05 October 2015

Why the Nationals are saying good riddance to Matt Williams

News came earlier today that shouldn't surprise any baseball observer: the Washington Nationals have fired manager Matt Williams as first reported by the Washington Post. This comes only one year after the Nationals won the NL East and Williams was the Manager of the Year in the Junior Circuit but also comes in the wake of what has been a massive disappointment of a season. Williams has come under his fair share of fire this season and ultimately, he had to go.

When a team is expected to be the World Series favorite after a very aggressive offseason, highlighted by the signing of star pitcher Max Scherzer, and instead barely finishes above .500 and seven games behind the New York Mets in a weak NL East, obviously a lot went wrong. It is always easy to throw the manager under the bus and it certainly isn't Williams's fault that the team was bereft with injuries and that many key players noticeably declined. And as we all know, it is always easier to make the manager the fall guy for when an expensive roster fails to meet expectations.

But his part, Williams has been a mess. I have never seen a manager get almost every single bullpen decision wrong quite like Williams did down the stretch this season. This certainly isn't a new issue with Williams as it was a common criticism at times last season, culminating with pulling Jordan Zimmerman from Game 2 of the 2014 NLDS against the Giants, a move that ultimately backfired (I do think you can justify that move but even then, it was a classic case of overmanaging).

Williams's questionable managerial decisions went beyond the bullpen, including some really terrible bunting decisions that predictably backfired. But what ultimately helped to seal the fate of Williams was the Jonathan Papelbon-Bryce Harper incident. As we all know, one really can't defend Papelbon's actions during that (although Harper certainly didn't attempt to quell the situation) but how Williams acted during that was a disgrace.

First off, Williams put Papelbon out on the mound after the incident, initially defended his decision with the laughable "he's our closer" comment. Then he said had he known about the altercation with Harper, he wouldn't have put Papelbon into the game. Setting the question of why he still pulled Harper from the game aside, this either showed Williams to either be comically unaware of his own dugout or a liar.

The Papelbon incident led to a pretty damning report from the Washington Post that described Williams as such odd choices like having relievers warm up without bringing them into the game, failing to communicate to players when they would be out of the lineup and others. As a result, you get quotes from players such as this:
"The first time he does something odd, you’re like, ‘All right, I see. I get it. I’m with you,’ ” one Nationals veteran said. “The next time you’re like, ‘Ooookay. All right. I’m trying to get it. Yeah.’ And then when it keeps happening, guys are watching him like, ‘Well, here comes this guy again.’ ”
Or like this:
“He’s like the guy in his house who hears a sound, like someone breaking in,” one player said. “And his reaction isn’t to take care of the problem or investigate. It’s to put his head under the pillow and hope it goes away.”
That does not reflect a manager who has the confidence in his players and that certainly had to play a role as to why Williams is out of a job today.

This is not to say that Williams should never get another managerial job again, or that he couldn't succeed should he get another chance. Being a manager is always easier said that done and Williams is far from the first inexperienced manager to struggle with clubhouse management and in-game strategy. But his managerial missteps came back to haunt him big-time as a disappointing team started to sink in the standings, and he was never able to recover.

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