“This is not an easy thing. This is a business and as such requires some very, very tough difficult choices and this certainly was one of them.” — Mike Rizzo
MANAGER OF THE YEAR AWARD IN 2014, MISSES PLAYOFFS IN ’15
Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo announced today that field manager Matt Williams was relieved of his duties.
Additionally, bench coach Randy Knorr, pitching coach Steve McCatty, hitting coach Rick Schu, third base coach Bobby Henley, first base coach Tony Tarasco, bullpen coach Matt LeCroy, and defensive coordinator Mark Weidemaier have also been informed their contracts will not be renewed.
“A tough day for me personally,” Rizzo said at Monday’s press conference from Nationals Park. “A tough day for our entire organization, but these are the first of the decisions that we felt we needed to make as we meticulously evaluate why the 2015 season didn’t go the way we had hoped.
“As I’ve said, this entire season was a disappointment, not only to myself, but to ownership and to the fan base of Washington, D.C. It was not our best year. It wasn’t Matt’s best year. It wasn’t my best year. As an organization, it wasn’t our best year. All of us, together, feel the disappointment throughout the 2015 season.
“We felt that it was right for us to look at every aspect of the organization and figure out ways that we could work better, getting us back on track to reach our ultimate goal, which of course, is bringing a World Series championship back to D.C. and its fan base.”
Williams, 49, led the Nats to an 83-79 record this season in what has to be one of the most disappointing seasons in MLB in recent memory. The Nats, consensus World Series pick by the national media, failed to make the post-season in Williams’ second season at the helm.
He made the playoffs and was named Manager of the Year last season, but even then, many thought the Nats succeeded despite Williams, not because of him. Williams’ questionable bullpen management was highlighted in the NLDS, especially in Games 2 and 4, when he lifted a cruising Jordan Zimmermann for Drew Storen, then put in Aaron Barrett instead of a rested Tyler Clippard, Storen or even Stephen Strasburg. Both decisions backfired.
During the first half of the this season, the Nats managed to hold first place despite playing with a makeshift lineup with regulars Denard Span, Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman all spending significant portions of the season on the disabled list. Stephen Strasburg joined them for a chunk of the summer and Doug Fister could not replicate his stellar 2014.
Despite all this, the Nats were still in first place in the N.L. East on Aug. 1.
At that point, the walking wounded returned, sending their lesser skilled backups to the bench. But baseball has a long-standing tradition of a month-long spring training for a reason, and Span, Rendon, Werth and Zimmerman all proved to be quite rusty when they returned to the lineup.
The team was swept by the Mets that first weekend in August and limped to a 4-13 record over the first three weeks of the month, turning a 3-game lead in the division to a 4 1/2 game deficit at the conclusion of the 10-game west coast swing.
Through it all, Williams’ bullpen management left much to be desired, repeatedly using relievers in rote roles instead of assessing the situation and utilizing the most appropriate pitcher, and his instance of asking players to sacrifice that had little experience or success with the technique particularly frustrated fans and pundits alike. Yes, the players weren’t performing, but often the manager was not putting them in positions to succeed.
Williams fate seemed to be sealed as the season dwindled, but a series of reports with a week to go in the season by Washington Post reporter Barry Svrluga were particularly damning. In one of the reports, Svrluga described an irate Jayson Werth going off on Williams about his poor communications skills and asking Williams during a tirade “When do you think you lost the clubhouse?”
Then, on the next-to-last home game — on Fan Appreciation Day, no less — closer Jonathan Papelbon screamed at Bryce Harper for not running hard enough on a pop-up, then physically attacked the presumptive N.L. MVP, choking Harper and knocking him backwards into the bench. Williams, seemingly unaware of the severity of the incident in his own dugout, then sent Papelbon back out to pitch the next inning.
“He’s our closer,” Williams said about why he sent Papelbon back out after the fight. “That’s all I’m going to say on the matter. He’s our closer. In a tie game, he’s in the ballgame in the ninth inning.” This, despite the fact that the Nats had to acquiesce to Papelbon’s trade request that he pitch only in save situations.
The next day, after Williams had a chance to review the video, he confessed his lack of information about the incident and stated that had he known at the time, he would not have put Papelbon back on the mound.
When Williams was hired, he boasted of a day-to-day plan for spring training and the season and fans fell in love with the idea of his organization skills. But the organization turned into inflexibility, and inflexibility eventually turned into a seemingly tone-deaf manager that had been tuned out by his players and ridiculed in the media.
Williams is certainly not the sole reason for the Nats misfortunes in 2015. He had no control over the injuries, nor the players he had available to replace the starters. He didn’t control the Nats medical staff or their rehab programs. He couldn’t control that four position starters would all return within days of each other, rushed back into a pennant race without proper at bats to regain timing.
But the things that Williams did have control over became increasingly difficult to process and understand. He seemingly made the same mistakes over and over, either unwilling or incapable of making corrections along the way. And his manner with the media suggested a rigid inflexibility and adherence to pre-set roles.
The next Nationals manager will have a strong base to work from, but will inherit a lot of questions as well. The team’s fortune is tied to two aging players that can’t stay healthy and at least four prominent veterans are leaving via free agency. The team will most likely have a raw rookie at shortstop, and could have four new starters in the lineup on opening day from the previous year, plus a completely revamped bullpen.
But the new skipper will also have the reigning MVP in right field, an ace that threw two no-hitters and a one-hitter in the same season, and a second ace that was one of the two or three best starters in the league once he returned healthy from his second stint on the D.L. this year.
The 2015 season, which started with such promise, ended in disappointment and dysfunction. As it happens in so many cases, the field manager paid for that disappointment with his job. Perhaps Matt Williams will be given another chance to manage elsewhere in the big leagues. Maybe he becomes a trusted hitting or bench coach somewhere. But it was clear as the season drew nearer to a close that he was no longer the right fit to manage this group of players.
Sometimes it’s not fair that a manager pays for an underwhelming season by his players. In this case, Williams did more than enough to earn his dismissal.