

Another player who made a big step forward at the plate for the Mets was Juan Lagares. Lagares increased his batting average and on-base percentage by .040 from 2013 to 2014. His wRC+ jumped from a paltry 76 in 2013 to a league average 101 in 2014, which combined with his superb defense, makes him an above average option in center. The increased offensive output also made free agent signing Chris Young and his somewhat predictable struggles at the plate expendable; Young was released at the beginning of August.

Aside from those two spots, there was not much else to be happy about with the Mets’ offense. Travis d’Arnaud improved at the plate, so he is at least trending in the right direction. But he only accumulated a fWAR of 1.6, which is exactly the same as John Buck in 2013, and he was so bad at the plate they force the Pirates to take him in order to get Marlon Byrd. Curtis Granderson, who signed a 4 year/$60 million deal, is in full decline mode, playing as only a 1.0 fWAR player in 2014. Granderson has hit around .230 with an on-base percentage around .320 for three seasons now, and his power and defense have declined in each of those years. Left field was a bit of a mess for the Mets this season, with Eric Young Jr. getting the most time there, but Chris Young, Matt den Dekker, and 5 others all got starts. Both Young and den Dekker were below average hitters, and how Chris Young faired has already been stated. Shortstop, too, is another position in flux, as Ruben Tejada had another season that fell short of expectations, and the job was turned over to Wilmer Flores, who hit about the same but with better defense. Both left field and shortstop will be positions the Mets will be trying to upgrade this offseason

The biggest disappointment this season, however, was David Wright, who battled shoulder issues for much of the season. Wright had two superstar seasons in 2012 and 2013, posting a fWAR of 7.5 and 6.0 respectively. From those heights, Wright fell to a mere mortal 1.9 fWAR this season, mostly due to his lack of offensive production. While his batting average and on-base percentage both fell a long ways, the most dramatic drop was in power: Wright’s slugging percentage dropped from .514 in 2013 to just .374 and his ISO went from .207 to a mere .105. Wright’s 2014 season most clearly resembles his 2011 season, a season also shortened and hampered by injury. His health may be as big a topic this off-season as Matt Harvey’s was for last off-season.

The Pitching:

On the pitching side of the ball, things went about as well as could be expected. No one replicated the tremendous 2013 season that Matt Harvey put together, but it would be hard for anyone to do so. Bartolo Colon did what he was brought in to do, and was a productive member of the starting rotation. Zack Wheeler improved upon his 2013 numbers while pitching for an entire season and Jon Niese turned in another serviceable season. Jacob deGrom turned in a great rookie season, posting a 2.69 ERA, a 2.67 FIP, and a 9.24 K/9, making him arguably the Mets’ best starter for 2014. The only starter who regressed was Dillon Gee, presumably because teams not named the Nationals have caught on to the type of pitcher that he is. This makes him the most likely candidate to be the odd man out when Harvey returns in 2015.

The Mets’ bullpen was the most improved unit for the 2014 season, which is fairly remarkable considering they lost their best reliever from 2013 in the first game of the season. Bobby Parnell was injured on opening day and had Tommy John surgery a little over a week later. This left the closer position open for a while and, after a few other candidates had come and gone, Jenrry Mejia took the job and never looked back. Much of the Mets’ bullpen had decent seasons, and many of them improved over their 2013 performances, but none seemed to have a standout season. The improvement really only made the unit as a whole more of a middling bullpen, instead of just a bad one.

The 2014 Mets came very close .500 and ended up tied for second place in the NL East. With Matt Harvey and David Wright coming back, and presumably producing at pre-injury levels for most of the season, the Mets have a good shot of being a winning team without making any major moves. As long as the bullpen produces as it did this season, the pitching staff itself should be enough to carry them past that threshold. If they can sign a left fielder who can be an above average hitter and find a better solution for shortstop, it is not hard to see them as contenders for the division title in 2015.