What in the world is Matt Williams doing with his bullpen?

It’s not news that I am not a fan of Matt Williams’ bullpen management. I wrote this last April

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.

Three months later, Williams hasn’t changed. He’ll probably never change. He still assigns roles his relievers–sometimes roles that don’t make sense–and then refuses to deviate. Friday and Saturday against the Mets, neither Drew Storen nor Jonathan Papelbon pitched. Each night, the Nationals surrendered a late lead to the 2nd place team in their division while Williams’ two best relievers sat in the bullpen, unused.

I could complain about this for the 589th time, but there’s no point. Matt Williams is Matt Williams. If he cared what other people thought, he would have changed by now. In the wreckage of the 2014 NLDS, I tried to explain Matt Williams’ Mattiness:

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.

So instead of complaining about Williams, which is entirely unproductive, I want to figure out what he’s doing. If we can predict what Matty’s behavior–and it’s obvious by now he is predictable–maybe we can save ourselves a little bit of stress on gameday.

1. Papelbon will not be used on the road unless it’s a save situation. Papelbon reportedly asked for assurances he would be the closer in DC before agreeing to waive his no trade clause. Once arriving, Papelbon told reporters he wants to break Mariano Rivera’s career saves record. Now, it would be nice if nobody cared about meaningless statistics like “saves” but that doesn’t appear to be the case. On Friday night, Williams had plenty of opportunities in the 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th innings to use Papelbon, but chose not to, presumably saving him for a save situation (that never arrived). During home games, it remains to be seen how Williams will use Papelbon when a game goes to extra innings.

2. Storen won’t be used before the 9th inning unless it’s a save situation. Papelbon’s arrival bumped Storen to a setup role in the 8th inning. This is exactly how he was used in Thursday’s 1-0 win against the Marlins. On Saturday against the Mets however, Williams turned to Matt Thornton and Aaron Barrett in the 8th, despite Storen being rested and ready to go. In the top of the 9th, with the Nats losing 3-2, Storen started to warm up. This likely means he would have been used in the bottom of the 9th if the Nats tied the game in the top of the inning. If the Nats took the lead, Papelbon would have pitched…of course.

3. Everything else is a mystery. We know Tanner Roark is the long relief guy. If the starter can’t make it to the 6th inning, he’s probably pitching. If it’s not time for Storen yet, Williams will try to get by with some combination of Thornton, Janssen, Rivero, and Barrett. Whether Williams uses the right guy at the right time, we’ll just have to put our faith the reigning National League Manager of the Year.

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