No guessing is needed to determine new Manager Matt Williams’s plans for the Washington Nationals. With his handling of struggling outfielder Bryce Harper, Williams quickly has made his intentions clear.
As he tries to help Harper emerge from a season-opening slump, Williams has been aggressive — overly so, some Nationals observers would contend — in moving Harper throughout the batting order like a pinball. In the team’s first eight games, Harper has hit second, fifth, sixth and seventh. That’s enough movement to make a grizzled 10-year veteran dizzy, let alone a 21-year-old outfielder hoping to put together his first big season.
But for the most part, I like what Williams has done. There’s nothing wrong with a first-time manager establishing his style right away. And the talented Nationals could be in trouble if Williams appeared timid after being entrusted to run a veteran club facing big expectations.
It will be interesting, though, to see how Williams’s proactive approach plays in the clubhouse over a 162-game marathon. Managers risk sending players in the wrong direction by pushing too many buttons. So far, Williams has pushed the right ones.
The Nationals are off to a 7-2 start despite Harper’s struggles (which showed signs of ending Wednesday night), the loss of catcher Wilson Ramos to a broken hand and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman’s ongoing throwing issues. Since spring training, Williams has been concise in what he expects from the Nationals while indicating he won’t be the type to sit on his hands.
Williams isn’t the first manager to move a struggling hitter down in the batting order. Such moves aim to reduce the pressure on players who bat in traditionally high run-producing spots and get them opportunities with runners on base. In jams, most pitchers reduce their repertoire, and a fastball can be just what a hitter needs to break out of a slump.
Harper got one in the fourth inning Wednesday night with two runners on and hit the 94-mph pitch for a three-run home run in the Nationals’ 10-7 victory over the Miami Marlins.
The most encouraging part of Harper’s 10-pitch at-bat was that he kept his eye on the ball. Harper had been chasing and missing too many pitches outside the strike zone. When a batter has five consecutive fouls, as Harper did in the fourth against Marlins left-hander Brad Hand, you know he’s seeing the ball well.
Harper’s homer lends credence to Williams’s strategy. It’s just unusual to see a manager make so many moves with a key player in the first couple weeks of the season. (Williams also gave Harper a “mental day off” Sunday.)
Williams gets that. No one has to tell the former 17-year big leaguer that players are creatures of habit. They establish routines and are fiercely protective of them. Throughout the game’s history, surprises on the lineup card have resulted in closed-door shouting matches.
Williams isn’t trying to pick a fight with Harper, but he has to lead his way. He would rather have a set lineup that produced as hoped each day, “but that’s not reality. . . . It doesn’t happen,” Williams said after Tuesday’s 5-0 victory over the Marlins.
Of course, changing things “doesn’t always work” either, Williams continued. “And there’s some searching that goes on, certainly with Harp, trying to get him going and getting him feeling good and all of those things. I’ve tried to put him in different spots. I think there’s something to be said for versatility, too.”
Perhaps Williams’s two-hands-on style wouldn’t seem as strange if his predecessor hadn’t taken a hands-free approach for much of last season.
I’ll defend Davey Johnson every day of the week and twice on Sunday. Sixteen years ago, Johnson was much kinder than he needed to be to a young beat guy who asked way too many questions. Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo also is indebted to Johnson for bailing out the organization after Jim Riggleman surprisingly quit in June 2011. That established, Johnson had a tendency to become detached when things went poorly. The Nationals failed to meet expectations last season. After hitting coach Rick Eckstein was fired in July, there was a noticeable difference in Johnson.
Williams is trying to get to where Johnson once was: the top of the game. It figures Williams would be full of ideas about how to begin the climb. At the start, the players are all-in with him.
“He’s totally into the game from the first pitch all the way down to the last pitch,” starter Gio Gonzalez said. “He knows the situations, and he’s aggressive. He always knows what he wants to do. He’s just one of those managers who doesn’t let up. He’s going to keep pushing.”
That’s obvious. It didn’t take long for the new guy to put his stamp on the Nationals — and it appears they had better get ready to be pushed a lot.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.