The man to blame for the failure of Matt Williams as the manager of the Washington Nationals is General Manager Mike Rizzo. He built a World Series-caliber team and handed it to a novice on nothing more than faith in his own judgment.
Rizzo liked Williams from their days together with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and he bought into Williams’s steely demeanor and gritty playing style. He imagined those qualities would make Williams the right manager, but he could only imagine. Rizzo possessed no tangible evidence Williams could perform the duties required aside from confidence in his own instinct and judgment. When he bet on Williams, Rizzo bet on himself. Two years later, it stands as a defining blunder.
Monday, the Nationals fired Williams, an unraveling that began in October last year. In Game 4 of the National League Division Series, the season died and Williams’s credibility within his own clubhouse irrevocably shattered.
In the seventh inning of a tie game, with the Nationals facing elimination, Williams tabbed rookie Aaron Barrett to pitch out of a jam. In the other dugout, according to a person familiar with the situation, Giants Manager Bruce Bochy turned giddily incredulous that Williams had not instead chosen all-star Tyler Clippard, whom Bochy feared because of his experience and ability to face both left-handed and right-handed hitters. As Barrett warmed up, the person said, Bochy expressed to one of his coaches that Williams’s decision had just given the Giants the series. Two walks and a flurry of wild pitches later, the winning run scored and Bochy’s prediction came true. Clippard never saw the mound, and neither did Drew Storen or Stephen Strasburg.
Afterward, Williams said he had chosen Barrett because Barrett had performed that role — been a “seventh-inning guy” — all season. Storen and Clippard were being saved to protect leads. Strasburg was available only in an emergency, Williams said, and that was telling. Seventh inning, tie game, opponent rallying, season on the brink — that is the emergency. Williams’s reliance on orthodoxy prevented him from seeing it. There is an epitaph for Williams: He did not notice the emergency until it was over.
People around the game believed the moment had been too large, and the game had moved too fast for him, especially against a seasoned strategist such as Bochy. But then, why should Williams have been expected to keep up? He had been in those moments as a third baseman during a superlative 17-year career. He had been a base coach in Arizona for four seasons, responsible for instruction, making decisions only about whether base runners should test an arm or not. He had been dropped into an entirely new situation.
Rizzo, with the backing of ownership, placed him there. Rizzo could have picked any available manager he wanted; the Nationals’ loaded roster made it by consensus the most attractive available managerial job. He dismissed experienced bench coaches, including the one in his dugout, Randy Knorr, the man incumbent players pushed for. He focused his sights on Williams, whose only other interview for a managerial position had come the year before with Colorado. There was no clamor for Williams. There was only Rizzo’s relationship with him and Rizzo’s notion that he could handle a championship-level team.
In the aftermath of Williams’s dismissal, Rizzo looked back with regret on the process that led to hiring Williams. It is a good sign that he could recognize his mistake in not placing enough value in experience and vowing he would not make the mistake again.
“We’re going to interview a group of people with diverse backgrounds, diverse experiences, and diverse skill sets,” Rizzo said Monday. “I think that’s something that we did not do last time. Last time, we brought in managing candidates with little or no managerial experience. I think we’ll have a greater pool of manager candidates this year.”
Rizzo made Williams part of a new wave of managers, former players with little experience beyond their playing days. In theory, Williams would help guide the Nationals because he could relate to them and the modern game, having been an active player not long before. Brad Ausmus and Ryne Sandberg had been hired that same fall for the same reason.
“It helps explain why initially these guys are having an impact,” Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa said in fall 2013. “But they need to understand that they’re trading on respect that they’ve earned as a player. At some point, quickly, they’re going to have to earn respect as the leader of their team.”
Players initially warmed to Williams, but over time their respect eroded. He either didn’t admit mistakes or realize he had made them, let alone learn from them. Early in 2014, Nationals relievers pleaded with pitching coach Steve McCatty to tell Williams to stop the practice of warming up relievers without bringing them into the game, fearing it would tax them unnecessarily. Williams improved, for a time, but the same problem returned this season.
