In the movie Groundhog Day, Phil Connors is forced to repeat the same day over and over until he gets it right. Throughout the film, we watch Connors grow as a person. He goes from being an egomaniacal jerk in the beginning to someone who eventually starts (or at least fakes) caring for some of the people he sees around Punxsutawney each day. He learns to play the piano. He learns to sculpt ice. He learns French. He memorizes all of the answers on jeopardy. He learns the life story of just about every person in an entire restaurant before he goes out (well... for the one time on screen) on his big date with Rita.
There have been a few pieces trying to determine how many times Connors relives that day before he finally does get it right. Director Harold Ramis originally surmised that he probably relived that day for about ten years, but later revised his thinking to indicate that it may have been quite a bit longer than that. Although Ramis' estimate of ten years certainly tells us that it's very gradual, there is one key thing that Connors does throughout that movie... He changes.
Perhaps Matt Williams is caught up in his own little version of Groundhog Day. His handling of the bullpen has come under fire throughout the entire season. Part of this is undoubtedly due to the fact that Williams doesn't exactly have very strong bullpen options at his disposal. However, he all too often seems to fall into the pattern of using the same relievers repeatedly in situations where he's not putting them in a very good spot to succeed. One of the more glaring examples all season long has been Blake Treinen.
When Matt Williams is presumably looking for a job this offseason, the general managers of prospective employers should make him undergo something like the exercise Bart Simpson is doing above as part of the interview process. Treinen's struggles against left-handed hitters are nothing new. They plagued him as he climbed through the minors as a starter and have been a significant issue for him throughout his first season as a big league relief pitcher:
To his credit, much like Phil Connors presumably did in Groundhog Day, Williams has shown gradual improvement with his handling of Treinen. Prior to Treinen's demotion to Syracuse for
facing too many lefties poor performance earlier this summer, Treinen had faced roughly the same amount of left-handed and right-handed batters. As we can see above, he's now faced 142 right-handed hitters as compared to 118 left-handed hitters. This is probably a sign that Williams has started to realize that Blake Treinen is outstanding against right-handed hitters and sub-replacement level against lefties. Heck, Williams even acknowledged the problem after last night's game. Here's an excerpt from Patrick's story about Treinen this morning:
"He's had issues with the left-handed hitter for much of the season," Nats' skipper Matt Williams told reporters after the Nationals were swept in the three-game set with their regional "rivals".
So Williams seems to know that there's a problem. Yet, when the time came for Treinen to face a left-handed batter in a close and late situation, he went right back to it. Williams' handling of Treinen (and the bullpen in general) is reminiscent of a young child putting his hand on the stove repeatedly. He keeps burning his hand over and over, but keeps repeating the process in hopes of a different result. Maybe this time it won't be hot......
Of course, what's truly been one of the most frustrating things about Matt Williams tenure as the Nationals manager is that as irritating, repetitive, and scripted as the decision to allow Treinen to face Matt Wieters was, it still wasn't the biggest managerial blunder that Williams made in that inning. Assuming that Ian Desmond didn't bunt on his own, the call to have him bunt following Clint Robinson's leadoff double in the bottom of the eighth showed a lack of awareness of the game situation.
Williams pinch ran for Robinson with one of the faster players in the organization, Wilmer Difo. Particularly given the expanded rosters in September, this was a terrific choice. Difo would likely score from second on any single hit out of the infield and would be a threat to at least advance to third base on any ball in play not hit to the left side. He was already in scoring position, so the goal here should be to allow your next three hitters an opportunity to take three shots at that single that would score the runner.
Instead, Williams had Ian Desmond bunt. Desmond has six sacrifice bunts this season, which is four more than he had in the previous three years... combined!* Desmond is not a particularly strong bunter, and he shouldn't be. Middle of the order sluggers who have averaged more than 20 homers a season in the past four years shouldn't be taking the bat out of their hands to try and move a baserunner up 90 feet. Still, either Williams called for the bunt or Desmond bunted on his own.
*Matt Williams was the manager for one of those three seasons.
The fact that Desmond's bunt actually cost the Nats 90 feet on the basepaths when Difo got thrown out at third base is more comical than relevant. The decision to bunt at all was the problem in the first place. It greatly hinders the chances of a big inning, but the assumed logic is that it increases the club's chances of scoring one run, which would have tied the game (and presumably allowed the bullpen to lose it again). As much as I disagree with this line of thinking, the logic behind giving away an out for 90 feet in that situation is that it creates a spot where the next hitter should be able to drive in Difo from third as long as he makes contact.
While I chose to bold and italicize different words, perhaps the key word in the paragraph above is the last one: contact. By bunting Wilmer Difo to third base (if it had worked), Williams and the Nats would have been attempting to set up a situation where all Michael A. Taylor needed to do was make contact to score the run. Unfortunately, Michael A. Taylor leads the Washington Nationals (non-pitchers) with a 31.0% strikeout rate. In fact, among players with at least 450 plate appearances, Taylor's strikeout rate is higher than all but two players (Colby Rasmus and Chris Davis, 31.4%) in the major leagues. Matt Williams essentially attempted to trade an out with one of his better hitters for an opportunity for one of the worst contact hitters in baseball to have a situation where contact would score a run.
The Nats have teased us with a couple of hot streaks against bad teams in the past month where it looked like they would get back into the race if the Mets let them do it. The Mets finally tried to let them get back in it with a 2-6 stretch, but the Nationals still found a way to come from ahead to lose twice more during that span. I'm all for d_c_guy's "Never give up, never surrender!" rallying cry, but I'm done letting Williams and the bullpen pull the rug out from under me every time I try to be hopeful. The tragic number is three, but it's time to start thinking about 2016.
This team was flawed beyond simply suffering too many injuries this season. Matt Williams certainly hasn't been the only flaw, but he's been one of the most visible. Like Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, he may gradually figure things out and improve as a big league manager. I just hope that it's somewhere else.