Washington Nationals Editorials: Matt Williams’ Decision Making is Killing the Nats
After Davey Johnson retired following the 2013 season, the Washington Nationals were in need of a new manager. Finding candidates shouldn’t have been too hard. After all, the Nats held one of baseball’s brightest futures, with a good mix of veteran stars and young talent.
They ended up going with Matt Williams, a man whose coaching resume included all of the following: first base coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks, third base coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks, and a jawline that would put Sylvester Stallone to shame.
May 12, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Just look at that majestic thing! That’s a jaw that says, “I’m in charge here, and I’m not afraid to micromanage the heck out of this team.”
In his first season with the club, Matt Williams went out of his way to prove himself as a manager. “Do you need a guy who can change his lineup every single game? Do you need a guy who can get ejected at completely arbitrary times? Do you need a guy who can alienate his best young star, call him out in a press conference, and indirectly cause him to injure himself? Then buddy, I’m the manager for you!”
In spite of all those gaffes, Williams was named the National League Manager of the Year for winning 96 games and taking a club which had underperformed the prior season back to the playoffs.
In fairness, that’s an impressive record for a guy who had never managed before. It’s also worth noting what he had to work with. When the Nationals signed Max Scherzer this winter, they had to tell Tanner Roark, who won 15 games and could start for almost any team in baseball, to go to the bullpen. They got 16 wins out of Doug Fister, and Jordan Zimmermann threw a no-hitter. As for the offense, they scored the third most runs in the National League.
Williams didn’t exactly walk into an empty cupboard. Heck, Colin Cowherd probably could have managed that team to a .500 record. The toughest decision Williams had to make last year was to replace the raging dumpster fire that was Rafael Soriano with Drew Storen at closer, a move that wasn’t quite rocket science.
In his second season, Williams has settled in a little at his new job. He’s stopped turning the lineup on its head every game. He’s also wised up enough to realize, “Hey, that Harper kid’s pretty good! Maybe I shouldn’t take him out of the game just to make a point!”
But for all of the improvement, Williams has yet to figure out how to manage his pitching staff.
The most glaring example of this was Game 2 of the NLDS. Jordan Zimmermann (fresh off his no-hitter, mind you!) was just one out away from wrapping up the shutout when he walked Joe Panik. Matt Williams, deciding he’d seen enough, handed the ball over to Drew Storen, who promptly wiped away everything that Zimmermann had accomplished to that point. The game ended up going 18 innings, and the Nationals ended up with a loss.
If that wasn’t enough, Williams also decided it was a good idea to get himself ejected in the tenth inning, which means he missed nearly half of the game. If you’re looking for an adjective to describe that behavior, I’d go with “unacceptable.”
Those are the sort of things that you might chalk up to Williams being a rookie manager, a guy learning a job that he’s never held before. After all, you can’t hire a first-time manager and not expect growing pains. There’s a learning curve even for the best.
What’s infuriating is that nothing seems to have changed in the new season. The 2015 model of Matt Williams looks an awful lot like the 2014 model. There have been the same bugs, the same miscues, and the same managerial decisions that often leave Nats fans scratching their heads.
The most disconcerting of Williams’ continued failures centers around his handling of the bullpen. In today’s baseball world, relief pitchers are “niche” guys. They want to know their role. They do not want every inning to turn into a bullpen guessing game, never knowing when their number will be called.
In Williams’ world, only the closer role has ever been settled. Storen held the position early in the season, but once Jonathan Papelbon arrived, Storen became just another piece to be picked up and inserted at the manager’s whim. At times, it feels as if Williams picks his relievers by drawing names from a hat.
Add to that Williams’ propensity for leaving starters in too long or pulling them too early, and an ability to get ejected at the oddest of times, and what you’ve got is a recipe for a managerial disaster. While the Nationals may have an immensely talented roster, they’re scuffling at the plate right now. They need every advantage they can get. Getting out-coached every night isn’t helping this team.
Great leadership requires doing what is best for the unit, and right now, Matt Williams isn’t providing that in the Nats clubhouse. Instead, he’s putting his players in position to fail and with the entire offense looking lackluster and uninspired amidst this slump, Williams is simply making matters worse.
There is still time to right the ship. A winning streak like what the team put together earlier in the season would do wonders to wash away the foul stench of the recent slumps. If the team continues to take on water, however, and 2015 turns into a clone of 2013, the Nationals will be watching October from their couches.
And Matt Williams could be watching from the unemployment line.