Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

Ross over Fister; best pitching move Williams has made all year (and a bit of ranting)


Ross deservedly keeps his rotation spot.  Photo Getty Images via

Ross deservedly keeps his rotation spot. Photo Getty Images via

After his second questionable starting pitcher yank in as many nights, 2014 Manager of the Year Matt Williams made perhaps his best pitching change of the season.  Instead of favoring his veteran Doug Fister like everyone thought he would based on past experiences with player management, he went with a rookie and announced (as first reported by Mark Zuckerman last night) that Joe Ross would keep his rotation spot, sending Fister to the bullpen.

First; some stuff I’ve wanted to get off my chest on Williams’ handling of the pitching staff as of late:

There’s already been enough kvetching about his yanking Gio Gonzalez the previous night; though my readers cannot see this “proof,” as soon as the pitching change occurred I texted a friend saying (in effect) this was going to backfire.  Pulling Gonzalez made zero sense: If you’re going to yank your starter so quickly in the 6th, why let him frigging *bat* in the bottom of the 5th??  Gonzalez was only on 95 pitches; professional, veteran starters can throw at least 105-110 pitches before showing any wear, and studies show that you’re not really in “danger” of causing subsequent regression until you hit 120.  And the most egregious issue: Gonzalez was set to face not 1-2-3 but 6-7-8 in the Arizona order.  To this observer, it was classic over-thinking/over-managing that resulted in a blown lead, a blown game and an embarrassing 9th where a position player had to throw for just the second time in the Nats tenure in Washington.

So, what did 2014 Manager of the Year Matt Williams learn from the 8/5/15 experience??  Absolutely nothing.  Ross was on even fewer pitches last night (89), was absolutely handling the weakened Arizona lineup (they sat two of their best  hitters to give them a day off), and Ross was set to face … wait for it … 6-7-8 in the order.  Yet another “shut down” reliever comes in and gives up a ton of runs … and it looked like yet another game would be lost.  Only the heroics of Matt Thornton (waiver claim) and eventually in the 8th Clint Robinson‘s 3-run homer (minor league free agent) saved the game for this under performing $160M payroll “win now” team.

Starters are starters because, by and large, THEY ARE BETTER PITCHERS THAN RELIEVERS.  If relievers were better, they’d be frigging starters!  Williams needs to STOP yanking effective starting pitchers unless it makes sense.  This dates back to his most egregious yank, that of Jordan Zimmermann last year in the NLDS.

Anyway.  Back to the Fister/Ross decision.  Here’s my quick thoughts:

  • Props to Fister for taking the demotion like a pro.  If it were me, i’d have gone with some BS “soft tissue” D/L stint.  That was a gutsy move for a guy facing free agency this coming off-season.  Maybe he and his agent talked it through and decided it would be less damaging to be demoted to the pen than take a D/L stint and have the league think you’re fighting injuries in your walk year.
  • Despite the above complaints, which are the latest in a series of complaints about our “paint by the numbers” manager and his handling of the pitching staff that has been exposed recently by his lack of use of Storen or Papelbon in the Mets series (and then his subsequent use of Storen in a 5-0 laugher one day later), Williams absolutely made the right move here.  Its a performance game, the team is struggling, and Fister was the low-man on the totem pole in terms of production (the team is just 5-10 in his 15 starts).  Cynical view; was this Mike Rizzo telling Williams what to do or was it Williams begrudgingly realizing that Ross was giving his team the best chance to win?
  • We talked before about how it might have been premature to give Ross a 2016 rotation spot based on short sample sizes; no longer.  Ross is your #4 starter next year as we speak and the rest of the potentials are chasing #5 down in Viera next spring.  And that’s assuming the team doesn’t make a trade or sign a FA or (could it happen?) resign Jordan Zimmermann.
  • There goes any thought of giving Fister a Q.O. this off-season.  He’s gone from something like a 4yr/$55M deal to looking for a pillow contract with some lesser team willing to give him a rotation spot in just 4 short months.
  • How long before the Nats shut Ross down?  He threw right around 120 innings in both 2013 and 2014.  So far this year he’s at 76 in the minors and 45 in the majors for a total of 121, basically matching his career high.   Increasing his workload by 20% means he’s only got another 4 starts in him; is this just a temporary rotation assignment?  Or is the team thinking he can increase his workload considerably this year?  There’s 55 games left, which is 11 turns through the rotation; do you think he’ll be allowed to throw 11 more starts?  That’d put his innings somewhere in the 175-180 range, a huge increase year over year.  Honestly, I think Fister will regain the rotation spot in a month’s time or so as the team shuts down Ross for the season.

Interesting day in Natstown, though, nonetheless.

