Matt Williams deserves a lot of the criticism for how he has utilized his relievers during this season’s collapse. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

The Nationals’ bullpen blew another golden opportunity Tuesday night, losing to the St. Louis Cardinals after Casey Janssen gave up a three-run home run in the ninth inning. It was the second time in two nights Janssen cost the team a win.

“These are two big losses and I had my hand in both of them,” Janssen said.

But not all the blame falls on Janssen (although a lot does, which we will get to in a moment), or any individual member of the bullpen. Instead, Nats Manager Matt Williams deserves much of the criticism for how he has utilized his relievers during this season’s collapse. Here are the three most egregious errors:

[Williams strongly defends his bullpen strategy after crushing loss to Cardinals]

He will only use Jonathan Papelbon in save situations

Papelbon was acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies at the deadline, and reportedly asked for assurances he would be the closer in Washington before agreeing to waive his no trade clause. The team agreed, and Williams has stayed true to his word to give the 34-year-old closer every opportunity to save games.

The problem with this strategy is the team needs to be more concerned about winning games, or at least putting themselves in a position to win, and that means getting your best pitcher out there no matter what.

The Nationals are 6 1/2 games behind the Mets for the division lead, which represents their only chance at making the playoffs. And even that is slim at just over eight percent, per Baseball Prospectus, so every win counts.


There have been 24 instances since the all-star break where the average leverage index of the game has been above 1.5 after the seventh inning, indicating the game is very much “on the line.” Six of those have occurred in the ninth inning, with Papelbon making appearances in two of those.

Drew Storen, the club’s previous closer and set-up man, has appeared in two others, with Janssen and Aaron Barrett taking in losses in the other two. Had Storen or Papelbon been on the mound, things might have been different and surely, if faced with the same situation again, Williams would do things differently.

Oh.

He’s using Janssen and Barrett too often

Perhaps the thinking is to have Janssen pitch to Brandon Moss, a lefty, but the truth is that Papelbon has been almost as successful against left-handed batters, at least according to weighted on-base average.

Weighted on-base average, or wOBA, combines all the different aspects of hitting into one metric, weighting each of them in proportion to their actual run value. Janssen has allowed a .255 wOBA against left-handed batters this year, only slightly lower than Papelbon (.273 wOBA against).


Even before the home run last night, Moss at least showed some ability to put the ball in play against Janssen, going 2-for-4 with a single and double.


But I would agree with you if you wanted to dismiss Moss’s success above due to a small sample size. However, Janssen has allowed a 19.06 ERA and .449 wOBA against in high-leverage situations this season, striking out just one batter out of 29 faced (3.4 percent) when the game is most on the line. If we look at medium-leverage situations, Janssen’s wOBA against is .287, better than the league average of .315 but not good enough to use at all costs.

Barrett has a .335 wOBA against when the game is most on the line, and that includes two post-all-star break appearances in the seventh inning (both of which he lost) and one ninth-inning appearance against the Mets, which the Nationals lost, 2-1.

He’s not using Storen, and perhaps Matt Thornton, enough

Since the break, there have been 12 high-leverage situations in the seventh or eighth inning — Storen has appeared in two of those. That’s two fewer than Janssen and the same as Barrett and Thornton.

Storen has a .247 wOBA against in these cases over the season, striking out 21.5 percent of hitters in high-leverage situations and the edge over Barrett (.335 wOBA against) and Janssen (.449 wOBA against). Thornton has allowed a .189 wOBA against with four strikeouts.

It’s easy to look back at the start of the season and think the Nats’ starting pitching was good enough to keep the usage level of the bullpen down to a minimum, but now that the team is in a fight for their playoff lives, any preconceived strategies need to be thrown out the window. And that means using the best pitcher available any time he gives you the best chance to win.