Mr. Hustle Drops the Ball

May 20, 2014




In a game that featured some spectacular plays on defense from both teams - most notably two diving catches, one by Brandon Phillips and one by Billy Hamilton, and a great stop and throw from Anthony Rendon – and some excellent pitching that took the game to the 15th inning, what finally decided the outcome was far less exciting. 


Tonight, Matt Williams’ brain cost the Nationals a win. Pure and simple.


With the score tied 2-2, Kevin Frandsen led off the bottom of the 14th inning with a ringing double. With the pitcher’s spot in the order due to hit, Williams opted to use back-up catcher Jose Lobaton as a pinch hitter. This was less than optimal for a number of reasons.


Firstly, with no outs and a man on second the priority should have been to get the runner to third with the next batter. There are a ten ways to score from third without the benefit from a hit that are not available to a runner at second base: balk, sacrifice fly, suicide squeeze, wild pitch, passed ball, error, runner advance on a dropped third strike throw to first, straight steal of home, runner advance on a foul pop-up, wild pick-off attempt by either the pitcher or the catcher. The Nationals needed to get Frandsen to third with less than two outs so that in addition to the added pressure of facing a hitter with the winning run 90 feet from scoring, all of those other possibilities were in play. The surest way to do that was to bunt him over. I know there’s been lots of discussion recently about the value of bunting, but when a team only needs one run to win (as is the case for the home team in an extra inning tie) then strategies that are more likely to result in that outcome are preferable. In the major leagues, 77% of all sacrifice bunts attempts are successful. The Nationals had 8 players who have laid down sacrifice bunts this season and four of them were available on the bench when Williams sent Lobaton up. Lobaton was not one of them. Compare that to the major league average of getting a hit (.253) which is what Williams was hoping for.


Secondly, Jose Lobaton doesn’t bunt. In his career of 651 plate appearances he has successfully laid down 4 bunts. So even had Williams wanted him to do so, he would have been unlikely to successfully lay one down.


Thirdly, Lobaton does not pull the ball. If he had been a pull hitter there would be at least a decent chance he could advance the runner with a grounder to the right side of the infield. Since he wasn’t, there’s no guarantee he’d get the runner over if he makes contact. Should he hit the ball to left or center, he’d actually be hitting to the advantage of the defense (since he’d be hitting the ball in the direction they want it to go) and creating an opportunity for them to throw out the runner advancing to third on a grounder. Obviously, that would be a negative outcome.


Fourthly, Lobaton is hitting .241 this year and is a lifetime .230 hitter. Betting that he would get a hit in this situation is not exactly what one might term as “playing the odds”. 


Penultimately, if he does manage to get on base without driving the runner in, then the Nats would then have a slow runner at first. That would make him a prime target for a double play, another outcome that would end their chances to score in the inning. Williams could opt to pinch run for him but that would exhaust another resource that would not be available later in the game should the need arise.


Finally, Lobaton is the team’s back-up catcher and if Williams were in a situation later to make a double switch, or should he need to replace starting catcher Wilson Ramos due to injury, that option would be gone. 


The correct play would have been to use one of the starting pitchers who were not in the game to bunt Frandsen over. In addition to keeping valuable bats available for pinch hitting opportunities in less than ideal circumstances, it would have forced the Reds’ manager Bryan Price to either bring the infield in so they could attempt to cut down the runner on an infield hit, or walk a batter or two to get to a more preferable match-up and/or angle for a double play. Either way, it would force Price to make the difficult decisions. Bringing the infield in increases the chance the hitter will drive the run in by 83 points in batting average. Intentionally walking batters forces pitchers to throw more pitches and perhaps get out of a comfortable rhythm. Each one of these events injects more potential for errors in execution which would result in a Nats win. If Williams was doing his job correctly, these are moves he has to make in order to give his team the best chance to win.  


Williams talks about demanding hustle from his players, to have the will to win. He even made an example of Bryce Harper earlier this season by benching him for not hustling on a comeback grounder. For a manager, hustle comes in the form of knowing what all the options are in each situation and choosing the ones that give his team the best chances to win. As great a manager as Davey Johnson was in his career, last year he cost the Nationals a number of games by not paying attention to what was going on and failing to take advantage of the situations when they presented themselves. Tonight, Matt Williams did the same thing. Tonight, Matt Williams did not hustle. Too bad he can’t be benched for it.