Less than 24 hours after the conclusion of the 2015 season, the Washington Nationals dismissed Matt Williams and the remainder of his coaching staff. Although Williams guided the team to a winning record for the second season in a row, the team fell short of their lofty preseason expectations. Williams certainly wasn't the only problem with the 2015 Nats, but that doesn't absolve him of his role in how significantly the team underachieved.
Throughout the (past two) year(s), we've spent a lot of time analyzing and over-analyzing Williams' decision-making in this space. His ability as a tactical manager, particularly his handling of the bullpen, has been the main problem that we've discussed. His decision not to go to either of his two best relievers in close games during the crucial series in Citi Field to begin August magnified the problem and began a three week collapse that the Nats were unable to recover from. From that moment forward, Williams has come under fire more frequently in the mainstream and national media.
Once the mainstream and national media started putting Williams under the microscope, the rumors started. CBS' Jon Heyman started the speculation nationally in August with a story about how some Nats players had problems with Matt Williams. One (unnamed) player reportedly told Heyman that Williams was not loose and never relaxed. Another supposedly talked about how several players in the clubhouse questioned his bullpen choices going back to the 2014 NLDS.
At the time, all of that could still have been shrugged off as baseless speculation. Heyman isn't in the Nats clubhouse every day (if ever). Players (people!) sometimes blow off steam and don't really think fully about how things will be interpreted later in the heat of the moment. It's entirely possible that someone made an off-hand remark in the locker room and Heyman heard it from a source. Still, for a manager who had shown continual struggles with the tactical part of the game in his first two years, the last thing that Matt Williams needed was speculation that he was struggling in the area that was supposed to be his strength as a manager as well.
The final two months did little to really change the growing perception that Williams had lost the locker room. It all came to a head in the Nats' penultimate home game of the season when closer Jonathan Papelbon attacked Bryce Harper in the dugout after Papelbon determined that the NL MVP didn't run to first base hard enough on a pop fly to left field. Matt Williams was not involved in this confrontation. However, his lack of awareness to what was going on less than 100 feet to his right in his own dugout was just one more unforgiving nail in his coffin.
Williams not only allowed Papelbon to return to the mound to start the ninth inning in that game, but pretty much flaunted his ignorance of what had happened in a dugout that Williams was supposed to command in the postgame. For the manager of the clubhouse not to have any idea that the assault had taken place on the other side of the dugout was nearly as embarrassing as the fact that their big deadline acquisition, a newcomer to the clubhouse, took it upon himself to attack the team's (and league's) best player for no logical reason.
If Williams hadn't been considered a dead man walking in the dugout prior to last Sunday, he cemented his fate with how he handled the Papelbon-Harper assault.
Though the Nationals went 4-3 in the final week of the season, Williams treated us with a sort of greatest hits compilation in his final few games:
The Nats lost a 2-1 game in Atlanta earlier this week when Ian Desmond bunted into a double play attempting to sacrifice with two on and nobody out in the ninth inning. Not only was the decision to give away an out there ridiculous, but it resulted in two outs and pretty much ended the game. To make the decision even odder, though, Williams specifically said earlier that day that with the Nats eliminated from playoff contention, he was still going to start Desmond regularly. Williams said he was doing that so that Desmond could pursue a personal milestone and hit twenty homers for the fourth straight season. Yet there Desmond was, in a meaningless game, chasing his twentieth homer by bunting!
Williams' tenure as the Nats' manager probably couldn't have ended more perfectly than it did on Sunday, though. All season long, we've hammered Williams for his rigidity with his bullpen and his insistence on trying to fit square pegs into round holes by forcing them into roles instead of playing matchups more consistently. Perhaps the reliever that Williams was most infuriating with was Blake Treinen, who has massive platoon splits going back through his entire minor league career. Without looking, I can say that I've written about Williams and his insistence to allow Treinen to face lefties in big spots at least seven or eight times this season. So, of course: The Nationals season ended with a one run loss in which Blake Treinen allowed a game-winning home run to (lefty) Curtis Granderson.
During his two-year tenure as the manager of the Washington Nationals, Matt Williams made his fair share of mistakes. Any manager that the Nats had hired two years ago would have made their fair share of mistakes, whether they'd hired a veteran with a pedigree or an inexperienced manager like Williams. The biggest problem with Williams tactically is that he didn't show much of an ability to learn from those mistakes. In fact, he often seemed so set on doing things his way that it didn't really appear that he wanted to learn from those mistakes. He was inflexible and showed no willingness to adapt to game situations.
Those are traits that can be frustrating to a fanbase, but they're things that a general manager may simply try to work with a manager on provided that the manager has/commands the respect of the players. Over the past two months, there's too much speculation that Williams neither has the respect of the locker room nor commands it. At the end of the day, the Nats didn't really have a choice. He had to go.