It's kind of frustrating that we're not even a full week into the season and I already want to write the exact same article that I wrote on Thursday. In his first season as the Nats manager, Matt Williams was afforded the luxury of having one of the very best relievers in the game as his primary setup man. Those of you who saw me rant (often) in the postgame threads last season know that I'm not a big fan of assigning roles to relievers. It's formulaic. It's managing on autopilot rather than taking real game situations into account.
Still, it made some sense for Williams to lean on a guy who ranks 19th in WAR among relievers (closers and non-closers) over the past three seasons. Alas, the early indications are that Williams may end up looking like a deer in headlights without that "eighth inning guy" (no... that's not a real position) to lean on. The Nats have a good and deep bullpen this season. It's not as strong as the rotation, but everyone in the bullpen has their strengths that Williams should be able to make use of....
- Blake Treinen has an outstanding hard sinker and a history of destroying right-handed hitters as he ascended through the minors
- Matt Thornton is a veteran left-hander who is capable of getting both RHH and LHH out, with just a slight edge (difference of .009/.027/.018) in his platoon splits when he faces lefties
- Craig Stammen is a versatile RHP with some very minor platoon splits. His versatility and his ability to mitch in several different offerings are his strengths. He's shown that he can chew up multiple innings if necessary, but can also handle the occasional leverage spot
- Aaron Barrett has a huge fastball/slider combo and is the kind of guy you can call on when you desperately need a strikeout
- Xavier Cedeno is a solid second lefty reliever, but he's more of a LOOGY than Thornton is
- Tanner Roark figures to be the primary long man in the bullpen based on his strong performance as a starter the past couple of years
- Drew Storen figures to be the bullpen ace. He's a right-hander without much of a platoon split, a nasty two-seamer/slider combo, and much better control than Barrett
While these seven pitchers all have strengths, they all have warts as well. None of them are Tyler Clippard, so it's neither fair to them nor a good idea for the club if Matt Williams tries to assume that one of them will replace him in his role. Instead, he should focus on letting the game situation dictate how he handles the bridge to his bullpen ace (or Capital C "Closer" if you prefer).
When I say he should let the game situation dictate how he handles the bullpen, I don't mean that the score should dictate his decision making as much as the matchups he'll be creating. As we mentioned in Thursday's column, that means that you don't call upon a guy who is new to the bullpen and struggles against left-handed hitters to face Curtis Granderson and Lucas Duda in a one run game. It just defies logic. He should also try to avoid using that same pitcher with big platoon splits against Chase Utley and Ryan Howard in a tight game. On Wednesday, despite some really hard contact, Williams got away with it. On Saturday, he did not.
Of course, the seventh inning Saturday probably also helped to dictate Williams' decision. In the seventh, Doug Fister gave up a one out bloop single on a 3-2 pitch to end his night. If not for the poor BABIP luck, the Nats probably don't end up burning Thornton in that inning and allow Fister to face Cody Asche with the bases empty.
Friday night's game may have been a factor as well. Had Xavier Cedeno not pitched Friday, maybe they go to Cedeno in the seventh so that they can save Thornton for the lefties who are actually, you know, dangerous in the Phillies lineup instead of burning Thornton on Cody Asche and Ben Revere.
This isn't to say that Williams didn't have another option that may have kept Thornton in the game to start the eighth with Galvis (switch), Utley (left), and Howard (left) due up for the Phillies. Reed Johnson made the final out of the top of the seventh, which meant that the pitcher's spot was due up second for the Nats. With Cole Hamels' night over, would they really have lost anything by double switching and having Matt den Dekker take over in left field in the ninth spot? It's more likely that they would have improved their defensive alignment while gaining a platoon advantage at the plate.
Anyway, second guessing is fun, but there's a reason that it's called second guessing. We have the benefit of hindsight after seeing how things played out. What irritates me about Treinen being the choice to face Utley and Howard is that it really wasn't that difficult to predict that he'd have a night where he got crushed by lefties in the near future. That's what has happened for his entire minor league career, so it shouldn't be all that shocking.
The other elephant in the room
Treinen did throw a scoreless eighth inning on Friday night, so he was pitching for the second consecutive day on Saturday. He did spend most of his first season in Oakland's system as a reliever, but would you care to hazard a guess as to how many times he'd pitched on consecutive days as a professional prior to Saturday night? If you guessed never, you get a gold star.
His stuff didn't look as crisp on Saturday, which is something that we might have expected seeing as how he was pitching on consecutive days for the first time in.... well... ever. His sinker looked like more of a flat fastball and didn't have much vertical movement. Treinen and Ramos seemed to be aware of this, as he threw his slider quite a bit more often on Friday (6 out of 21 pitches) than he did in either of his first two outings (1 and 2).
Treating this game as an opportunity
It would have been really nice to get a win last night. No game on April 11 is a must win game, though, so we can at least take some solace in that. The positive about this moving forward will hopefully be that Williams accepts that he can't just set it and forget it by managing on autopilot and going to Treinen any time that the Nats have an eighth inning lead. I said it on Thursday and I'll say it again today. Blake Treinen is not Tyler Clippard. Williams has a good mix of relievers in the bullpen.... use them when the matchup dictates going in a different direction.
It was another disappointing effort from the bats for the most part, but the Nats still put themselves in an excellent position to win in the tenth inning. Taylor got a bad jump on Escobar's single. It happens. Henley was focused on testing one of the weaker arms in baseball in left field and trying to push that go-ahead run across so he sent him anyway. With two outs, I would have been all for that call. With one out, Bryce Harper on deck, and Ryan Zimmerman in the hole, it was a terrible decision. The Nats would have set themselves up with a runner on third, less than two outs, and their two best hitters due up. There's a time to be aggressive.... this wasn't it.