Last week, Grantland’s Michael Baumann placed odds on the first MLB manager to be fired and Nationals manager Matt Williams, fresh off his benching of Bryce Harper for a lack of hustle, was tied with Minnesota Manager Ron Gardenhire as the third-most likely to be canned first. (Baumann’s 7-t0-1 odds are for recreational purposes only.)
After following the more laid-back Davey Johnson to the franchise’s greatest success, it’s entirely possible the Nationals might not take as well to Williams, in which case it’d be easier for GM Mike Rizzo to cut ties with his manager than with his star.
After reporting that Bryce Harper would undergo surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb, ESPN’s Keith Law took the criticism of Williams even farther in a column posted last night (ESPN Insider required for full text):
Williams’ tirade on “lack of hustle,” directed at a player who is hustle incarnate, was a low point for the Nationals this season, but Harper’s injury, which came as he tried to stretch a double into a triple by — wait for it — hustling, is a new nadir. It’s bad enough that the inexperienced manager felt the need to heap dispraise on Harper in a public forum; it’s worse that those empty criticisms might in any way have led to Harper taking more of a risk than usual and tearing that thumb ligament.
Whoa, whoa, whoa.
Law raises some good questions, not all of which relate to Williams’s managerial skills. Why did Williams single out Harper while apparently giving other players a free pass for a lack of focus or sloppy play? Did the Nationals make a mistake by shifting Harper to the outfield from catcher after they drafted him? Law suggests Harper’s unfamiliarity with playing corner outfield may have been a contributing factor in several of his injuries, though Aaron Rowand, among others, might disagree.
But Law loses me when he wonders whether Williams’s decision to bench Harper for a lack of hustle might have “in any way” led to Harper’s thumb injury. Do we really think Harper would’ve settled for a stand-up double against the Padres if he hadn’t been benched the week before? It’s not as if Harper tore a hamstring busting his tail down the line on a routine comebacker to the pitcher.
Law writes that the Nationals organization “made a mistake in hiring a manager with zero experience in Williams.” He might place even higher odds than Baumann on Williams being the first manager to get the ax.
Washington now has to do without Harper for at least the next two months, and there’s no internal replacement likely to come close to his level of production. Before he returns, however, the organization has to come up with a better plan for managing its most valuable asset — and if that means finding a manager better able to do that, so be it.