Whenever just-fired former Nationals manager Matt Williams found himself on the receiving end of pointed questioning about a decision he made, his go-to move was to simply state one of his players’ role.
Why’d he let Jonathan Papelbon pitch after he’d choked Bryce Harper? “He’s our closer.” Why did he keep trotting Rafael Soriano out there to close games last season when he was struggling? “He’s our closer.” Incredibly, Dan Steinberg managed to collect seven instances over the past year of Williams justifying his handling of the pitching staff with some variation of “he’s our closer.” It seems Matt Williams never realized that, as the manager, he was the one who determined each player’s role and was free to change it at any time.
Non-traditional bullpen use has long been one of the battlefields of the analytics wars. A simplified version of the argument is that a manager should use their best reliever—frequently the “closer”—in the highest leverage situation, the specific inning be damned. What good does saving your best pitcher for the ninth inning do when you lose the game before then?
As it turns out Williams was so inflexible in how he handled his bullpen, not to mention ineffective, that it wasn’t just the fans laughing at him. Here’s Adam Kilgore, continuing the Washington Post’s great reporting on the LOLNats meltdown, on last season’s NLDS elimination game against the Giants:
In the seventh inning of a tie game, with the Nationals facing elimination, Williams tabbed rookie Aaron Barrett to pitch out of a jam. In the other dugout, according to a person familiar with the situation, Giants Manager Bruce Bochy turned giddily incredulous that Williams had not instead chosen all-star Tyler Clippard, whom Bochy feared because of his experience and ability to face both left-handed and right-handed hitters. As Barrett warmed up, the person said, Bochy expressed to one of his coaches that Williams’s decision had just given the Giants the series. Two walks and a flurry of wild pitches later, the winning run scored and Bochy’s prediction came true. Clippard never saw the mound, and neither did Drew Storen or Stephen Strasburg.
It seems like Williams was utterly unable to carry out his job by doing anything other than making plans and sticking with them, unique circumstances be damned:
Looking forward served as Williams’s operating philosophy from the moment he took over. He laid out every spring training workout, down to the minute, by January. As he worked with his staff on the plan and fretted about detail, one coach told him, “Matt, relax, we’re two months away from spring training.”
Funnily enough, Williams’s refusal to pitch Clippard, Storen, or Strasburg in the seventh inning wasn’t the last time the Giants’ 2014 World Series run benefitted from rigid thinking. In the pennant-winning game against the Cardinals, Mike Matheny pitched perhaps the worst guy in his bullpen during the most high-leverage situation of the season. Matheny’s logic will sound familiar to Nats fans:
The orthodoxy about when you can pitch closers is changing, but it’s incredible how slowly. So here’s a PSA to any baseball managers who happen to read this: The rules allow you to pitch your best relievers whenever you want, and generally they should pitch in the most important situations.
It’s really not that complicated.
Photo via AP