Let’s start with Matt Williams asking Anthony Rendon to bunt even though it’s not why the Nationals most likely will miss the playoffs

First, you’ll say that Anthony Rendon is a professional hitter and that if his manager asks him to lay down a sacrifice bunt, he should be able to do that.

You are entitled to your opinion.

You are also wrong.

One of the things Jim Leyland tells every young manager is this: “Know your team.”

Translation: Know what your players need, both physically and emotionally. Also know what they can and can’t do. Play to their strengths.

When Williams asked Rendon to bunt the tying run into scoring position in the bottom of the ninth inning on Tuesday, he was asking a player to do something he hasn’t done very much.

In 1,332 major league plate appearances, Rendon has laid down four sacrifice bunts—two in 2014 and two in 2013. He had no sac bunts in 373 minor-league plate appearances.

Never mind that taking the bat out of one of his best offensive player’s hands is a very questionable call. That’s a separate issue.

With a critical game on the line, Rendon was asked to do something way out of his comfort zone. Besides that, isn’t a team more likely to score with a runner on first and no outs instead of a runner on second and one out?

Williams seemed to compound the issue by keeping the bunt on when the count went to 3-1. If he had that one to do over, he’d probably take another approach.

When we dissect what happened to the Nationals in this profoundly disappointing season, we will not begin with Matt Williams asking Anthony Rendon to bunt.

That decision was just one subplot in a season filled with them. How were so many of us so wrong about the Nationals? For about the last three seasons, they’ve gotten plenty of Best Team in Baseball labels on Opening Day.

In defense of us…

Since Opening Day 2012, the Nationals are 351-273 (.563). Only the Cardinals (363-262) and Dodgers (352-272) have won more games or had a higher winning percentage.

Unfortunately, the Nationals are just 3-6 in the postseason in this stretch. Meanwhile, the Giants (23-10) and Cardinals (20-19) have both had success when the lights are brightest.

To win 351 games over three-plus seasons tells you the Nationals have talent and a winning culture. There simply isn’t some fatal flaw in the organization.

There are nights Williams leaves himself open to a string of second-guesses with his handling of the bullpen. This is no small thing.

Managing a baseball team in 2015 isn’t like managing one in 1975. For one thing, there are no more walls between the front office and manager.

Or there shouldn’t be.

Front offices can supply managers with stacks of data dealing with lineups, defensive alignments, pitch counts, bullpen strategy, etc.

Managers are still in charge of the personalities and convincing players that what’s best for the team is best for every player. And perhaps most important, the manager must manage the bullpen.

The Nationals play hard. Effort simply isn’t an issue. Has Williams made some questionable choices in the late innings? Yes, he has.

But the dynamics of his staff changed dramatically this season. While the offense is better (4.43 runs per game vs. 4.23 runs per game), the pitching staff is nowhere close.

Last season, the Nationals rotation had a 3.04 ERA and 1.14 WHIP, both No. 1 in the majors. This season, the rotation has a 3.84 ERA (ninth) and 1.23 WHIP (eighth).

Bullpen? Same story. Last season’s had a 3.00 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 72.6 percent success rate at making good on save chances. This season, those numbers are down across the board: 3.65 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 67.3 percent.

Washington’s defense is worse too. Using MLB.com’s defense efficiency rating, the Nationals have slipped from .693 (15th) in 2014 to .681 (24th) in 2015.

This season, baseball’s top three defensive teams are the Astros, Blue Jays and Royals. All three teams are in first place. Likewise, the top three bullpens belong to teams headed for the postseason: Royals, Cardinals and Pirates. Right behind are the Astros (fifth), Mets (eighth), Blue Jays (ninth) and Yankees (10th).

So…

At a time when teams are constructed around solid bullpens and defenses, the Nationals are short in those areas.

On the other hand, if the Nationals had gotten the same work out of their rotation as they did in 2014, there might not be a bullpen problem.

Last season, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister went 44-22 with 578.2 innings, 522 strikeouts and a 2.77 ERA.

This season, they’re 24-21 with 355.2 innings, 288 strikeouts and a 3.90 ERA.

Fister has pitched so poorly he was removed from the rotation. Strasburg has made just 18 starts, and his ERA has increased from 3.14 to 4.35.

Zimmermann is still rock solid, with his ERA up from 2.66 to 3.32. He’s the ace.

What’s amazing is that Nationals GM Mike Rizzo added Max Scherzer to what was already baseball’s best rotation. His 3.03 ERA is very solid.

But…

In 18 starts before the All-Star Break, he had a 2.11 ERA. In 10 starts since, he has a 5.12 ERA. In his last six starts, he’s 0-3 with a 6.35 ERA.

In his most important start of the season, he was unable to hold a 5-3 lead on Monday night against the Mets, and the series unraveled from there.

So a little this, a little that. Everyday lineup hit hard by injuries. Mediocre defense and bullpen. Starters performing below what their career numbers say they should.

And at times, the manager has had some calls blow up in his face.

With Ian Desmond, Denard Span, Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann all headed for free agency in a few weeks, the Nationals were always going to be significantly different in 2015.

Now it’ll be interesting to see how Rizzo reshapes the club. Here’s some free advice: think bullpen and defense.

Despite the disappointment, the Nationals are still in a good place. They’ve got a talented big league roster and a fairly deep farm system.

They’ve got Michael Taylor ready to step in for Span in center and Trea Turner in line to play shortstop in place of Desmond. If Rizzo devotes the off-season to deepening his bullpen, the Nationals could be right back in contention.

Again, that 351-273 record the last three-plus seasons indicates there’s far more right than wrong. But missing the playoffs for the second time in three seasons says some change is needed.

Rizzo has been steadfast in his support of Williams. Once the season ends, though, he surely will look at not just the Xs and Os, but also the tone.

Williams is a tremendous baseball man, a guy who cares about his players. He deserves to shoulder some of the blame for what went wrong.

But he’s also a thoughtful man and surely will evaluate himself along with all his players. If I were general manager, I wouldn’t hesitate to bring him back.

Sure, the fans are down on him. That goes with the territory. Williams becomes the face of all the failure. The popular move would be to fire him.

That might not be the correct call.

Do you think Bruce Bochy is a better manager now than he was in his second year? Joe Maddon? Bob Melvin? Joe Girardi?

Here’s guessing Rizzo and Williams will have a series of long chats after the season to consider all that went right and all that went wrong.

They should not lose sight of the fact that the Nationals aren’t far away, that a major overhaul isn’t needed. As the Royals, Blue Jays and Pirates have reminded us the last four years, winning is a process and not usually a smooth road.

The Nationals aren’t fatally flawed.

Neither is their manager.

1 Comment

From a fan’s perspective, keeping Williams is all wrong. When I pay a lot of money to go about 20-25 games a year, I want that game to be won, not to be just a piece of a season-long jigsaw puzzle.

I do not believe he plays to win a given game, believing that talent will eventually out and set things right. His public statements are Panglossian — “Nothing to see here! We’re professionals.We’ll get ’em tomorrow.” If that is what he is saying to the public, one wonders what he says in the clubhouse. Probably the same thing, since all the players parrot that line.

The problem is that if you don’t admit a problem, you can’t fix it. And there is no apparent penalty for players making dumb moves on the field or for not performing. Accountability. It is all on Williams.

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