Written by Todd Boss

August 7th, 2015 at 10:02 am

15 Responses to 'Ross over Fister; best pitching move Williams has made all year (and a bit of ranting)'

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  1. The initial reason that I thought of for hooking Ross there was that they have this new, 7th/8th/9th inning closer arrangement (Janssen/Storen/Papelbon) and so might as well use it. Remember that, although Janssen did get hit last night he was very good, borderline excellent, in his last several apperances.

    But another reason that occurred to me is that they are going to stretch Ross this year as far as they can go – why burn another inning and more pitches (and more importantly, more “fatigued/high stress” pitches) in a game when you have a three run lead late? Save the wear & tear in each start when you can, and maybe you squeeze another start out of him down the road.

    An issue with Strasburg being activated tomorrow is: who goes from the active roster? First guess might be the recently activated Treinen. A wild card thought is Tanner Roark goes down to AAA to stretch out as a starter, giving the Nats an alternative to Fister if/when Ross hits an innings limit, injury, or his effectiveness wanes and Fister is still getting cuffed around. They could jettison Uggla or Moore, of course, but it’s hard to see them going with a short bench for the rest of the month.

    John C.

    7 Aug 15 at 10:20 am

  2. Yank Ross to save an inning; i dunno. Is that like using a $1 coupon at the grocery store while you’re buying $250 worth of Filet Mignon?

    My big beef with Williams’ management (no pun intended) was where he was in the lineup. 6-7-8. Saltalamacchia, Thomas and Hernandez. Not exactly Ruth, Mays and Mantle. Or maybe its the inconsistency; the night before Gio went out for the 6th, gave up a hit and was yanked. Ross didn’t even get that option.

    A great point about roster moves when Stras comes back. can’t really be Treinen b/c they need a power arm out there. If fister stays, then you don’t need two soft-tossing middle relievers so you’re right, maybe Roark makes way. I’ll reserve comment until they make a move but whoever makes way for Fister is getting a pretty raw deal.

    Todd Boss

    7 Aug 15 at 10:44 am

  3. My first thought on the roster move would be to DL Thornton and try to fix whatever is ailing him. My second would be to give Uggla one last hug and release him. There’s not much PT for him in the INF now with Rendon back and Espinosa the primary sub. That said, Uggla’s OBP is 40 points better than T-Mo’s. I would think it would be hard to get T-Mo through a DFA without a claim, though.

    More on the other stuff when I have a moment. And didn’t Trenien look awesome after his tuneup in Syracuse?!


    7 Aug 15 at 11:25 am

  4. Uggla; two plate apperances since July 24th. That’s two PAs in two weeks. I think its safe to say the team isn’t using him; he goes before Moore.

    Of course, does this team want to carry 13 arms? Does that make sense? Thornton saved their bacon last night; is he the one who makes way? I don’t think so. I think it might be Roark, send him to AAA to “stretch him back out” and then *he* becomes the 5th starter when Ross runs out of gas. How about that theory? 5 win pitcher demoted to AAA b/c the team couldn’t figure out how to use him. Kind of like getting a “proven closer” in trade to replace a “proven closer” with better numbers.

    Todd Boss

    7 Aug 15 at 12:45 pm

  5. I just looked at Thornton’s game log, and he gave up no runs and only one hit in July, so he’s done fine despite the loss of velocity. He just had two bad outings to start August, which is what sticks in the mind.

    I just have a hard time wrapping my brain around optioning Roark. But it could happen. Or they may option Treinen again, to let everyone else save face. He sure looked like a weapon on Thursday, though.

    As for Ross over Fister, which I think is the right call and which I was lobbying for before they sent Ross down the last time, I think the situation has forced MW’s hand. He can’t afford to give it the “let the veteran work through it” line. For the same reason, we may see more of Robinson as Werth tries to figure things out.

    We often point to wins as a big turning point in the season, but I wonder if the awful mess on Wednesday might end up being one for the Nats. After it, they finally pulled the trigger on Ross over Fister. They sent out Barrett, who needed a wakeup call, and recalled Treinen, who seems to have answered his with a vengeance. They sat the Face of the Franchise and got a 3-run HR out of it (as well as a PH RBI from RZim). Desi responded to the benching the night before with a HR and a 2B. We’ll see. If they fall right back into the same mess against the Rockies and lose a couple before the tough West Coast trip, we may have to start checking to see whether there is enough tread left on the tires.


    7 Aug 15 at 2:28 pm

  6. Kind of like getting a “proven closer” in trade to replace a “proven closer” with better numbers.

    Papelbon wasn’t acquired because of a need to replace Drew Storen. He was acquired because of the need to get Barrett, Treinen and Solis OUT of the 7th inning. Papelbon got to insist on closing because, of the two proven closers, he was the one with the option of whether to approve the trade/restructuring or not. I believe that it was a matter of who had leverage, not who the organization would prefer to have in what role.

    John C.

