The Washington Nationals have been struggling badly to score runs on their current west coast trip. Since an eight run outburst in the first game of the trip, the Nats entered play on Friday with just one run in 27 innings against the Dodgers and Giants. When a team is struggling as the Nats have lately, we sometimes see a tendency to press. We also occasionally see teams try something different because whatever they've been doing hasn't been working. In the first inning of Friday night's game, the Nats tried something different... and boy was it baffling.
The Nats were facing Matt Cain, who was actually one of the better starters in the National League as recently as three years ago. Alas, three years is a long time. After maintaining an ERA of 3.14 or lower in each season from 2009-2012, Cain struggled some in 2013 and finished with a 4.00 ERA. He was off to a similar start through fifteen appearances last season before having elbow surgery. Cain finally returned to the Giants rotation in July, and has been even worse than he was in either of the past two campaigns so far in 2015.
Including Friday's game against the Nats, Cain has now made eight starts this season. He's allowed at least four runs in six of those starts; He's allowed at least five runs in three of them. Cain's strikeout rate has dipped from 7.50+ K/9 during those four peak seasons mentioned above all the way down to 6.27 K/9 this season. His walk rate has risen from the 2.50 range in his peak to 3.02 so far this season. He's allowing 1.73 HR/9 innings this season, more than twice his career average... then again, it's been well over 1.00 in each of the past two seasons and this has been a trend. Simply put, Matt Cain isn't a very good pitcher right now, and hasn't been for a couple of years.
Cain got off to a rough start. He walked leadoff man Michael Taylor, who doesn't exactly work a ton of walks. He allowed Taylor to get a monstrous jump and steal second as he fell behind Yunel Escobar 2-0. Then, Matt Williams decided to give away the very first out of the game!
The steal was a great idea. It was something different; something the Nats haven't seen out of their leadoff men very often this season. Calling for the bunt in that situation fails on so many levels:
- It's the first inning! In fact, it's the very first out of the ballgame!
- The Nats already had Taylor in scoring position in front of the guys who have been their two best hitters all year.
- The team is struggling to score runs, so the reaction is to give away an out for 90 feet? Early in the game?
- Escobar, the Nats' second best hitter this season, had leverage with a 2-0 count and bunted a pitch that was actually outside of the strike zone (it was borderline, per Pitchf/x, just a bit high around the inside corner) after Cain had walked the leadoff man and walked five batters in four innings in his previous start.
The regulars at Federal Baseball know how I feel about sacrifice bunts. Unless it's the pitcher bunting, I feel it's generally a bad play. I know that there are quite a few of you who disagree with me. I can actually accept that there's a time when playing for one run instead of playing for the big innings makes sense. That time is not in the first inning against a pitcher who is having a hard time finding the zone and has struggled all year long with your second best hitter at the plate.
The Nats did get the one run that Matt Williams played for here. Taylor advanced to third on Escobar's sacrifice and scored one batter later when Bryce Harper hit one to the track in right field. That run held up for all of six pitches in the bottom of the inning before Matt Duffy tied it with a solo homer. Max Scherzer struggled, allowing four extra base hits in the second inning. He was questionably allowed to hit for himself in the top of the third inning and came back out for the bottom half, allowing a solo shot to Hunter Pence that provided the final run the Giants would need.
Did playing for one run in the first inning of Friday night's game cost the Nats the game? Probably not. We can second guess what would have happened if Williams had let Escobar take a normal at bat with the count 2-0 in his favor and Taylor on second base, but that's not going to give us any concrete answer as to what would have happened. Based on how the Nats have played lately, it's entirely possible (probable?) that they would have stranded Taylor.
The process used to tell your number two hitter to lay down a sacrifice bunt in the very first inning of a game is the flaw here, though. Laying down a sacrifice bunt there lowered the Nats run expectancy from 1.07 to 0.94. It lowered their win expectancy from 56.3% to 55.1%. Even when Taylor scored the run on Harper's sac fly, it only increased the Nats win expectancy to 57.8%. When a team still has 27 outs remaining to make up a one run deficit, you're not really creating a big swing by playing for one run. Later in the game when teams are running low on outs can be a different story.
To his credit, Matt Williams hasn't called upon his position players to sacrifice very often this year. Non-pitchers on the Nats have just eleven sacrifice hits, which is tied for 24th in the majors. Only Ian Desmond (4) and Danny Espinosa (2) have more than one sac bunt this season, and given how often Espinosa bunts for hits (8 for 14 this year), he probably wasn't laying down true sacrifice bunts.
Still, Williams' deployment of the sacrifice in the first inning of Friday's game was a real head scratcher. He's been preaching aggression this past week. When he had an already struggling pitcher on the ropes early, he let him off the hook by handing him a free out. Calling for the bunt there made no sense whatsoever, and it was even oddly out of character based on what Williams has done throughout his tenure in D.C.
Play better Nats. It truly doesn't matter what the Mets are doing if the Nats don't start playing better themselves.