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September 2, 2015 / Nat Anacostia

Where was Rafael Martin last night?

Last night, for the second consecutive night, the Nats lost to the Cardinals with the bullpen squandering a late-inning lead. After a catastrophic 26-pitch outing on Monday when he gave up 4 runs, Matt Williams called on Casey Janssen again last night to pitch the ninth inning, and he gave up a 3-run walk-off home run to Brandon Moss. Needless to say, the critics are piling on Williams, calling for his firing.

My own take is similar to Rob Neyer’s. On Tuesday night, Williams was managing his bullpen pretty much the same way that all major league managers do. Maybe it would be better if managers weren’t so wedded to using their relievers in rigid, pre-defined roles, but that’s not the way that modern modern bullpens are managed, at least during the regular season. And even with the season slipping away, Williams really can’t treat each game as an playoff elimination game; there are too many games left to play.

The bigger problem facing Williams was that in the bottom of the ninth with the score tied, only three relievers were still available. In August, that situation would be understandable, but it was September 1st and the Nats were free to call up reinforcements. Despite a tired bullpen due to relatively short outings by Stephen Strasburg on Sunday and Gio Gonzalez on Monday, Mike Rizzo only called up a single reliever, A.J. Cole Sammy Solis.

In last night’s game, wouldn’t you rather have seen Rafael Martin come in for the ninth rather than the tired, beat-up Janssen? Who’s Martin? He appeared briefly (and ineffectively) in April, but he’s been outstanding in the last two seasons at Syracuse. In 89-2/3 innings AAA innings over the last two seasons, he has 110 strikeouts, allowing 23 walks and 4 home runs with a 2.31 ERA. If Martin got into trouble and had to face a tough left-hander, like Moss, with runners on, how about Matt Grace? Yes, he had some rough outings with the Nats earlier this year, but he’s had a 2.40 ERA in Syracuse.

This afternoon we got the news that they’ve both been called up, but once again the Nats management seems to be reactive rather than proactive. While I’ve had many concerns about Williams’ bullpen management this year, I’m laying more of the blame for last night’s debacle on Rizzo for not calling in the reinforcements soon enough.

But the main problem, as is usually the case, was mistakes made by the players. In particular, in the critical eighth inning error, the problem was that throwing to third base was a bad play, even if Drew Storen’s throw and Yunel Escobar’s catch had been clean. With no outs and runners on first and second, even ignoring the risk of a throwing error, the play needs to have at least a 70% probability of success for the advantage of getting the lead runner out to outweigh the potential cost of having the bases loaded with no outs if the play fails. In other words, they should have taken the sure out unless they were very confident that they’d get the runner out. It was a bad decision that was compounded by poor execution.

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