Examining Matt Williams’s decision in the 14th

WASHINGTON DC APRIL 17: Nationals'manager Matt Williams as the Washington Nationals play the St. Louis Cardinals at Nationals Stadium in Washington DC, April 17, 2014. (Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

(John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

In the 14th inning of the Nationals’ 15-inning, 4-3 loss Monday night, as Kevin Frandsen walked to the plate to lead off the inning, Tanner Roark stood on the on-deck circle. It looked as though Manager Matt Williams might forsake backup catcher Jose Lobaton, the last hitter on his bench, for a potential sacrifice bunt.

But when Frandsen rocked a double into the left field corner, Williams revealed his real decision. Roark had been a decoy.  Williams had a choice: Use Lobaton, his last pinch hitter, and let him try to win the game with a hit. Or use a pitcher – like Roark – to bunt Frandsen to third.

Williams chose Lobaton.

“We’ve got one guy left on the bench, and we’ve got to take our shot to win the game,” Williams said. “We can try to bunt him to third with a pitcher, but Lobie’s on the bench. We got to take our shot. He looked to get a ball over to the right side.”

But he could not – as he tried to hit a grounder to the right side, Lobaton struck out. Denard Span made an out, and the inning fell to Anthony Rendon. He stung a liner to center, and players in the dugout rushed to hop over the rail before Billy Hamilton made a ridiculous sliding catch.

Once Ross Detwiler allowed the game-winning homer an inning later, many fingers pointed at Williams’s decision in the 14th. Had Williams made a tactical mistake?

Based on expectancy charts from baseball statistician Tom Tango, teams score 63.7 percent of the time a runner is on second base with no outs. With a runner on third and one out, a run will score 67.4 percent of the time.

In a vacuum, then, the Nationals would have enhanced their chances to end the game by bunting Frandsen to third and Williams made the wrong choice. That 3.7 percent is a small difference, but it is enough to be meaningful.

Williams’s decision, of course, did not come in a vacuum. Context matters, and the context supported Williams’s decision to send Lobaton to the plate and let him swing away.

1. By bunting, Williams would have entrusted the game to a pitcher with a bat in his hands. That is patently not a good idea. Sure, Roark has attempted seven sacrifice bunts in his career and executed five successfully. But given the choice between sending a pitcher to bat and a hitter off the bench in a key spot, it’s obvious.

2. Lobaton represented the last bullet in Williams’s chamber. In the 14th, he had only one bench player left. If he was not going to use him with a runner in scoring position and the pitcher’s spot, when would a better spot arise? Additionally, it would be a waste to use that last hitter to sacrifice.

3. Just because Lobaton was swinging did not mean he couldn’t accomplish the same task as a bunt. Any grounder to the right side or a fly ball to deep center or medium right would push Frandsen to third. In the process of trying to do that, Lobaton also had a chance to get a hit and end the game right there.

4. This stands out most: Had Williams bunted Frandsen to third, the crucial at-bat with one out and the winning run 90 feet away would have fallen to Denard Span. Span is not the best candidate for the job of hitting a sac fly or a base hit, and not only because he’s batting .239. He hits a lot of grounders, and his fly balls tend not to travel far. He’s come to the plate five times with one out and a runner on third base this season. He scored the runner twice.

5. In the far-from-zero-percent-chance scenario a bunt failed, the Nationals would have had two shots to score the runner from second. Williams at least guaranteed the Nationals would have three chances to win the game with a hit.

In a different scenario, a sacrifice bunt may have been the best play. Given all the specific factors Williams faced Monday night, he made the right call. Whichever side of the argument you want to take, the margin is incredibly thin. The only inaccuracy would be to call either decision obviously wrong. It was close to a coin-flip decision.

Baseball is like that. If Rendon’s liner had been another couple centimeters shorter, another small margin would have made that one moot.

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