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Game 3 breakdown: Nats win 4-1

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Once again, it's time to break down some of the key moments in the Nats most recent playoff game. This time there are some happier things to analyze.

The Nats kept their season alive for at least one more day with Monday's 4-1 win over the Giants.
The Nats kept their season alive for at least one more day with Monday's 4-1 win over the Giants.
Thearon W. Henderson

With a 4-1 victory over the San Francisco Giants Monday, the Nationals kept their season alive for at least one more day.  They'll try to do the same on Tuesday as Gio Gonzalez squares off with Ryan Vogelsong.

It's amazing what one game can do to the outlook in a five game series.  The Nationals suddenly have what figures to be the advantage in the starting pitcher matchup on Tuesday.  This is still an uphill battle, but just one more win at AT&T Park would force a mutual elimination game in Washington on Thursday.

Some optimism for Tuesday:

Date Opponent Result IP H R ER BB SO
8/26/2014 @WSN L,6-14 5.1 4 3 3 4 3
6/13/2014 WSN L,2-9 6.0 9 6 6 2 6
8/15/2013 @WSN W,4-3 3.2 6 3 3 3 3
5/20/2013 WSN W,8-0 5.0 3 0 0 1 2
8/13/2012 WSN L,2-14 2.2 9 8 8 2 5

Since returning from Japan in 2011, Ryan Vogelsong has faced the Nats five times.  The Nats have gotten to him for three or more runs in four of those starts, including a six run outburst at AT&T Park in June.  The one game where he didn't allow any runs is when Vogelsong broke his pinky when he was hit by a pitch in mid-swing.  Of course, these games will have nothing to do with what happens on Tuesday.  I show them just so that you know that the Nats have gotten to him in the past.  Vogelsong finished with a 4.00 ERA on the year and a 5.53 ERA in five September starts.  He allowed four runs in each of his final three starts.  The Nats should be able to get to him.

Let's move on to the key points from last night's game....

The decision to have Wilson Ramos bunt in the seventh inning

Before we set up the decision to have Ramos bunt, I'll tell those of you who aren't regular readers here at Federal Baseball that I'm ordinarily vehemently opposed to bunting.  To our regular readers, I know that this irritates a few of you.  I'm going to make cases for and against Williams calling for the bunt there, which is kind of bittersweet.  I do believe there's some validity to the decision to bunt there, though I'm not sure it's what I would have done.

At any rate, the game turned on this play, so let's set up the situation.  Ramos came up with Bryce Harper on first and Ian Desmond on second with nobody out.  It was a 0-0 game in the top of the seventh.

Justifying the decision to bunt

Quite frequently, when I complain about a position player bunting, it's because bunting eliminates the positive outcomes that can happen if that batter takes a regular AB.  There are obviously plenty of potential outcomes, including walks, hits, an out hit behind a runner, a medium deep fly ball (depending upon the lead runner) that the baserunner(s) could still advance them without intentionally giving away an out.  Choosing to bunt seems more focused on avoiding the extreme negative outcomes (strikeout, pop fly, double play ball) while attempting to give away an out to advance the other runner(s) ninety feet.  While a successful bunt will eliminate the negative possible outcomes, it also eliminates the potential for a positive outcome (hit or walk) provided that the opposing team simply takes the free out.

The question that has to be asked with Ramos batting here is just how high the possibility is that his plate appearance will end with one of the extreme negative outcomes that could either not advance either of the runners or leave the Nats with two outs and a runner on third.

  • Like many of the Nats hitters, Ramos has had his struggles in this series.  Prior to this plate appearance, Ramos was 1 for 12 with six strikeouts and one walk.  His six balls in play this series have been four groundouts (one of which was a GIDP), a fly out to CF, and a sharp single through the middle.  He had struck out and grounded out in his first two at bats.
  • Ramos tied for the team lead with 17 GIDP this season despite spending a month and a half on the disabled list.  He had just 361 plate appearances.
  • He is the slowest runner on the team (and among the slowest runners in the entire league), which means that almost any ground ball that is fielded on the infield runs a high risk of a double play.
  • 55.4% of Ramos' plate appearances ended with a ground ball this season.  The league average was 44.8%.  Obviously, not all ground balls are fielded.  Still.....
  • Ramos also struck out in 15.8% of his plate appearances this season.
  • If you combine those two, Ramos either struck out or hit the ball on the ground (potential for two of the three extreme negative outcomes) in 71.2% of his plate appearances this season.  His infield fly rate was 4.5%.

Ramos is a good hitter who is slumping right now.  Given his performance both recently and throughout the season, letting him bat runs a fairly high risk of one of those extreme negative outcomes.  While deciding to sacrifice is essentially playing for one run rather than the big inning, it's late enough in the game so that one run was important enough for the Nats so that I could see playing for one run.  Of course, playing for one run has to consider other factors as well.

