September 15, 2019

Washington Nationals skipper still going through growing pains

Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams has had a rough go of it the past couple of days. He’s taking shots for his bullpen management and asking his No. 3 hitter to bunt in extra innings. In his second season now, these are things that he took criticism for in his rookie campaign as well.

Half Street Heart Attack does a good job laying out what happened, so I don’t need to go through it again.

But here’s the thing — Williams isn’t alone in this. It’s fairly typical for managers to develop these roles for the players, especially with regards to the bullpen.

Managers set their bullpens into certain roles for several reasons.

1) Players psychologically appreciate defined roles so they know what’s expected of them and when.

2) Organizationally, it helps when the players, coaches, manager and general manager all have a defined game plan.

3, and most importantly to this discussion) By giving the players set roles, it reduces the liability on the manager. If a player designated with a role fails in that capacity, it’s the player’s fault, or even the GM’s fault — not the manager’s.

The last point is very well illustrated by WIlliams’ own words:

In his first year as a big league manager, Williams has the luxury of calling on Tyler Clippard in the eighth inning.

When Rizzo traded Clippard, a two-time All-Star in the role and one of the most successful relief pitchers of the past four season in all of MLB, they opened a role for “Eighth Inning with a Lead Guy”. It’s a role he thrived in for the Nats, effectively making the game an eight inning contest — a second closer for the eighth inning, if you will.

Logically, it makes the most sense to fill his spot with the best available pitcher, or pitchers. The Nats currently don’t have a player with Clippard’s elite skills to fill that role by himself. Williams, thus far, has tried to pigeonhole Blake Treinen in that role, to varying degrees of success.

Treinen has very good skills, and one day could very well have the success Clippard had in the role, or even be trusted with the ninth inning if it proves that he has the constitution for it. This is the first season he’s been groomed as a one-inning reliever and while many former starters (like Clippard) take well to it, some others (Ross Detwiler) simply do not.

It’s easy for armchair managers to say “play the percentages” and mix-and-match at the back of the bullpen, giving the responsibility to the manager for coming up with the best possible matchup in any late-inning scenario.

So far, Williams has had scattershot success with the bullpen GM Mike Rizzo has supplied him with for the start of the season. Xavier Cedeno is no one’s idea of a lefty specialist (.252/.331/.351 career versus lefties). Matt Thornton has faced three batters all season. Aaron Barrett has barely pitched. Drew Storen went five days without pitching while others blew late or extra-inning leads.

It will be interesting to see going forward if Williams learns from his mistakes and takes on more responsibility to actually manage his bullpen based on game situations, instead of relying on autopilot and the set roles, allowing the players to bear the burden of success or failure in situations they may not be best suited for success.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press and is a copy editor for the Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, WA. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

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