    7 Aug 15 at 2:49 pm

  7. FWIW, Jon Heyman makes it sound like MW is close to losing the Nats’ clubhouse:

    (All the way at the bottom under the Nats’ team report.) Lots of other good stuff here, too, related to the general trade deadline rumors and non-deals.


    7 Aug 15 at 4:36 pm

  8. And the Oscar goes to . . . Uggla, with a convenient case of back spasms. It does leave the Nats with a short bench, though. I guess Fister could PH since he’s not doing anything else.

    Man, Friday night hurt. Here’s hope for a better rest of the weekend.


    8 Aug 15 at 8:20 pm

  9. JohnC: Yes I know why Papelbon was acquired.

    The problem with the move is that it displaced someone who was already doing their job pretty durn well, and I think those kind of moves have downstream effects. Roark was a 5-win starter in this league last year; he’s replaced in the rotation and so far in 2015 he’s got a 4.54 ERA as his role has been yanked around. I won’t be surprised in the least if Storen suddenly becomes a different pitcher (and his little 4 run implosion is right in line with my prediction).

    These guys are professionals, and they’re not being treated professionally. Yeah I get the whole leverage thing, and I get what Papelpon was “able” to do. Bully for him. And if i’m Storen’s agent I’m on the phone demanding a trade the first day after the world series. Is that a good thing for morale on this team? I don’t think so.

    The *right* move, if your goal was to bolster the back of the bullpen, would have been to acquire a closer quality guy and then NOT replace Storen. And there were absolutely guys like that available. In fact, I had two of them on my fantasy team: Soria and Jim Johnson. Both were closing for their teams and both got acquired and are no longer closing. Soria would have been perfect.

    Todd Boss

    9 Aug 15 at 8:32 am

  10. Uggla to D/L: love those “soft tissue” hard to diagnose issues that enable teams to keep players. I don’t know why i’m irritated by them when they only help our situation.

    Todd Boss

    9 Aug 15 at 8:33 am

  11. Follow-up on this an continuation of a theme: 2nd god-awful outing in a week from Storen, turning two absolute wins into losses. Zimmermann pitches into the 7th on friday giving up one run == loss. Storen is handed the ball in a tie game and coughs it up again. Just saying… in the 5 appearances he’s had since the Papelbon acquisition his ERA has risen more than a point. Correlation or causation? short sample size like the players told reporters last night or sign of trouble?

    Todd Boss

    10 Aug 15 at 9:11 am

  12. Correlation or causation? short sample size like the players told reporters last night or sign of trouble?

    No one knows, of course. Those who don’t think there is a problem say SSS, those who do think there is a problem say “trouble!” But of course we don’t know either way. There’s simply not enough information to tell whether it’s signal or noise.

    Unless we already know in our own minds, of course!

    John C.

    10 Aug 15 at 9:29 am

  13. It’s like the fact that teams that fire their managers tend to improve. But it’s very hard to tell whether it’s because they got a better manager or because the teams that fire their managers tend to be underperforming. Better results are likely whether the manager changes or not.

    Similarly, in Storen’s case he has been (other than the one game in Tampa) nails all year. Sooner or later all relievers have a bad outing or two. And for relief pitchers a couple of bad innings has a dramatic impact on their stats. So it goes.

    John C.

    10 Aug 15 at 9:32 am

  14. Manager firings: I’m absolutely of the belief that in some ways baseball clubhouses work no differently than the office workplace that many of us know. If you can’t stand your manager, think he’s an idiot, mock him behind his back … are you as productive as you could be? Absolutely not. But when you really like your manager, have bought into his world-view, and believe in the cause … do you work harder? Do you go the extra mile? Yes absolutely.

    So, where do the Nats players stand? Who knows; none of us are in the clubhouse getting a bead on the inner thoughts of these players. Most of whom are probably already worn out from a gazillion such questions from credentialed media. We hear “rumors” from national writers who “know people” about how Williams is “losing the clubhouse.” These players aren’t dummies; they’re sitting there thinking about these moves along with Williams. After the umpteenth move that they question that backfires, there has to be a point where respect is gone and confidence in the capabilities of the manager is blown.

    Todd Boss

    10 Aug 15 at 9:50 am

  15. Oh, I concur that sometimes it works exactly that way. I remember a story from the book “Ball Four” of a Detroit player fuming to a member of the Seattle Pilots on the field that his manager (Mayo Smith) was the “dumbest manager in baseball.” Notwithstanding that Detroit had just won the ’68 WS, the author (Jim Bouton, of course) offered that he would bet that the Tigers didn’t win their division that year. And they didn’t.

    But as you say it’s hard to know where the Nats and their players stand on this issue. My earlier point is that you can’t conclude from improved performance that the manager was, in fact, the issue.

    John C.

    10 Aug 15 at 11:41 am

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