Matt Williams and bullpen management: a nitpick


 Matt Williams has shown no hesitation in getting his relievers warmed up in the bullpen. (Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

Matt Williams deserves ample credit for where the Nationals’ stand. Throughout injuries and unforeseen challenges, the Nationals have played hard for him and stayed united. “The team dynamic has been good the entire time,” Jayson Werth said. Tactics, lineup construction, in-game strategy – all of that pales to maintaining a workplace and a spirit conducive to success. At that, Williams has excelled, and that matters most.

There is one area that can be nitpicked. Williams has been clumsy in an area that challenges many first-time managers. More often than necessary, relievers warm up without entering the game. It sounds small, but it’s a key part of bullpen management and can have an effect deep into the season.

On the surface, it’s silly to criticize how Williams has handled the Nationals’ bullpen. It leads the majors with a 2.12 relief ERA. Only Tyler Clippard ranks in the top 20 in the majors in appearances (18th, with 29), and only Craig Stammen ranks in the top 20 in relief innings (19th, with 30). Their relievers have performed great, and no one pitcher has been overly used.

But beneath the surface is something that many in the clubhouse have noticed. There’s no way to track the number of times it’s happened, but relievers have frequently exerted effort without pitching. Those warm-up pitches add wear over the course of a season, and it can come back to haunt bullpens. They will be hard-pressed to continue their excellent performance if asked to continue their largely unnoticed strain.

Williams’s personality and his penchant to prepare to point of anxiousness makes him susceptible to warming up multiple relievers, then choosing one to actually pitch. When asked earlier this season about the learning curve of managing how to warm-up pitchers, Williams pointed out that the unique nature of the Nationals season presented a challenge. Frequently, they have staged quick comebacks. A mop-up situation turned into a tight game, or even a lead-protecting situation.

“I don’t think it’s unique to a philosophy for a manager with regard to getting guys up in the bullpen and not using the,” Williams said. “Sometimes, it’s the game – what happens in the bottom of that inning. We’ve had a lot of that this year. We end up either getting close or tying the score, and then it changes the philosophy by which you manage the bullpen.

“What does it do to your bullpen? Well, it gets guys up. But there’s some philosophies that say, being up is completely different than being in the game. A guy comes in and throws 15 to 20 pitches. If you don’t have to put him in that game, then don’t. Because that’s 20 extra pitches he has to throw at full-go. If you don’t get him in that game, he’s up and hot, but he hasn’t extended himself out. It’s a learning curve, but it’s often dictated by how the game has gone.”

Friday night provided an example of when Williams’s tendency to over-prepare forced unnecessary warm-up pitches. With two men on in the eighth inning and the Nationals leading, 6-0, both Ross Detwiler and Aaron Barrett heated up. Williams wanted Barrett ready in case Tanner Roark suddenly faltered – a home run, and bang, it would be 6-3 and a save situation.

Williams believed the need to be ready for any situation superseded the importance of saving Barrett the toll of those warm-up pitches. But Barrett did not need to warm up, and the throws he made will have a small effect, piling on top all the other pitches Barrett makes this season. Was it worth warming up one of the Nationals’ best relievers with a six-run lead? Couldn’t Detwiler be trusted with a three-run lead against a lousy offense?

One issue is, for a reliever getting warmed up is not that different from pitching an inning. Getting warmed up is what takes the most exertion, barring a performance that stretches past 25 pitches or lasts more than an inning.

The need to minimize wasted throwing in the bullpen is a small issue, and it shouldn’t overshadow the big-picture success Williams has had. But it does matter, and it could be the difference between continued excellence from the bullpen and hitting the wall once August comes.

Adam Kilgore covers national sports for the Washington Post. Previously he served as the Post's Washington Nationals beat writer from 2010 to 2014.
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Adam Kilgore · June 7

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