Everything was going the Washington Nationals way in the seventh inning of Wednesday night's 6-5 loss to the San Diego Padres. After trailing 5-0 at one point, the Nats had drawn within one run in the bottom of the seventh despite notching just two hits in the inning. The Padres had walked two and hit another batter in the inning around a Denard Span double and a Bryce Harper single, leading to three runs and putting the tying run on third base. Padres LOOGY Marc Rzepczynski was already giving up the platoon advantage (.303/.410/.333 vs. RHH this year) and fell behind Nats third baseman Yunel Escobar 3-0. Rzepcynski threw Escobar a sinker down and on the outer half. Escobar rolled it over to third, diving head first (GRRRRRR) into first base just after the ball reached Yonder Alonso's glove as the Padres escaped the jam with a 5-4-3 double play.
The question we're here to answer today is this: Was this Matt Williams' fault? I can save those of you who want to crucify him (which I've done on a regular basis) some time with a one word answer: No!
Was Williams responsible for giving Escobar the green light on 3-0? Absolutely. In fact, here's what he had to say about it after the game:
Of course, yeah, we do it all the time. It's a good situation for him. He's hitting five in our lineup. He can pick a pitch and get it airborne, he just happened to get on top of that one.
So, we do it all the time. We do it with Jayson [Werth]. We do the same with Bryce [Harper]. We do it with just about everyone in our lineup. To pick a pitch and get one to hit.
When a manager gives a hitter a green light on 3-0, he isn't telling a hitter that he has to swing at the 3-0 pitch. He's telling him to be aggressive and swing away if he gets a good pitch to hit. The positive thing is that if that hitter doesn't get a pitch he can do anything with, the worst thing that should happen is that the count moves to 3-1 if the pitch is called a strike. The onus is on the player to make sure that he gets a pitch that he can do something with and strike if that opportunity arises.
Was the pitch that Escobar hit a terrible pitch to offer at? Maybe... Probably not, to be honest. Let's have a look:
Brooks Baseball had the pitch at 92.6 MPH about three inches off of dead center on the outer half. It was low in the strike zone, a touch above the knees. To be honest, it was a pitch that was screaming to be hit to the opposite field, which is generally not the type of pitch that you want to swing at with a 3-0 count. For a hitter like Escobar, who has been successful hitting to all fields, I can see it. However, when hitters get in a 3-0 count, they look for something to drive, which usually means they look for something to pull. A sinker down and away is a terrible pitch to pull, because if hitters try to pull it, they're probably going to end up rolling it over and... welp.
Again, the important thing to remember here is that just because Escobar had the green light, it didn't mean that he had to swing at a pitch if it was in the strike zone. If a hitter has a green light on a 3-0 count, he should focus on one part of the zone and come back on 3-1 if it's not right where he wants it. It's possible that Escobar was actually looking for something down and away there (again, if he's thinking of driving it to the opposite field, it was a good pitch to swing at), but this swing sure wouldn't verify that. He follows through and tries to turn on it.
Much has been made about Escobar's history of batting with 3-0 counts. This season, he's now had nine plate appearances end on a 3-0 count. The previous eight were walks. The double play on Wednesday was the first time all season that Escobar has put a 3-0 pitch in play. I can't say with 100% accuracy that it was the first time that he's swung at a 3-0 pitch, as it's possible that he's fouled a few 3-0 pitches off or even swung through them.
As for his career numbers, Escobar has never been a big 3-0 swinger. After the game, Nats beat writer Chelsea Janes tweeted about Escobar's career numbers on a 3-0 count:
Escobar is a career .400 hitter on 3-0 counts, looking for a pitch to elevate. He is also slow, and top 10 in MLB in GIDP.— Chelsea Janes (@chelsea_janes) August 27, 2015
Let's elaborate on those numbers a bit. Escobar is now a .333 hitter (2 for 6) on 3-0 counts. Prior to last night, Escobar had seen 110 plate appearances in his career end on a 3-0 count. His career line with a 3-0 count entering last night was .400/.973/1.000. He was 2 for 5 with a single, a homer, a hit by pitch, and 104 walks (15 of which were intentional). If a nine year veteran has put the ball in play just five times in his career on a 3-0 count, maybe he's not very comfortable swinging in that situation.
Of course, we also can't neglect what Escobar has done in 2015... good or bad. Escobar grounded into a double play, which was his eighteenth this season. He now ranks second in the National League, just one behind league leader Aramis Ramirez. He's second among Nats position players and sixth among NL qualifiers (for the batting title) with a 55.4% ground ball rate this season, which adds to the possibilities of a double play. Finally, in 83 plate appearances with a runner on first base and less than two outs, he's grounded into eighteen double plays. That's more than once every five chances.
At the same time, Escobar is second on the team with a .308 batting average this season. His .365 OBP is also second on the team, and he's been selective enough as a hitter not to chase very many pitches where he's getting himself out this season. His 120 wRC+ ranks third on the team behind Bryce Harper and Denard Span. On deck hitter Ryan Zimmerman has been a double play machine himself, grounding into twelve in 75 plate appearances with a runner on first and less than two outs. There's no guarantee that Zim cashes that run in if Escobar ends up walking, so you make sure one of your best hitters stays aggressive and clobbers one if he gets something he likes on 3-0.
Williams made his fair share of mistakes in last night's game, such as allowing Doug Fister to bat for himself with a 5-0 deficit in the fifth inning.... or not double switching Fister into the ballgame in the top of the fifth when he was due up second in the bottom half... or continually playing a poor defensive third baseman at third base while playing an excellent defensive third baseman at second base, where he's been below average defensively. On the positive side, he threw his two best relievers in the eighth and ninth innings when trailing by a run. Unfortunately, that's a lesson he learned about a month too late (OK.... sixteen months too late).
Decisions like the ones above are a significant part of the reason that we're seeing a lot of criticism for Williams giving Escobar the green light last night. Because of other issues like his handling of the bullpen, his lineup construction, and his love of the intentional walk, every move that Williams makes is under the spotlight right now. If he makes a decision that backfires, even if it's a good one, he gets pummeled for it. However, if he makes a move that pans out, we don't hear nearly as much about it.
I'm no Williams apologist. I've been one of his more vocal critics all season long. I've said just about everything outside of "Fire Matt Williams" in this column at times this season. I said as much (primarily as a commenter) last season as well, as I was never a fan of hiring a rookie manager to take over a team with World Series aspirations. However, not every decision that Williams makes deserves such harsh criticism. Sometimes things don't work out. Sometimes players need to actually execute.
Yunel Escobar didn't execute on Wednesday night. Escobar was 1 for 3 with a walk, but he may have had his worst game as a National. His third inning error helped lead to four runs on the board for the Padres. He came up with a chance to atone for that error later on in the game and tried to pull a 3-0 pitch down and away when a sac fly would have tied it. He even compounded that by sliding into first base when he probably would have beaten out the double play if he'd just run through the @#$#@$ bag. None of those mistakes that Escobar made were on Matt Williams. They were all on Yunel Escobar.
Sad, but true. This is how I feel about the Nats season right now....