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October 1, 2015 / Nat Anacostia

Svrluga illuminates the Nats’ collapse

Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post has written a brilliant 3-part account of the Nationals’ 2015 season. Parts 1 and 2 are well worth reading, but part 3, covering the period from the trade deadline through the Jonathan PapelbonBryce Harper scuffle, is the best article on the Nats you’ll read this year.

While the Papelbon-Harper incident ensured the firing of Matt Williams at the end of the season, Svrluga’s article leads me to think that Williams will never manage again.

Williams was even more inept at managing the bullpen than we had thought. Svrluga points out that in on July 31 in Game 1 of the Mets series in which the Nats would surrender their 3-game lead, Matt Thornton was asked to warm up five times in the 12-inning game without ever being used. In the next game, the now-tired Thornton gave up two doubles to give the Mets the lead.

I know that relievers often complain that warming up without being used can be nearly as tiring as actually pitching. Watching games, I’ve had the impression that Williams tends to warm up pitchers without using them more  than other managers, but data haven’t been available to confirm my impression. Svrluga’s article makes me think that this is something that baseball statisticians, who count almost everything else imaginable, ought to be tracking.

More important than his questionable decisions about overworking relievers and leaving starters in too long, which I and others have pointed out, are Svrluga’s stories about Williams’ lack of communication with his players—a managerial deficiency that I’ve long suspected but hadn’t previously seen confirmed. According to Svrluga, Williams repeatedly failed to inform players whether they should expect a day off, misinformed players on how he planned to use them, and generally avoided talking with and confronting players.

I think that the problems described by Svrluga strongly suggest that it’s more prudent to hire a manager who’s had some experience managing, even at the minor league level, so that the hiring GM can gather information on his skills with communicating and running a pitching staff and bullpen.

The exposé doesn’t just implicate Williams. Svrluga describes Mike Rizzo‘s approach to the trade deadline. Of all the problems that the Nationals were facing in July, Rizzo improbably decided that the team’s greatest need was to replace Drew Storen as closer. And while it’s deceptive to simplify the narrative of the Nationals’ collapse as being centered around the trade for Papelbon, it’s nevertheless accurate to describe the trade as disastrous. Oddly, one of the main motivations for the trade seems to have been a constraint imposed by the Lerners that any trade-deadline deals not add to the Nats’ 2015 salary. Rizzo managed to structure the Papelbon deal to have the Phillies pay the rest of Papelbon’s 2015 salary, but did so by guaranteeing Papelbon $11 million for 2016.

This points to the third culprit in Svrluga’s story—the Lerners as owners of the franchise. While I respect the fact that owners need to set budgets for their team’s payroll, the rigidity of the Lerners’ $164 million ceiling as the trade deadline approached doesn’t make sense from an economic point of view. Economics tells us that the expected benefits of the marginal player on the payroll should match or exceed the marginal costs of paying him. But at mid-season in a tight pennant race, the expected benefits go up, just as the marginal benefits of having a bullpen ace go up in the late innings of a tight ballgame. The payroll that’s appropriate late in the season of a tight pennant race generally should be higher than the payroll that’s appropriate at the beginning of the season, before the team knows whether there will be a tight race. At that point, the salaries already paid are sunk costs, and the value of wins in the remaining games become greater.

But even stranger is the fact that the Lerner’s were willing to ignore the costs accrued for future years in their budget for this year’s season. So Papelbon was treated as “freely” available for 2015, even though the team committed $11 million for 2016 (a sum that they now no-doubt wish that they weren’t committed to pay). Similarly, the Max Scherzer and Jayson Werth deals were back-loaded to minimize the current payroll at the cost of accruing later payroll costs. Economics is very clear that costs should be accounted for at their present discounted value regardless of when they are scheduled to be paid. The type of budgeting used by the Lerners is more what I’d expect from a Congressman than from supposedly savvy businessmen. For me, that’s probably the biggest surprise of the article—seeing how ineptly the owners are managing the team’s payroll budget and creating pointless restrictions on the GM’s ability to assemble the talent he needs to win.

Svrluga’s article was a very discouraging account of the unraveling of the Nationals’ season, but one that is very much worth reading.


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