Even after the brutal end to 2014, Williams did not publicly regret the decision to keep Clippard, Storen and Strasburg shelved. “It doesn’t do any good at this point to dwell on it,” Williams said a week later. “We’ve got next year to look forward to, and we’re working on that as we speak.”
Looking forward served as Williams’s operating philosophy from the moment he took over. He laid out every spring training workout, down to the minute, by January. As he worked with his staff on the plan and fretted about detail, one coach told him, “Matt, relax, we’re two months away from spring training.”
At the time, it was looked upon as a positive quality, a promise for structure and discipline and an antidote to the loose atmosphere Davey Johnson fostered. But Williams’s inability to relax affected relationships and strategic maneuvers. He made players uncomfortable by pacing in the dugout, furiously munching on gum or sunflower seeds. He didn’t employ plans so much as he became wedded to them. Inflexibility and nervousness overwhelmed his decision-making.
In the most pivotal game of this season, those qualities came to the surface. On Sept. 8, the Nationals blew a 7-1 lead against the Mets through no fault of Williams — the bullpen Rizzo put together imploded. But down 8-7 in the ninth, the Nationals had a chance to come back, especially after Jayson Werth led off with a single.
Anthony Rendon walked to the plate, and Williams’s tense nature got the best of him. He fixated on the notion of pushing the tying run to second base and didn’t consider the specifics of the situation, all of which favored letting Rendon hit: Rendon is one of the Nationals’ best hitters; Bryce Harper stood on deck and would be intentionally walked with first base open; the Nationals’ bullpen had been so taxed that playing for one run and extra innings had little merit; if Williams wanted to avoid a double play, then playing out a scenario in which Yunel Escobar — a slow-footed, contact-heavy hitter — came up with a man on first made little sense.
And yet, Williams ordered a bunt. He seemed to get a reprieve when Rendon worked the count to 3-1. A confident manager, in tune with his team and the situation, would have considered the best case: Rendon blasting a walk-off home run in an ideal hitter’s count. A nervous manager, disregarding specific strengths and the situation, would have considered the worst case: Rendon hitting into a double play.
Williams envisioned not victory, but disaster. He kept the bunt on. Rendon pushed it too hard, and Werth was thrown out at second. Harper walked anyway. Escobar hit into a game-ending double play. The Nationals’ playoff hopes, for all intents and purposes, perished.
After Rendon failed to advance runners with his sacrifice, Williams lamented the play rather than accepting fault for either misusing Rendon or not putting him in a position to succeed. He didn’t blame Rendon by name, but he also didn’t take responsibility. In the clubhouse, it felt as though Williams had placed his mistake on Rendon’s shoulders — if he understood he’d made a mistake at all. Williams needed to examine himself and understand that he had played to his own vision of the game instead of his players’ strengths.
Williams is a good man who was thrown into the wrong job. If he grows more flexible and takes lessons from his time in Washington, Williams might someday become a successful manager. He had a chance to learn here. The problem is, it was the wrong place and the wrong time for an apprenticeship. There are no sure bets when it comes to choosing a manager, but in tabbing a former player with no significant managerial experience, Rizzo made the biggest gamble possible.
Rizzo’s faith in himself shapes the Nationals for good and bad. His evaluation of players, and his strong belief in those evaluations, enabled him to make a series of savvy trades and draft choices that built a deep roster. But sometimes it’s hurt the franchise. He ignored outside evidence when he acquired Jonathan Papelbon, overlooking character red flags and the effect the trade would have on Storen. He acted as if his will could make the deal work. It contributed directly to the team’s downfall.
When it came time for Rizzo to make the most important decision of his general manager tenure, he picked the wrong man. Williams failed in Washington. The larger problem is that he was here at all, and for that the blame must belong to Rizzo.
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