What did we learn about new Nationals Manager Matt Williams on Opening Day?

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New Manager Matt Williams was the one Nationals rookie most worth watching in yesterday’s wildly entertaining 9-7 Opening Day extra innings win over the Mets. Throughout the offseason and Spring Training, Nats fans had several clues about what type of manager Williams would be, but yesterday was the first day to actually see The Marine in action, in a game that actually counted in the standings.

It is worth noting that the importance of a manager is often exaggerated. Managers get far too much credit when a team wins and far too much blame when a team loses. Managers have far less impact on the game than coaches of other team sports. In baseball, 90% of the work is done by the players themselves. As far as I can tell, there are only 5 ways a manager actually effects on-field performance.

-Coaching (i.e. instruction) – most of this work is done by the pitching and hitting coaches.

-Leadership (i.e. maintaining clubhouse chemistry) – usually the most overrated portion of a manager’s job. Inspirational speeches only work in movies. Generally, on veteran teams, a manager can do far more bad than good in this arena. See Bobby Valentine’s 2012 Red Sox.

-Using the bullpen/bench – Probably the most important part of a manager’s job, putting the right guys in the right situations. This is the place that separates good managers from bad managers.

-In game strategy (i.e. bunting/hit and runs) – I like my managers like I like my Federal Reserve Chairmen…too much micromanagement is usually a bad thing. Here’s my advice for modern day managers: be like Jason Segal learning to surf in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Do less.

-Batting Order – This is the area fans most obsess over, although there’s little evidence batting orders make a huge impact on a team’s ability to score runs.

So what did we learn from Day 1?

Bullpen Management

Despite the game being close and going to extra innings, Williams never used his closer Rafael Soriano. On its face, this is odd, since a closer is supposed to be a bullpen’s best pitcher. If available in a close game, he should be used. Instead, with the game tied in the bottom of the ninth inning, Williams used rookie Aaron Barrett.

There are two possibilities here. One, Williams has enormous faith in Barrett, and he theorized Barrett’s talent outweighed the downside of a rookie making his major league debut in a tie game on the road on Opening Day. Or two, he was saving Soriano for a save situation. Davey Johnson had this nasty habit last season. The Nationals lost multiple games in 2013 with a rested Soriano sitting in the bullpen while an inferior pitcher gave up the winning run on the mound.

I really hope it’s the first possibility.

A manager who manages to the save rule will cost his team wins.

It should be noted, however, that after Jerry Blevins gave up a 2-run home run to David Wright—making the game a save situation—Williams did not put Soriano in the game. Some weaker managers will do this to rack up their closers’ save totals. It’s a stupid thing to do, and it’s a waste of pitching resources.

In-game Strategy

There were several opportunities to sacrifice bunt late in the game where Williams decided not to: (1) after Desmond singled to lead off the 9th; (2) after Werth singled to lead off the 10th; and (3) after Lobaton singled after Werth in the 10th. Sacrifice bunting is almost always a mistake because it wastes valuable outs. Yesterday, down to their last out, the Nationals needed all of them. Williams may have saved and then won the game by NOT bunting.

This is a good thing.

Batting Order

Judging by my Twitter timeline yesterday, this is the part of yesterday’s game that got the most people fired up. First, people complaining about the batting order. Then, people complaining about the people complaining about the batting order. If Williams keeps tinkering with the order trying to create the “perfect” batting order, it’s going to be a long season.

Batting order doesn’t matter as much as most believe it does. But to the extent it matters, Williams is doing it wrong. Here are the rules for constructing a batting order: put your best hitters up front so they get more at bats over the course of the season. By this measure, Williams is failing.

Bryce Harper may not be the best hitter in the Nats lineup, but he’s certainly not the fifth best. And Ian Desmond is not the sixth best. Meanwhile Denard Span has more on-base ability than he demonstrated in 2013, but he shouldn’t be leading off. Span saved the game yesterday with a hit in the top of the ninth with two outs. But over the course of the season, would you rather see Span in that situation more often than, say, Jayson Werth?

I heard Williams’ interview on 106.7 the Fan yesterday and it’s clear he’s thinking too much about the batting order. For instance, he talked about finding a “pure number 8 hitter”. What exactly is that, besides a guy who’s not as good as hitters 1-7? An Old School Baseball Guy will tell you a number 8 hitter needs to get on base often to prevent a pitcher from leading off the next inning. But why is getting on base more important for a number 8 hitter than a number 7 or number 4 hitter? It’s not. If Anthony Rendon isn’t your 8th best hitter, don’t put him in the 8 hole. It’s just that simple.

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5 thoughts on “What did we learn about new Nationals Manager Matt Williams on Opening Day?”

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