Why the Nationals Will NEVER Win

September 9, 2015



With every team there are many obstacles to overcome for them to win the championship. However, there are two obstacles that weigh most heavily against a teamís chances and unfortunately for the Nationals, they have both of them.


Wilson Ramos work behind the plate:


The first is the ability of the catcher behind the plate. Guys like Buster Posey, Yadier and Bengie Molina, David Ross, Jason Varitek, AJ Pierzinski and Ivan Rodriguez have dominated the game from behind the plate with their pitch calling, framing and blocking skills. The fact that theyíve been pretty good with a bat in their hands has been a pleasant bonus. Unfortunately for the Nats, they donít have such a guy.


One at bat encapsulates my frustration with Ramos. It happened versus the Cardinals with Matt Holliday at the plate. Itís been pretty well established that Holliday doesnít handle good fastballís low and inside. And for two strikes that is what Ramos called. But in the deciding pitch, he set up right in the middle of the plate and called for a change-up. Of course, Holliday rifled a hit to left field on the next pitch. Ramos either outsmarted himself or was utterly clueless about Hollidayís tendencies, but the result was the same. Since this was not an isolated incident Ė in fact, it seems to happen with alarming frequency Ė one must begin to make the case that it is a function of the latter. The Nationals pitchers get hit way too hard for the talent they have. The team would be much better off with a better receiver Ė a Henry Blanco-type - even if he couldnít hit worth a lick.


Another example: in a critical game against the Mets, Matt Williams brought hard-throwing rookie Felipe Rivero in with men on base but only needing one out to get out of the inning. But instead of setting up over the heart of the plate and giving the rookie an easy target, Ramos set up on the outside edge increasing the difficulty of throwing a strike in an already difficult situation. The result was predictable: two walks and another visit from Williams to bring in another reliever.


Another example: when Strasburg pitches, Ramos starts 80% of the hitters off with a fastball. Strasburg has four pitches, three of which grade as plus offerings. Only his slider is average or below. With that kind of selection there is simply no excuse to limit the pitcher to one pitch to start off each batter. Even with the rest of the staff he doubles up on pitches more than 50% of the time, allowing batters to look for a pitch. A smart catcher, a good catcher, would force hitters to guess what is coming rather than allow him to know whatís coming and simply select where heís going to look for it.


Ramos is also one of the worst in MLB at blocking errant pitches. Even though his passed ball numbers look very good, he receives for one of the best control staffs in the majors. The Nats walk the fewest batters in the majors by a significant margin. They have led the majors in fewest walks the last three seasons and the last two by more than 30 walks, despite the fact that they are routinely among the leaders in strikeouts as well. They have also thrown the fewest wild pitches of any team over the last three seasons. So they donít throw many pitches off-the-mark. Yet when they do, they can almost rest assured that it will go to the back-stop because of Ramosí poor technique.


Even framing heís average at best for his career and over the last two seasons heís actually cost the Nationals runs. One possible reason is that he tries to finesse every pitch instead of only the closest ones, so the umpire no longer gives him the benefit of the doubt, or worse, gets annoyed by his attempted manipulation and goes the other way with the call. Either way, it means his pitcher loses an advantage and has to throw an extra pitch during the plate appearance.


So it really doesnít matter what he does with his 450+ plate appearances at the plate because it is far outweighed by negative impact heís responsible for during the other 4500+ times he has a play on defense.



Matt Williamsí dreadful management:


But the biggest obstacle to October success is Matt Williams. We see him looking out at the field during games but itís unclear what heís seeing because far too often his decisions certainly donít fit the situation. There are numerous examples of this, the most famous of which happened during last yearís playoff against the Giants.


Jordan Zimmerman had held the Giants to three hits and had thrown 102 pitches through 8 2/3 innings in Game 2 of the NLDS. Even after a walk to Joe Panik that should have been called strike three on two separate pitches, he still looked fresh and dominant. In his previous outing he had thrown a no-hitter against the Marlins. This was a pitcher peaking at the right time and the Nationals had no one in the bullpen nearly as effective. Yet Matt Williams strode out to the mound and with only one out to get, removed his ace to bring in Drew Storen, a pitcher with a much-chronicled history of troubles in the post-season. Of course, the result was the Giants tied the game with two hits in the next two batters and eventually won the game in extras, leaving the Nats 0-2 at home to begin a short series.


Over the next two games, Williams continued to mismanage the bullpen, bringing in inexperienced relievers into critical situations, leaving playoff veterans twiddling in the bullpen until games were out of hand, forgetting to warm-up match-up pitchers and not pinch-hitting in big late-inning situations.


Earlier in the season he had benched Bryce Harper for not running out a come-backer to the pitcher. This for a guy who had injured himself in each of the previous two seasons while hustling too much. You show me a major league player who runs out every come-backer to the pitcher and I will show you the first to do it in 50 years. It doesnít even make sense to run those out because the baserunner could pull a hamstring trying to beat out a .01% chance to being safe. Sure enough, within a week after his benching, Harper injured himself over-hustling.


There are plenty of examples this year as well.Some of the more memorable are:


In the fourth inning of a game in which the Nationals were trailing 1-0 to Tom Koehler and the Marlins, with runners on base Williams decided to bring the infield in. In the fourth inning? Against the Marlins 4th starter? Did he actually think his team could not score more than 2 runs against the Marlins 4th starter? The Marlinís hitter had an easy time pushing a ball past the drawn-in infield to score the runs and they went on to win the game.


