The Washington Nationals hung on for a 3-1 win over the Atlanta Braves on Tuesday despite some scary moments in the eighth and ninth innings. Just five Braves hitters reached base in the first seven innings against Stephen Strasburg and Tanner Roark. Six reached in the final two innings, but the Nats bullpen managed to come through in the end and limit them to just one run.
Matt Thornton created a bit of a jam in the eighth inning. After retiring the first two batters, Thornton allowed a solo homer to Cameron Maybin. Lefties Nick Markakis and A.J. Pierzynski followed with singles against the Nats lefty. With four outs to go, this brought the Braves number five hitter, Juan Uribe, to the plate with the tying run on base. Matt Williams was faced with a decision.
We occasionally hear that the real save situation can happen in the seventh or eighth inning. This certainly appeared to be the case here. In theory, a manager should go to his best reliever here. It's not really safe to assume that the Nats will retire Uribe, but going to the bullpen ace in that situation rather than a setup man should theoretically increase the chances of getting him out. If the Nationals retired Uribe, whoever throws the ninth inning would be facing the bottom of the Atlanta order with the bases empty to begin the ninth.... with the tying run in the on deck circle, rather than standing on first base.
This does show up when we look at the Leverage Index of last night's game. The LI for this plate appearance was 2.66. At this point, it was the highest leverage spot in the game. If the Nats were to escape the inning unscathed (which they did) and not score in the bottom of the eighth (again, this was the case), the LI to start the ninth inning with the bases empty and a two run lead was 1.38.
Of course, we have the benefit of hindsight telling us that Drew Storen had a bit of a shaky outing, which actually led to a pair of plate appearances in the ninth inning that had higher LI. The Jace Peterson walk with two on and two out in the ninth inning had a 2.75 LI. The Maybin popup to end the game came in a spot which had a 5.66 LI.
The Nationals Win Expectancy heading into the Uribe plate appearance was at 88.2%. After David Carpenter came into the spot and retired Uribe, it shot up to 94.7%, a 6.5% boost. When Storen entered the game to get three outs in the ninth inning, the Nats WE was at 93.6%. This left Storen with an opportunity to have .064 WPA, or .001 less than Carpenter got with just his lone out in the eighth inning.
Of course, the plan probably should have been to have Storen get four outs rather than three to nail down the win. The likelihood is that if Storen's spot in the order came up in the eighth inning (Nats had 4-5-6 due up), the Nats would have added on. Once again, hindsight tells us that wouldn't have necessarily been the case. Michael Taylor made the final out of the eighth with two on as the Nats didn't score. Storen would have been in the on deck circle, and Fredi Gonzalez almost certainly would have intentionally walked Taylor to get to him*. With a two run lead headed to the ninth inning and your best reliever in the game, I don't think that Williams would have (or should have) pinch hit if the above scenario had presented itself.
*There was the possibility of double switching out Yunel Escobar, but I can't remember the last time Williams employed the double switch. He's the anti-Riggleman.
Can Drew Storen get four outs? There's nothing that indicates that he's incapable of doing so. When Storen was drafted back in 2009, it was assumed that he would remain in the bullpen, where he had pitched at Stanford, once the Nationals were the team that selected him. The possibility of beginning his pro career as a starting pitcher was something that many of the teams that were rumored to be interested in Storen were looking at, and it was something that was even discussed a bit after the Nats drafted him. He's recorded more than three outs in 21 of his 325 big league appearances, so we've seen him go beyond that simple one inning staple outing.
Is it wise to use him for more than three outs too often? Perhaps not. Storen has worked 118 innings the past two seasons, so you would think that the Nats would like to keep him in the 60-70 inning range total this season. Longer outings put a little more stress on his arm and could make him unavailable the next day.
Have they been using him to get more than three outs very often? Storen last recorded four outs or more in an MLB game on September 1, 2012..... In other words, no! He certainly hasn't been overworked lately either, as last night's appearance was just his sixth in the month of June and first outing since Friday.
Is this purely a criticism of Matt Williams management? Absolutely not. Last year, when I went off on my Matt Williams rants, the responses I would get would often be that 90% of the managers in MLB would have made the same call. In many of those cases, sadly, that was a true statement. Just because everyone else is doing it doesn't make that the optimal move, though.
So I'm posing the question to all of you... even with the benefit of hindsight telling us that Carpenter escaped the jam and Storen created his own jam in the ninth inning last night. If you were at the helm in last night's 3-1 win over the Braves, would you have gone to your best relief pitcher in that eighth inning spot or a guy who you just acquired last week after the Yankees designated him for assignment?