I was originally going to write this right after Game 4, but I determined I was just too angry to give a fair assessment. The day after was a bit better, but I still wasn’t ready to do a deep dive into what went wrong. So here we are, having slept on it, pondered it, slept some more and pondered some more. Simply stated the playoffs stink. They’re an awful jumble of emotions and anxiety that no one should be put through willingly and yet we’re overjoyed when the occasion occurs. Make no mistake though, the Nationals did not lose this series because they are cursed, or because they aren’t a fundamentally sound team or didn’t “want” it enough. All of that is a bunch of hooey sold by snake charmers who don’t have two brain cells to rub together and come up with an actual piece of real analysis.
The Nationals lost because they were outstrategized by the Giants plain and simple. The Giants came up with an excellent game plan for their entire pitching staff against the Nationals and the Nats were unable to adjust to their tactics before it was too late. The plan? Pitch the Nats low and away. Nats hitters, both right handed and left handed, were pounded with pitches on the outside corner and were powerless against them. To get an idea of the magnitude of this plan here are two heat maps of the location of the pitches Nats hitters saw, by batter handedness.
First, what right handed hitters saw:
Next, what left handed batters saw:
The darker red the more pitches seen at that location. You can see that right handers were pounded right in the outside corner in the strike zone. Left handers didn’t see quite as uniform a location, but they also saw a lot more pitches just outside of the strike zone that are usually called strikes by the average umpire. Not impressive enough? Here’s a Brady Bunch tile of the pitch count by zone seen by the eight Nationals regulars and pinch hitter extraordinaire Ryan Zimmerman.
Every single one of these hitters saw the most pitches in the zone that represents low and away and nearly all saw the second most pitches in the zone up and away. Only Wilson Ramos wasn’t completely worked over on the outside corner, but he still saw more pitches there than anywhere else.
Only two Nats hitters were able to adjust to the Giants strategy, their two youngest players Anthony Rendon (.368/.400/.368) and Bryce Harper (.294/.368/.882). As seen from his batting line Rendon’s seven hits were all singles, suggesting that he decided to trade power for plate coverage so he could get on-base. Harper on the other hand was able to take advantage of the few times the Giants pitcher made a mistake and make the most of it. On Harper’s three home runs he took advantage of two fastballs thrown over the middle of the plate and one not thrown far enough to the outside part of the plate.
The other Nats hitters just couldn’t adjust and didn’t maximize the mistakes they saw like Harper did. That led to a team batting line of .164/.222/.258 and just nine runs scored over four games. An uncharacteristically poor performance, especially against starting pitchers who had such lousy season stats as Jake Peavy, Tim Hudson and Ryan Vogelsong.
But the offense isn’t all to blame. After all the Nationals had the best pitching staff in Major League Baseball and they threw like it, limiting the Giants to just nine runs as well. So since the teams were equally matched on the field, the series came down to the managers and Matt Williams showed his rookie side.
Williams has taken a lot of heat, but most it has been misplaced. Many were upset by his decision to remove Jordan Zimmermann in Game 2 with out to go in favor of Drew Storen. However, considering that Zimmermann had just used his 100th pitch to walk Joe Panik and just a couple pitches before had given up an upper deck outfield foul to the light-hitting Panik. And according to Tom Tango’s run expectancy table, from 1993 to 2010 team’s on average scored a run just 13.5% of the time when they had a runner on first and two outs. Storen, who had one of the best seasons among relief pitchers in MLB, should have been able to get the last out. And while many wondered why Williams didn’t try to shake up the lineup, it’s preferable to overreacting to the small sample sizes of the playoffs like Dodgers manager Don Mattingly did when benching Yasiel Puig in the final game of the series.
No, Williams had been mostly good for the entire series up until the seventh inning of Game Four, when everything completely fell apart. The Nationals tied the game at two in the top half of the inning on Bryce Harper’s home run giving the Nats renewed hope. Williams began the bottom half of the inning with left handed reliever Matt Thornton facing lefty lead off man Gregor Blanco. Thornton got Blanco to ground out and then faced another lefty in Joe Panik, who was able to single. So far, so good, outside of Panik’s single.
Now here’s where the problems began. With the Giants best hitter, the right handed Buster Posey coming to the plate and their next best hitter and fellow right hander Hunter Pence on deck Williams decided to leave Thornton in. Posey took advantage of the mismatch and singled, putting two men on with just one out. At this point Williams finally decided to bring in righty specialist Aaron Barrett to face Pence. This was an interesting decision considering the game situation, however it was a better matchup than Thornton presented and Barrett had been great against rightys all season. But Barrett immediately struggled with his command and walked Pence to load the bases.
At this point is when all rational though broke down. Pablo Sandoval was next to bat and as a switch hitter Sandoval hit significantly better from the left side than the right, putting up a .359 wOBA from the left side and .247 wOBA from the right. While Williams had already used both of his left handers, preventing him from turning Sandoval around, there was still no excuse for letting the rookie Barrett, who allowed a .326 wOBA to left handed hitters, to face Sandoval, especially after his already apparent control issues. Everyone knows the rest, Barrett threw a wild pitch, allowing Panik to score the winning run. That was ball three and he then nearly gave the Giants another run when he airmailed the attempt at intentionally walking Sandoval.
With two outs now Williams made a change, but instead of going to one of his best relievers to close out the high leverage situation, he instead went to Rafael Soriano, who had just been demoted from the closer’s role in September due to an inability to record outs. Soriano allowed a hard line drive to Brandon Belt and was lucky enough that it happened to land in Harper’s glove.
While the seventh inning issues led to runs, Williams’ eighth inning decision was even more inexplicable. He decided to stick with Soriano for another inning, rather than bring in Clippard to make sure the Giants’ lead didn’t expand beyond one run, which would have made any comeback attempt in the ninth inning nigh impossible. When the Nationals most needed him, Williams made a cavalcade of mistakes.
This doesn’t mean the Nationals are a poor team, far from it. The problem is that a playoff series is so short. All the Nationals did was have a bad four game series, something that happens nearly every season. But instead of being able to shake it off and get back to winning against their next opponent, their season was over. This is definitely a learning experience for the Nats and the most fans can hope for is that they learn the right lesson.
This team shouldn’t be blown up and the Nats don’t need a huge organizational philosophy shift. They were smart not to overreact after 2013’s disappointment and they would be smart not to overreact to this year’s disappointing finish. The playoffs are just an entirely different animal and the next time they make them, which should be next season, they will hopefully be more prepared to counter opposing team’s strategies and come up with some killer strategies of their own. The Nats didn’t accidentally become one of the best teams in baseball and if they stay the course while making small improvements here and there they should find more success in the playoffs too.