In the aforementioned Mets game, with a lead of 7-1, Williams let Blake Treinen start the 7th inning. Treinen struggled with his command but had gotten two outs while giving up a run. Instead of letting him finish the inning Ė even dumb luck likely would have gotten him out of trouble with a healthy lead in tact Ė Williams used two more relievers, none of whom could throw strikes consistently. The result was that the lead vanished by the end of the frame. Thereís no guarantee that the same would not have happened using Treinen alone, but at least in that case the Nats would have come away with only one reliever in need of therapy rather than three. And in using three relievers, not only are those pitchers limited in how they can be used over the next few days, but now they must question whether Williams has confidence in any of them. Ironically, a similar situation occurred in St. Louis the same night, with Pedro Strop struggling with his command. Cubs manager Joe Maddon stuck it out with his guy and the Cubs escaped the inning with a three-run lead and eventually a win. The non-move also reinforced Stropís confidence that he doesnít have to be perfect in order to have Maddonís support; the Natsí relievers have no such confidence.


In another instance, he announced Jayson Werth as the potential pinch hitter in the 7th inning of a game with 2 men on base. When it came time for that spot in the line-up to bat, he changed Werth for Clint Robinson. It makes absolutely no sense to send Werth up unless youíre going to use him. First of all, Werth doesnít have any significant splits; he hits righties and lefties. Either way heís not going to force the opposing manager to make a pitching change. Second, thereís no guarantee that there will be a better opportunity later to score the tying and winning runs. Werth represented the best bat off the bench and this represented the Nats best chance to score in the game. If the purpose was to force the opposing manager to use his bullpen, then he should have used a decoy who had a pronounced split against one side; Werth isnít that guy.Was Williams assuming that the opposing manager was as clueless as he was? The result was a wasted bench player and another loss.


On August 1st in a 2-1 game with Joe Ross on the mound against the Mets, he had him pitch to Lucas Duda, who had been on a bit of a tear lately. He had already homered off Ross and had homered in 5 of his previous 20 at bats. Yeah, all of his hits during that span were homers but why take the chance with Wilmer Flores hitting behind him? Of course, the result was a home run. Later in the game he walked Yoennis Cespedes, who was new to the league but had faced Matt Thornton before (0-2) with Granderson on second, in order to face Duda again. Maybe Cespedes gets a base hit but you know Duda has been hot. Why increase his focus by intentionally walking the guy in front of him? Of course, Duda got a hit and drove in the winning run.


Perhaps the most embarrassing proof that Williams really isnít paying attention to whatís going on the field was Joey Vottoís 3-ball walk in a game against the Reds. Itís true, the pitcher or the catcher should have said something about Votto trotting to first base after only three balls outside the strikezone, but the manager should definitely be in the game enough to know that something was wrong. Williams didnít even raise an eyebrow, much less an argument.


He also doesnít seem to pay much attention to his line-up either. When lead-off man and center fielder Denard Span went down with an injury, he placed his defensive replacement Michael Taylor at lead-off for the next 28 games. Thatís a convenient switch to keep players in their regular spot in the order but in the grand scheme of things not the best idea to foment run scoring when your lead-off man has a career OBP under .300 and at times this season has been as low as .265. Thatís his on base percentage, not his batting average. Even in 1968 when the league average on base was just a hair under .300 (.2985), he would have been a terrible choice for a lead-off hitter.


Last year Anthony Rendon was about as good a defensive third baseman as there was in the majors. This year, he injured himself on a play in spring training and spent much of the first four months on the DL due to that and an abdominal injury. I donít know if Williams should shoulder the blame for this or whether the decision came from GM Mike Rizzo, but when he returned he was placed at second base and career shortstop Yunel Escobar was kept at third despite having played on 22 games in his career at third before this year. So presumably in an effort to keep Rendon healthy - which it did not do Ė he moved his best defensive infielder to a position where he was merely average and kept an inexperienced third baseman at the position where is at best average. Escobar had played about as much second base as third before this season but the difference is that he was actually a good defensive second baseman. In the end it does not matter if sabotaging the infield defense was Williamsí decision or Rizzoís; at some point, someone has to realize thereís a better way and it should be the guy who watches every play from field level.


Needless to say, this team is very mistake prone when it comes to fundamental play and even five months into the season they make mental errors that should have been corrected in spring training and the first month of the season.


In another stupefying example, Williams made a double switch late in a game that brought the pitcherís spot up sooner. The main advantage of making a double switch is that you can place the pitcherís spot in the line-up as far from coming up as possible. To fumble this is beyond basic managerial strategy; this suggests someone who hasnít watched baseball before.


And unlike the fiery competitor he was as a player, Williams rarely gets agitated with the calls and never with anything that canít be overturned with replay. Itís as if heís expecting someone else to call attention to ongoing misjudgments against his team. Manny Acta behaved the same way and not coincidentally, the Nats underperformed for him as well.


Itís not just his understanding of what is happening on the field. His decision-making process is incredibly flawed as well. He stated after a loss that he pinch hit Tyler Moore in the ninth against Steve Cishek because he was 1-for-1 career against him. So one at bat qualifies as a large enough sample to use? He went to say that Jayson Werth was unavailable in that situation except in an emergency, but I guess being down one run in the ninth inning didn't qualify.


As talented as the Nationals are, with Williams pulling the on-field strings they will always find a way to lose to the smarter-managed teams like the Giants and the Cardinals. Until that changes, they will never win the three series in a row necessary to bring home a championship no matter how many ďgreat personnel movesĒ GM Mike Rizzo is credited with by the sabermetricia. Rizzo has had a long relationship with Williams dating back to his days in Arizona, but if he hopes to win a World Series he will have to put that aside and change the guy making the decisions on the field. Itís highly unlikely he will be as fortunate as John Schuerholz was in Atlanta to get 14 more chances to let his friend win one.