Examining Matt Williams’ bullpen mismanagement 

I wish I could say Matt Williams’ bullpen management was a mystery. If it was a mystery, there might be a revolutionary and ultimately satisfying explanation for how he’s managing this team. Unfortunately we know exactly what’s happening. Williams assigns his relievers certain roles and he refuses to deviate from his plan. In series like this weekend, it causes problems, and likely loses ballgames.

Let’s look at some examples. On Friday night Gio Gonzalez–while not perfect–had largely cruised through six innings allowing zero runs. The Nationals had a two run lead. A great manager would know that early in the season, starting pitchers sometimes get a little shaky after six innings. Davey Johnson, for example, was quick to pull his pitchers after six innings early in the season while they’re still transitioning from a Spring Training workload. On Friday night, Gio appeared to be cruising, but a great manager would’ve been looking for warning signs. Walking the leadoff batter was a warning sign. A good manager would’ve recognized this sent out the pitching coach to buy some time to get the bullpen ready. Instead Matt Williams let Gio walk another man before sending out his pitching coach. At this point, Williams had no choice but to let Gio face another batter. Hit batter. Bases loaded. The bullpen now faced an impossible task with nobody out. A manager with more foresight might’ve been able to pull Gio after two batters that inning and give his bullpen a fighting chance.

But this was only the beginning of Matty’s bullpen mismanagement. Williams’ devotion to bullpen rolls created the next problem. I can’t say for sure who’s the ideal reliever on this team with the bases loaded and nobody out, but it’s probably not Xavier Cedeno. Blake Treinen and his 98 mph sinker seems like a good choice. The point is Williams gave it very little thought at all. Since it was the 7th inning, he obligated himself to use a “7th inning guy.”  Treinen–Williams’ “8th inning guy”–entered the game next inning with the Nationals losing 4-1. It was too late for his sinker to make a difference.

Williams’ poor decisions have a cascading effect on the bullpen. Treinen was relegated to a lower leverage situation on Friday night because Williams will only use him in the 8th inning. The next night, Williams used him again in the eighth inning. On Saturday, Treinen–a new reliever still adjusting to the demands of working on consecutive nights–wasn’t sharp and surrendered the Nats 2-0 lead. After burning Treinen on Friday when it was too late to make a difference, the pitcher wasn’t sharp when the team actually needed him. Meanwhile, Aaron Barrett and Drew Storen went unused. The Nats lost the game in extra innings.

In either game Friday or Saturday night, it would have been appropriate to turn to Drew Storen. But Willliams, like many MLB managers, refuses to use his closer unless it’s a save situation. Storen–who hadn’t worked in 5 days–wasn’t sharp and almost blew the save on Sunday. He was only saved by quality defense and the inability of a substandard Phillies lineup to take advantage of Storen’s wildness.

I don’t know why Williams refuses to be flexible in his bullpen usage. After last season’s playoff collapse, I proposed this theory: 

Unlike many MLB managers, Matt Williams was a star player. He didn’t bounce from level to level and team to team. He played 16 of his 17 MLB seasons with only two teams. Over half of his nearly 7600 MLB plate appearances were from the cleanup spot. Matt Williams was a player who didn’t see a lot of change in his career. There’s a good chance he believes a chunk of his success came from this consistency. Every day, same team, same place in the order. Stability led to success over time.

Whether this is the actual reason for Williams’ stubbornness, we’ll probably never know. We do know, however, that he’s not maximizing his team’s chances on a nightly basis. The Nats will recover and win a lot of games this season. Unfortunately, when and if the playoffs come, small decisions in bullpen management can make a huge difference. Unfortunately, Williams refuses to make the right decisions.

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