Who's on deck?

If you read the article I linked to above, you'll see that part of the reason I went on that rant was because of who was on deck.  If you're focusing on getting a runner to third base with one out so that there's a good chance he scores if the next hitter makes a productive out, you'd better not be bunting a runner over in front of a poor contact hitter.  In this case, Asdrubal Cabrera was on deck.

Cabrera certainly isn't an exceptional contact hitter.  He struck out in 17.5% of his plate appearances this season. However, with the pitcher's spot up after Cabrera, chances are that the Giants would have at least considered intentionally walking Cabrera to force Matt Williams' hand and set up the double play.

Walking Cabrera would foce Williams' hand because Doug Fister was due up after him.  Ryan Zimmerman would almost certainly have gotten the bases loaded opportunity as it would likely be the highest leverage situation of the day.  Zimmerman had a 15.4% contact rate and 43.6% ground ball rate this season.  He's not running full speed because of his hamstring injury, but he's still:

  1. Faster than Ramos
  2. A slightly better contact hitter than Ramos
  3. Less likely to hit a ground ball than Ramos
In all likelihood, a successful sacrifice by Ramos was designed to be Williams making a choice between Wilson Ramos batting with runners on first and second and nobody out or Ryan Zimmerman batting with the bases loaded and one out.  If Bochy chooses not to walk Cabrera, it would have left a decent contact hitter at the plate with runners on second and third (no force play).  Since the game was in the seventh inning and both pitching staffs have been outstanding all series long, the Giants would almost certainly have drawn the infield in rather than concede the run on a ground ball.  While this means they would try to get Desmond at the plate if they fielded a ground ball, it would also increase the likelihood of Cabrera getting the ball through the infield.

Given all of the factors involved, choosing to bunt here likely increased the Nats chances of scoring one run, which looked like it might be enough at this point.

Arguing against the bunt

I've written many words about not bunting.  I linked you to an article where Michael Taylor was in a similar situation earlier in the year and I went a little nuts.  I'm not going to write a long argument against bunting in this case, but I'll offer a few points.

While it may increase the likelihood of scoring one run, it slightly decreases the overall run expectancy.

Runners On 0 outs 1 out 2 outs
None 0.4552 0.2394 0.0862
003 1.2866 0.8873 0.3312
020 1.0393 0.6235 0.2901
023 1.8707 1.2714 0.5351
100 0.8182 0.4782 0.1946
103 1.6496 1.1261 0.4396
120 1.4023 0.8623 0.3985
123 2.2337 1.5102 0.6435

*Data from Baseball Prospectus

With runners on first and second and nobody out, a team's run expectancy is 1.4023 runs.  With runners on second and third and one out, a team's run expectancy is 1.2714.  While that's not necessarily a drastic effect, bunting does slightly lower the likelihood that they'll score multiple runs.

Comfort Zone

Simply put, there are some players who are asked to lay down bunts more often than others.  Wilson Ramos had four career sacrifice bunts, all of which came in 2011.  As we've seen with the Nats pitching staff (among others) over the years, bunting isn't an easy thing to do.  To take a player like Ramos, who hasn't laid down a bunt in three years, and ask him to lay down a bunt certainly doesn't guarantee that he's going to do it successfully.

Count

Of course, we also have to remember that a ball that is bunted foul with two strikes is a strikeout.  In this case, Ramos squared away from the beginning of the at bat, but actually let two strikes go by before executing the sacrifice with a 1-2 count.  With even an average-hitting pitcher, I can certainly see this, as most of them are unlikely to do anything by swinging anyway.  With a position player, I think you have to let him swing away with two strikes.  Ramos bunted with two strikes... He got it down.

And then.... this happened.

Madison Bumgarner's decision to go after the lead runner

The Nats attempted something similar earlier in this series, when Adam LaRoche tried to get the lead runner at second base when Jake Peavy laid down a sacrifice bunt in Game 1.  Bumgarner fielded the ball and really didn't have any chance at getting Desmond at third base.  Of course, when a pitcher is fielding a bunt with their back to the play behind them, they're often getting advice from their teammates.  Buster Posey took credit for making the decision to throw to third after the game:


The throw was inside the third base bag, but Ian Desmond was already popping up on the bag by the time the throw would have gotten to Pablo Sandoval anyway.  As Sandoval scrambled to get to the ball, it got away and bounced around in the Giants' bullpen.  Converted first baseman Travis Ishikawa took an... interesting route to the ball, but I'm not sure he really could have gotten to it much more quickly than he did.  Desmond scored from second.  Harper scored from first.  Wilson Ramos ended up at second.

