Sep 9, 2014; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams (9) walks off the field after a pitching change during the eighth inning against the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park. Washington Nationals defeated against the Atlanta Braves 6-4. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
There have been rumblings in the sports world since the Nationals made the postseason about how Matt Williams would handle managing in his first trip to the playoffs. The first-year major league manager has been called inexperienced, and some have wondered how he will match up against Giants manager Bruce Bochy, who has won two World Series titles in four years.
The one trap Williams needs to avoid is overthinking the management of games at this point. There has become way too much emphasis on all managers becoming Tony La Russa in the playoffs, focusing on matchups between certain hitters and pitchers in late-inning situations.
Williams has a successful team that is hitting on all cylinders entering the playoffs. All the speculation about Ryan Zimmerman’s role in the first round of the playoffs — I’ve heard everything that runs the gamut from Zimmerman playing third base, to him playing left field against tough left handed pitchers to taking over first base — should not be listened to.
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The Nats have a successful team and everyday lineup. Experimenting with it, jiggering it now is simply silly. To do so would be to ignore the success that got you where you are.
Most of the bullpen guys are used to pitching an inning and getting out right-handed or left-handed batters. There are times when Williams will want a left-handed pitcher to get a tough left-handed batter out. But playing the matchup game and using two or three relievers every inning from the seventh on is not how the bullpen is used to pitching and it is not how this team has had success.
The worst mistake Williams can make is asking his players to take on roles that they are not used to and expecting success. One of the silliest mistakes that Davey Johnson made in game five of the NLDS was bringing in Edwin Jackson to pitch in the late innings as a reliever. Jackson was a mediocre pitcher during the season and had not pitched in relief all year.
Why would you ask a starting pitcher that had not been a reliever all season to go out there in a high-stress situation and expect success? Just because Jackson had been a postseason starter was no reason to expect him to shine as a postseason reliever.
The Wild Card playoff game between the Oakland Athletics and the Kansas City Royals illustrates how overthinking and over managing, instead of sticking with what got those teams to the postseason, can be a disaster.
Ned Yost, manager for the Royals, has three nails guys in his bullpen who work the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. He’s also got other relievers in his pen. When James Shields, the starting pitcher for KC, gave up a single and walked a batter to lead off in the sixth inning, Yost took him out of the game. Time for a reliever to put out the fire. Yost decides to go to pitcher Yordano Ventura, who is not only a starting pitcher, but a rookie who just came up this year. He’s not a reliever.
Ventura promptly gave up a three-run shot to Brandon Moss, which meant the Royals went from ahead 3-2 to behind 5-3. He then gave up a single, threw a wild pitch that sent the runner to second, and induced a fly ball that sent the runner to third. K.C. got one out, three runs and a runner at third with that bullpen decision.
Yost then asked Kelvin Herrera to put out the fire. Herrera is K.C.’s seventh inning guy. He is not used to coming in with runners on and throwing from the stretch. He gave up two more runs before Oakland’s party was over. Oakland led 7-3 in the sixth inning.
How could the Athletics mess this up? By asking Lester to come out and pitch the eighth inning. As soon as he came out to take the mound, the couch potatoes in my house were all yelling — What is Melvin doing? You get seven innings out of your starter, you only need to get to your closer — go to your bullpen. That’s what you would do in any other game that was not a playoff.
Melvin instead tried to get too much out of Lester. Lester gave up a single and a stolen base. A groundout moved the runner to third. A single brought him home. That runner then stole second. Then Lester walked the next batter. Melvin finally lifted Lester with a run in and two on. Luke Gregerson, another pitcher who is not used to coming in with runners on, allowed the inherited runners to score. Oakland was still ahead, 7-6, but the tension was mounting.
After Sean Doolittle blew the save in the ninth and the score was tied, 7-7, K.C. and Oakland traded scoreless innings until the 12th. The A’s went ahead in the top of the 12th, 8-7, K.C. tied the game again in the bottom of the inning and Melvin had to bring in a pitcher to keep the Royals off the board and continue the game into the 13th.
He went with Jason Hammel, another starting pitcher. Needless to say, that didn’t work out as diagrammed. Why would it? He’s not a reliever used to coming in and getting one or two batters out when the team gets into hot water.
There were lots of other stupid decisions made by both managers during the game, decisions they wouldn’t have made in a regular game.
If this is how you “manage” in the postseason, the Nationals are better off to have a rookie manager going into his first postseason, as long as he keeps his head and doesn’t try to over manage the situation like Yost and Melvin did.
My advice to Matt Williams about managing in the playoffs is to take the same advice your players claim they are taking to heart these days. Your players are publicaly saying that they are trying to treat these postseason games like any other game — go out, play the way they know how to play, keep doing what got them here.
Hopefully Williams will do the same. Keep doing what got you and your team here. Manage it like you would any other game. That has brought you and the team success. Why change now?