Matt Williams: Thumbs Up or Down?
As of this writing Bryan Price is still managing the 49-62 Cincinnati Reds after making a fool of himself earlier this season, so the bar for manager retention is set rather low these days. But the Washington, DC hounds demand more and they are nipping at the heels of Nationals manager Matt Williams, wondering what could possibly be delaying the executioner’s ax in a town anxious to find a scapegoat for the teams surprisingly lackluster performance.
Last season Williams was the Manager of the Year for guiding the 2014 Nationals to the best record in the National League. His pitching staff was the best in the league, allowing only 3.43 runs per game. After adding Max Scherzer to that staff, the expectations were huge and yet with only the loss of Tyler Clippard, the same set of hurlers have only pitched to a 3.93 runs per game against a league average of 4.10. With fewer than 400 at-bats for Bryce Harper, the Nationals still were able to score 4.23 runs per game in 2014, which was third best in the league.
Fast forward and Stephen Strasburg’s 2015 ERA of 4.76 and Doug Fister’s demotion to the bullpen after posting a 4.55 ERA are two of the primary reasons that the Nationals are only 4 games over .500 and fast sinking from the bow. Scherzer has been as advertised throwing a no-hitter and continuing as one of the best pitchers in baseball for the third straight year. The offense has dropped off slightly to 4.17 runs per game and if the pitching were as dominating as had been hoped, the team would be in a better position as the post-season looms.
Despite winning the Manager of the Year award last season, many were dissatisfied by the team’s performance in October and saw Williams as the prime malefactor. Exhibits A, B and C were the pulling of Jordan Zimmerman with two outs in the top of the ninth inning against the Giants and inserting closer Drew Storen to get the final out of the Second Game of the NLDS. Storen gave up a single to Buster Posey and a double to Pablo Sandoval before recording an out. Storen’s failure quickly became Williams’ failure after an incredulous fan base looked for reasons why their bundle of post-season tickets had been so quickly rendered invalid.
Williams is the antithesis of Bryan Price. He is disciplined and quiet and answers the press largely in mono-syllables about staying the course and playing the games one at a time. After his hiring he brought only a single coach with him from Arizona, Mark Weidemaier, whose emphasis is the defense and organizing spring training. Weidemaier is married to a former marine which may assist him in his relationship with Williams, who is known as the Big Marine.
One might better ask the questions about performance of the rest of the coaching staff. Rick Schu allowed Ian Desmond to remain mired in a long slump that has been one significant issue for the team, but then again, Desmond’s fielding after Spring Training was unsightly so Weidemaier did little on that score. Steve McCatty has responsibility for the pitching staff and the problems there warrant examination of his influence or lack thereof. Bob Henley, the third base coach has made several atrocious and costly decisions in sending and holding runners. So if the Nationals were going to fire Williams, they might also look at the rest of the under-performers and get rid of Henley if nothing else.
The concerns about the Washington Nationals do not begin and end with Matt Williams and the quiet professionalism he brings to his job warrant a more extended trial period. GM Mike Rizzo put the team together and most of the problems result from the inability of the pitching staff–especially the bullpen–to win games. Young arms like Blake Treinin and Aaron Barrett may take more than a single season to find themselves and the team as a whole may need additional time to grow into its relationship with Williams.
The question that the over-zealous in DC might be asking themselves is who exactly they think is going to take the job and win next season. When asked, one person suggested Tony LaRussa. Frankly, if the Nationals front office wants to spend that kind of money they would do better putting it into an additional outfielder. But the simple truth is that there are not many who could do more than what Matt Williams has accomplished with what he has been given. Jayson Werth, Denard Span, Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon all spent several months on the DL and still Williams patched together a decent offensive machine. Of course coaxing Danny Espinosa and Clint Robinson into hitting with some authority could have been done by anyone.
It is going to take more than a new manager to build a winner in DC. It is going to take a winning team and currently the Nationals are just scraping by on that score. Leading Matt Williams out into the public square for execution might give the fans something to get excited about, but it won’t do much more than that. So my vote?? Thumbs up to Matt Williams. Spend some money you cheap bastards and put better talent on the field and the dugout will take care of itself.