Like the LaRoche play from Game 1, this was simply a poor decision by Posey and Bumgarner.  It wasn't a perfect bunt, but it wasn't bunted hard right back at Bumgarner.  Desmond runs well.  The Giants chances of getting Desmond at third were almost non-existent.  Sometimes you just have to take what your opponent gives you.  In this case for the Giants, they didn't take the out.  It turned the game around.  We'll find out more on Tuesday about whether it helped turn the series around.

Doug Fister

Fister has been huge for the Nats all year long, but he really played an important role for the Nationals on Monday.  With the Giants ace on the hill, this was the one game in the series where the Nationals didn't appear to have a distinct advantage in the starting pitcher matchup.  What's more, the Nats had lost the first two games of the series at home and were fighting for their season.  Fister was money.

He really only got into serious trouble in the second inning.  He allowed a leadoff single to Pablo Sandoval.  Hunter Pence flied out to left field.  Then Fister started to get squeezed a bit by home plate umpire Tom Hallion:

We'll actually see that Fister got a call in this at bat as well.  The first pitch looks to be well off the outside corner, but we'll take more of a look at Hallion's day later.  Who knows how the sequencing of the remainder of the at bat looks if that first pitch isn't called a strike.  The key pitch to look at is pitch number five, which was a 2-2 pitch that was over the inner half.  It was actually pretty close to being middle-middle.  This pitch was called a ball!?!?!  Belt went on to walk on a 3-2 pitch that missed away.

With two on and one out, Brandon Crawford would then make the hardest contact that the Giants made against Fister all day, taking him to the wall in left field.  Bryce Harper made a terrific play (which wasn't even his best play of the day) to catch it and save a two-run double (or worse).  Fister then walked Ishikawa on a 3-2 pitch before facing his toughest situation of the day.

Now... when Ishikawa walked, it loaded the bases, but it did bring up the Giants pitcher, right?  Bumgarner was not your ordinary pitcher in the batter's box this season.  He led all pitchers across all three triple slash categories with a .258/.286/.470 line.  His 4 HR, 10 Runs, and 15 RBI led all pitchers.  He had hit not one, but two grand slams this season.  This wasn't the old "pitch around the number eight hitter to get to the pitcher" maneuver.  I won't say that Bumgarner is a better hitter than Ishikawa because... well... he isn't.  Their numbers this season say that Bumgarner was better, but in a vacuum, you'd rather be facing a pitcher than a professional hitter.

Anyway, all of that was just to say that Bumgarner is a pretty tough hitter.  Here's what happened.

Fister got squeezed once again to begin the at bat, but battled back to strike Bumgarner out on five pitches.  This would go on to be the only real jam that Fister got into during his seven innings of work.  He would end up allowing one baserunner in the third, fourth, fifth, and seventh innings, but only one would get as far as second base.  The guy was masterful today with the season on the line.

Bryce Harper/The rest of the offense

Harper had a huge day both at the plate and in the field.  As I mentioned above, Harper made a leaping grab at the wall (wasn't leaving the park, but there were two runners on) in the second inning.  He drew a walk in front of Ramos' bunt and scored from first on Bumgarner's error.  He made a diving grab in the seventh inning on a ball hit in the gap by Travis Ishikawa (with a runner on second).  Finally, he hit his second tape measure home run of the series.  Check out the highlight package.

Though he was quiet in Game 2, Harper has certainly made his presence felt in this series.  He gave the Nats a spark in Game 1 when they were trailing 3-0.  In today's game, he was the best non-pitcher on the field for either team.  There were some more signs of life up and down the lineup.

  • Denard Span had his first two hits of the series.  Perhaps more importantly, he wasn't so pull happy.  He hit two line drives into left field for singles.  Span's improved performance over the final five months of the season was one of the driving forces in making this offense go.  They need him to heat up.
  • Jayson Werth continued to work deep counts and actually crushed one towards triples alley.  Though it hung up for Gregor Blanco, he made good contact a couple of times.
  • Ian Desmond's single through the left side got the seventh inning rally started.  As is typical of Desmond, he was aggressive early in the count.  He seemed to be picking better pitches early in the count to go after on Monday.
  • Wilson Ramos absolutely ripped a ball to straightaway center field after Harper's ninth inning homer.  While Ramos did hit a sharp single in Game 2, it was the best contact we've seen from him so far.  Unfortunately, Gregor Blanco made a nice play to catch it.
  • Asdrubal Cabrera followed Ramos by ripping a liner towards triples alley that might have left some parks (almost certainly would have been off the scoreboard in Nats Park), but was caught by Pence.
Lineup decision

With a lefty on the hill and the Nats offense scuffling, Matt Williams was stuck with some hard choices today.  Many people thought we might see Ryan Zimmerman in the lineup for either LaRoche, Span, or (gasp) Harper.  There was some speculation about whether he was going to use Jose Lobaton in place of Wilson Ramos.  There was some discussion when Patrick posted the lineups Monday afternoon about whether or not the Nats should have used Danny Espinosa instead of Asdrubal Cabrera with a left-hander on the mound as well.

