Nationals manager Matt Williams was proudly watching Jordan Zimmermann mow down Giants hitter after hitter with relative ease through eight innings. The right-hander was looking like he was going to throw a shutout on fewer than 100 pitches after getting two quick outs in the ninth.
Unfortunately, Zimmermann issued a two-out walk to second baseman Joe Panik, which brought Williams out of the dugout to replace Zimmermann with recently-promoted closer Drew Storen. The move was controversial even at the time with the outcome still undecided. Zimmermann had only just reached 100 pitches and still looked strong despite issuing his first walk of the evening. And, though Storen had been untouchable since taking over the closer’s role for Rafael Soriano in early September, he is still young and last pitched in the post-season when he forked over four runs to the Cardinals in Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS.
As it turned out, Storen allowed a single to Buster Posey, followed by a Pablo Sandoval line drive double down the left field line. Panik scored easily, and Posey nearly gave the Giants the go-ahead run, but a nifty relay throw by left fielder Bryce Harper to shortstop Ian Desmond, and a strong throw home to catcher Wilson Ramos allowed the Nationals to record the final out of the inning following a replay review on the tag at home plate.
The Nationals went on to lose 2-1 in 18 innings, and Williams has been roundly second-guessed for his decision. Per MASN’s Dan Kolko, Williams says he kicked himself “all night”. The manager added, “we also have a reason for that move,” seemingly a vague defense of his decision to take Zimmermann out.
Though replacing Zimmermann appears wrong in retrospect, it was certainly justified. During the regular season, Zimmermann held opposing hitters to a .577 OPS his first time through the order. The second time through, that OPS rose to .671. (The third time through fell slightly to .659, but selection bias has a strong effect here, as pitchers don’t get a chance to face a lineup for a third time unless they’re pitching well.)
Mitchel Lichtman expanded on the “times through the order penalty”, or TTOP, at Baseball Prospectus last year. He raises many great points, but the one I would like to highlight is this:
Good and bad pitchers show around the same magnitude of TTOP. The third time through the order, all starters are expected to pitch around .35 runs per nine innings worse than they do overall.
Many critics of Williams will say, “but it’s Zimmermann, the guy who just threw a no-hitter and was working on a three-hit shutout!” Ostensibly, they would be more comfortable with taking out, say, Tanner Roark in that situation compared to Zimmermann, but Lichtman’s research shows it really doesn’t matter who you have on the mound — they’re each more likely to be hit harder the third time through.
Furthermore, it’s hard to fault Williams for going to Storen. Storen finished the regular season with a 1.12 ERA and a 46/11 K/BB ratio in 56 1/3 innings. In 11 September relief appearances after taking over for Soriano, Storen was 10-for-10 in save chances, allowing zero runs with a 10/0 K/BB ratio.
Ultimately, however, it’s not as black-and-white as proponents of either side would have you believe. The .35 runs per nine innings penalty Lichtman observed is a puny fraction in the sample of one or two batters, as it was in the ninth inning, and as such the variance is so high. If the Nationals are ushered out of the NLDS, whether it’s Game 3 or Game 5, there will have been plenty of bigger reasons for their failure than Williams’ ninth-inning decision on Saturday night. For example, going into Monday’s Game 3 in San Francisco, Denard Span is 0-for-11, while Ian Desmond, Adam LaRoche, Jayson Werth, and Ramos are each 1-for-10.