After a tumultuous and disappointing 2015 season, the Washington Nationals have fired Manager Matt Williams with a year remaining on his contract.
Expected to repeat as National League East champions and contend for their first World Series title, the Nationals and their team-record $164-million payroll finished with a 83-79 record and failed to reach the playoffs.
Injuries, roster holes and under-performing players undermined the most anticipated season in the Nationals’ 11-year history. But the 49-year-old Williams, who was named the 2014 National League Manager of the Year, also played a role. The Nationals and General Manager Mike Rizzo gambled that Williams, a former coach and star third baseman, would succeed despite no previous major league managing experience.
As the Nationals struggled through the season, particularly the second half, more questions about Williams’ leadership and strategy emerged. Rizzo publicly backed Williams but the tone changed slightly late in the summer when he began saying decisions about 2016 would be made after the season was over.
A Sept. 27 dugout fight between gruff closer Jonathan Papelbon and star outfielder Bryce Harper was the tipping point. Williams had nothing to do with incident itself but his actions in the aftermath raised questions. Williams insisted he didn’t see Papelbon grab Harper by the neck at the other end of the dugout nor did he ask anyone or did anyone tell him what happened. So he allowed Papelbon to pitch the following inning, an unfortunate optic that Williams later admitted was his fault.
The Nationals hired Williams, with whom Rizzo was close with since the early 2000s, because of his track record as a player, his organizational and communication skills, and because of their belief that a young manager could grow alongside the team.
Williams showed a few signs of growth with in-game strategy, managing with the same by-the-book style even in must-win situations. His decision to bypass relievers Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen in favor of rookie Aaron Barrett in the deciding Game 4 of the 2014 National League Division Series was one example. High-level Nationals officials grew frustrated when the same mistakes were repeated later in 2015.
Players complained privately about Williams’s lack of communication and handling of the bullpen — including warming up relievers without using them in games, actions regarded as wearing out arms — and his tense demeanor. Several incidents were detailed in a Post series on the Nationals season, including an unnamed player saying that veteran Jayson Werth ripped a lineup card that omitted him off the wall and confronted Williams, saying, “When exactly do you think you lost this team?”
When Williams finally managed with urgency — inserting Storen or Papelbon into games earlier for the first time all season in a critical September series against the New York Mets — the plan backfired when players failed to perform.
Williams is the most public face of the Nationals’ wretched season but he is not alone in the downfall. With his departure, the coaching staff will likely be overhauled as well. The roster will suffer losses through free agency and undergo further changes.
Rizzo — who built the roster and bears the responsibility for the subpar bullpen — is believed to be safe because he did well in stocking the organization’s minor leagues with young talent.
It is immediately unclear which direction the Nationals will go with their new managerial search, although they could possibly turn to an experienced leader after a failed try with a rookie one.
The organization has toggled between managing styles through the years. Like Williams, Manny Acta was a rookie manager when the Nationals hired him in 2007. He was fired in the midst of the 2009 season replaced by veteran Jim Riggleman.
Riggleman, unhappy with his contract status, quit abruptly in June 2011, and the Nationals turned to laid-back veteran Davey Johnson. The Nationals thrived under Johnson in 2012, winning their first division crown, but failed to make the playoffs the following year.
When the Nationals hired Williams before the 2014 season, officials were happy to point out that he ran a meticulously planned spring training as opposed to his predecessor. The Nationals won 96 games and a second division title in 2014 under Williams, who was named manager of the year for guiding the team through many injuries. That didn’t happen this season. - washingtonpost.com