Instead, Williams stuck with his regular lineup.  There are certainly cases to be made for making any of the moves listed above (outside of removing Harper), but I liked the decision.  Williams has shown all season long that he has his process.  While I don't always agree with everything he does, he has a plan and he sticks to it.  Instead of making a reactive move Monday because the team was facing elimination, he trusted his process and stuck with the players that helped carry this team to 96 wins in the regular season.  While four runs don't qualify as an outburst, they came through for him.

Drew Storen

After Saturday's game, I defended the choice to go with Drew Storen.  It may not have been the move that I would have made, but there was certainly a reasonable argument for him to go with Storen on Saturday.  In Game 2, Storen made three pretty good pitches and got beat.  With a 3-0 lead heading into the ninth inning, Williams had Storen start to warm up, showing faith in his relief ace despite his blown save in Saturday's game.  Bryce Harper homered in the top of the inning to push the lead to 4-0, but once Storen had started to warm up, you stick with him.

There could have been a case for Matt Thornton once again.  The Giants had Pablo Sandoval (weaker against LHP), Hunter Pence, and then three left-handed hitters due up.  While Pence generally handles lefties well, that's a pretty good spot for Thornton.  However, after Storen struggled on Saturday, this should have been a good spot for him.  With the season on the line, it was a leverage spot.  However, with a four run lead, it was also a spot where Storen could afford to allow a couple of baserunners before things started to get really intense.  Unfortunately, he did just that to the first two hitters he saw.

There's not much that we can complain about with Sandoval's hit.  He fisted a BABIP hit just out of Asdrubal Cabrera's reach.  The pitch was in on his hands and Storen just got a little unlucky.  The same can't be said for Hunter Pence's hit.  Pence saw two pitches: a fastball up and over the heart of the plate and a thigh high fastball over the heart of the plate.  He ripped the second one into the gap in left center for a double.  These would end up being the only two hits that Storen would allow.  However, that doesn't mean that his Pitchf/x chart looks real pretty.

I would say that chart illustrates a pitcher who was hitting the zone, but not commanding within the zone very well.  Ten of his fourteen pitches were strikes.  Four of them were over the heart of the plate.  Three of those were up.  He hit the edges of the zone twice, one of which was fisted into right field for a single.  Thankfully, Storen's third batter really let him off the hook.

Storen had Belt in a 2-2 count with runners on second and third and nobody out.  He still had a four run lead, but he was headed into dangerous territory.  Ramos called for the 2-2 slider.  I wouldn't call the pitch hanging (it had good movement), but it ended up being middle up.  Thankfully, it locked Belt up and he just watched it go by.  Crawford followed with a sac fly on the first pitch (middle-in) and Ishikawa got himself out on a changeup well out of the zone.

I absolutely feel it was the right choice to go to Storen Monday.  In terms of his actual pitching, he may have actually been better on Saturday (sure... he only threw three pitches) than he was last night.  He only gave up one really well struck ball, but he just wasn't locating.  This isn't to say that I wouldn't go to Storen on Tuesday in a tough situation.  However, (assuming Clippard had already been used) I wouldn't hesitate to go to Matt Thornton in the ninth instead if the matchups favored him more.

Tom Hallion

Let's start by posting his strike zone.  Here's the zone to LHH....

And to RHH......

If you don't regularly read Pitchf/x charts, the pitches that are red were called strikes.  The pitches that are green were called balls.  We'll note that (save for one strike called when the Giants were pitching) there was no inner half of the plate to LHH.  I'm not talking inside corner.  I'm talking inner half. I'll note the green triangle (Nats) and green square (Giants) less than six inches from the center of the plate between 2.5 and 3 feet vertically.  He did still give the big outside corner against lefties that we've seen from all three umpires in this series and both teams' pitchers took advantage of it a few times.  With left-handed hitters at the plate, Hallion pretty much eliminated the upper half of the zone as well.

While it felt like Bryce Harper's strikeout looking in the fourth inning was the most egregious call on the outside corner, it appears that Doug Fister got the three most favorable calls off of the corner.  Hallion missed ten calls that were within the zone (7 Nats, 3 Giants) and called six strikes that were out of the zone (3 each) with a lefty at the plate.

The zone was pretty close to the rule book when right-handed hitters were batting.  Hallion called just three balls that were within the zone.  He called just two strikes that were outside of the zone.  Four of those five calls went in favor of the Giants.  My takeaway is that the umpires behind the plate continue to disappoint.  The zone was very tight on Monday, which makes the performances of Fister and Bumgarner (who carried a shutout into the seventh inning himself) even more impressive.