Yesterday's game between the Washington Nationals and New York Mets was an instant classic. Matt Harvey made his first start since the announcement of the innings limit and ensuing debacle, and he took the hill against their National League East rival. While Harvey didn't have his best stuff, the game didn't get truly out of hand until Yoenis Cespedes misplayed a single into a little league grand slam, and seemingly sealed the Mets' fate.
The Mets were down by six runs heading into the seventh, but thanks to a remarkable collapse by the Nationals bullpen, they tied the game in the inning. In the eighth they took the lead via a pinch hit home run from Kirk Niuwenheuis, and headed into the ninth with a one run cushion.
Jayson Werth led off the bottom of the ninth, and promptly singled on a ground ball to Cespedes. Behind Werth, the Nationals had Anthony Rendon, Bryce Harper, and Yunel Escobar scheduled to hit. They looked primed for a comeback, but instead, their manager made one of the worst decisions of the season, and potentially cost them the game.
With Werth at first base, and Rendon at the plate, Williams gave him the sacrifice bunt sign. It was an immediate rally killer, and a run expectancy table can show exactly why. Run expectancy tables are fantastic because they allow us to see the consequence of in-game moves, which makes it the perfect tool to dissect Williams' failure in the ninth inning. Here is the run expectancy table from FanGraphs for a run environment of 4.15 runs per game, which is slightly lower than the current run environment (4.35 runs per game) but still works for the purpose here.
|Runners||0 Outs||1 Out||2 Outs|
|1 _ _||0.831||0.489||0.214|
|_ 2 _||1.068||0.644||0.305|
|1 2 _||1.373||0.908||0.343|
|_ _ 3||1.426||0.865||0.413|
|1 _ 3||1.798||1.140||0.471|
|_ 2 3||1.920||1.352||0.570|
|1 2 3||2.282||1.520||0.736|
You can see that when a runner is on first base, and there is nobody out, the team is expected to score .831 runs to the end of the inning. Moving the runner to second on a sacrifice bunt lowers the run expectancy of the inning to .644 runs. Compounding this failure is the fact that Rendon had a 3-1 count, which meant that he was just one pitch away from getting walked, and was likely going to get a good pitch to hit, as Jeurys Familia wouldn't want to face Bryce Harper with two runners on. But instead of letting Rendon swing away, he was still asked to bunt, which, in addition to the run expectancy hit this would bring to the Nationals, is not something he's used to.
Anthony Rendon has 0 sacrifice bunts this year. Decision to keep bunt on in 3-1 count may well be epitaph on this Nats season.— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) September 9, 2015
While this happened in the regular season, Williams' decision somewhat resembles when Mike Matheny had Michael Wacha come out of the bullpen in game five of the NLCS; something he hadn't done all year. He ended up allowing the famous Travis Ishikawa walk-off home run that ended the Cardinals' season. Williams' decision had a similar fate, as Rendon didn't place his bunt well, and Werth was thrown out at second base.
Instead of having a runner on second with one out (after a successful sacrifice, RE of .644), the Nationals had a runner on first with one out, which has a run expectancy of .489. The difference is substantial, and with Rendon at the plate, an above average hitter, the chance of him reaching base with a 3-1 count was high, as his career OBP in that situation is .492.
If Rendon had reached base, the Nationals run expectancy would have been at least 1.373, with Harper up; who happens to be the leading candidate for NL MVP. It is worth mentioning that Rendon has been playing well of late, and in his last 83 at bats prior to this game, Rendon had posted an ISO of .167, a wOBA of .371, and a wRC+ of 135. He also collected two hits in five at-bats during the game, and had driven in a run. Having him bunt made little sense.
Williams has made many questionable moves this season, but yesterday's might have been his worst. While it doesn't seem like the Nationals will fire him during the season, it wouldn't be without precedent. In 2008, the Brewers decided to relieve Ned Yost of his managerial duties with just 12 games left in the season. The team had lost 11 out of 14 games in September, and ownership didn't feel comfortable with Yost at the helm for a playoff push.
With the loss, the Nationals are now six games back of the Mets in the NL East, but have 24 games remaining, four of which are against the division leading Mets. They still have a (long) shot to take over the division lead, however after watching Williams manage the game away in the ninth inning, it's clear that he's not the best person to guide this team to the postseason.