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.

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!

Spring Training Question #2: Can Matt Williams Grow As A Manager?

Matt Williams managing the NLDS.

Look, I get it. Managing is tough. When the team wins, most folks usually congratulate the players and when they lose, most folks usually blame the manager- and that’s usually the fair thing to do. Players can streak or slump, but managers always have the ability to move those players around accordingly. Imagine if for every decision you made at work there were 40,000 people in your office silently (and not so silently) deciding how they would have done your job better. Worse are the hundreds of thousands more at home doing the same thing, and by tomorrow every hack with a Macbook is going to write up how they you screwed up even if the team did win and why you should be fired.*

(*I am one of those hacks).

I say this so that you know that when I do pick at Matt Williams managing in this post, I am fully aware that this is the easy thing to do. That I would not be a good manager myself, that I know I don’t know better than he does, and that I am fully aware that my opinion here does not reflect the opinion of the majority, or maybe even plurality, of other Nats fans. But these are things I am compelled to write because I believe them to be true. So, here we go…

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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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Get To Know Some Nats: Infielders

Every year, we put together player profiles for the Nationals players likely to make the 25 man roster. This way you’ll have a better idea of just who is taking the field. Except for a few notable exceptions, the Washington Nationals of 2015 will be the same team you’ve been watching for a few years. So we’re going to forego lengthy profiles of stuff you already know, and focus on capsules for a few players at a time. A quicker, more forward focused view for the savvy fan.

You can read our outfielder preview here, and our starting pitcher preview here.

Screen Shot 2014-09-16 at 9.49.14 PM

Ian Desmond, SS

Fangraphs | 2014 Preview

On a team when every infielder has a story going into 2015, Desmond’s demands the most attention. Lo beware the shortstop who can hit, for they shall be in demand and cost lots and lots of money: And Desmond can hit. The list of shortstop with three 20 HR / 20 SB seasons is very short: Alex Rodriguez, Hanley Ramierez and Ian Desmond. (Seriously, buy Baseball Prospectus).

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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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Get To Know Some Nats: Starting Pitchers

Every year, we put together player profiles for the Nationals players likely to make the 25 man roster. This way you’ll have a better idea of just who is taking the field. Except for a few notable exceptions, the Washington Nationals of 2015 will be the same team you’ve been watching for a few years. So we’re going to forego lengthy profiles of stuff you already know, and focus on capsules for a few players at a time. A quicker, more forward focused view for the savvy fan.

Note: If you’re here to read about Tanner Roark, I’ve moved him to the bullpen post later this spring. You can read why (and about him), here.

You can also read our outfielder preview here.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Washington Nationals

Stephen Strasburg, RHP

2014 Profile | Fangraphs

In a pack of bums who are underachieving bums, Stephen Strasburg takes the cake. We should just trade him for some prospects or make him a reliever. Or so MASNCommenter would have you believe. To wit:

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Thanks for sending me the screen cap MASNCommenter.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The truth is that the Strasburg is an exceptional pitcher doing exceptional things, but hasn’t lived up to the hype that followed him into the league. I heard the phrase “Prospect Fatigue” the other day, and I think that applies perfectly. Strasburg’s debut was an instant classic. He entered Nationals Park like Zeus come down from Mt. Olympus to pitch. Fan disappointment stems from this night and the subsequent seasons in which Strasburg has proved to be “only” an Apollo or Ares on the mound.

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