Like any other rookie, Matt Williams is learning from his mistakes

It’s easy to forget that Matt Williams is a rookie. He has less experience in his current job than anyone else sitting in the Nationals dugout. Before being hired as Nationals manager this offseason, Williams never even had the benefit of managing a minor league team. He’s a baseball lifer, but Matt Williams has never had to lead a baseball clubhouse before.

Being a manager is a different animal than being a veteran player or third base coach. Anyone who’s ever held a leadership position knows that being in charge is almost always harder than it looks. In this case, it’s especially true coming to a new organization with a variety of outsized personalities.

Whether or not you agree with Matt Williams’s decision to bench Bryce Harper last Saturday (I didn’t), it’s far more compelling to argue that Matt Williams’s biggest mistake was choosing to publicly shame Harper in the press conference after the game. Publicly shaming your employees, no matter the context, is just bad leadership. This is a true whether you’re a teacher, CEO, police chief, or military commander. It is almost always more appropriate to discipline your subordinates in private. Perhaps Major League Baseball clubhouses are an exception to this rule, but it’s hard to see why that would be the case in this context.  If anything, public shaming is even more inappropriate here considering the media scrutiny that follows Bryce Harper’s every move. If this principle requires Matt Williams to occasionally lie to the media, so be it. Williams already had a built-in excuse for the Harper benching (his quad), but he chose not to use it.

One of the ironies of “HustleGate” is that a few days later, Bryce Harper committed an even greater offense than any perceived “lack of hustle” that led to his benching. In a game against the Angels last Wednesday, Harper jogged out of the box after hitting a ground ball to first baseman Albert Pujols. A few steps into his jog, Pujols booted the ground ball, giving Harper a chance to be safe. Only then did Bryce start sprinting to first.

Any logical way of looking at these two plays should lead you to conclude that Harper’s “lack of hustle” on the Pujols play was far more detrimental to the team’s chance of winning. Harper was benched for not touching first base after he was thrown out. Against the Angels, Harper started jogging to first before even knowing whether the ball was fielded cleanly.

Yet, Williams handled the situation differently. Here were Williams’s comments after the game:

“He’s safe at first base,” Williams said. “That’s all I care about. We’re not asking him to go 100 percent all the time, as fast as he can possibly go at every single moment. Because not everybody does. But what we expect is that to give us a chance. And he gave us a chance on that play. The ball was mishandled by Albert. He kicked it in gear and got to first base. That’s all I care about.”

Whether Matt Williams privately talked to Harper after the game, we’ll never know. We shouldn’t know. If a leader chooses to discipline his subordinate, that should remain between the two parties involved. That’s what good leaders do.

Whether Matt Williams will end up being a good leader, we don’t know. But we do know he’s already demonstrated another quality all good leaders possess: learning from your mistakes.

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Contract Recoup Tracker

Ten players on the Nats roster have already recouped their contracts based upon their April performance.  The biggest contract recouped is Stephen Strasburg, whose 1 WAR leads the Nats as a team.  Most of the other players are pre-arbitration, thus making near the league minimum.  Espinosa leads the team in player value.

Player Salary WAR Value % Recoup Game
Espinosa $540,850 0.6 $3,600,000 666%
Roark $506,100 0.5 $3,000,000 593%
Walters $500,000 0.2 $1,200,000 240%
Lobaton $950,000 0.3 $1,800,000 189%
Strasburg $3,975,000 1 $6,000,000 151%
Barrett $500,000 0.1 $600,000 120%
Treinen $500,000 0.1 $600,000 120%
Jordan $504,300 0.1 $600,000 119%
Moore $507,900 0.1 $600,000 118%
Rendon $2,700,000 0.5 $3,000,000 111%

Adam LaRoch is having a real good season and is on pace to recoup his contract by the All-Star break.  Werth, despite signing the largest most crippling contract known to mankind (not my actual feelings,) is on pace to recoup this year.  His contract value is actually a little inflated due to its back-loaded structure. Span and Desmond are both significantly under performing their arbitration established contracts.

Player Salary WAR Value % Recoup Game
Stammen $1,375,000 0.2 $1,200,000 87% 30
Blevins $1,675,000 0.2 $1,200,000 72% 36
LaRoche $12,000,000 0.7 $4,200,000 35% 74
Gonzalez $8,600,000 0.5 $3,000,000 35% 75
Storen $3,450,000 0.2 $1,200,000 35% 75
Zimmermann $7,500,000 0.3 $1,800,000 24% 108
Zimmerman $14,000,000 0.5 $3,000,000 21% 121
Werth $20,571,429 0.6 $3,600,000 17% 149
Soriano $14,000,000 0.3 $1,800,000 13% 202
McLouth $5,000,000 0.1 $600,000 12% 217
Span $6,500,000 0.1 $600,000 9% 282
Desmond $6,500,000 -0.1 -$600,000 -9%
Detwiler $3,000,000 -0.1 -$600,000 -20%
Clippard $5,875,000 -0.2 -$1,200,000 -20%
Harper $2,150,000 -0.2 -$1,200,000 -56%
Leon $501,000 -0.1 -$600,000 -120%
Frandsen $900,000 -0.2 -$1,200,000 -133%

The Gods of RBI Have Cursed Bryce Harper

Matt Williams started the season by batting Bryce Harper in the number 5 hole in the  attempt to get him more at bats with runners on base.  I thought this was a fantastic idea at the time because weirdness surrounds Bryce Harper and runners on base.  Last year despite playing most the year on a pretty good team, he was 168th in at bats with runners on base.  Guys who led that category had over 300 ABs while Harper had only 168 (yes the count and ranking are the same.)  There are lots of different reasons for this, hitting #2 or #3 in the order in front of a guy like Denard Span who had a low OBPs for a leadoff hitter might be a start.  Span batting lead off had 200 at bats with runners on base even through he hit after the pitcher and was guaranteed at least one at bat with the bases empty a game.

I bring this up, because on Thursday, the Nats left 30 runners on base in the game against the Padres.  In 6 at bats, in an extra inning game Harper never came up with anyone on base;  it is almost as if the gods of RBI have put a curse on him.  If he was batting 2nd he would have had 6 runners on base like Rendon did, if he was batting 5th he would have had 4 runners like Desmond did.  Jose Lobaton batting 8th was able to strand 4 batters himself.  This year he is ranked 121 in baseball in at bats with runners on base.  If the Nats want to win and score more runs they need to get one of the best hitters in baseball at bats with runners on base.  Maybe move Harper up in the order behind guys who get on base, or cut off the head of chicken…just brainstorming here.

Surprise, The Nats Best Hitter This Year Is the Player We Can’t Wait To Replace: wRC+

Surprise, the Nationals best hitter this year is the one player just about everyone can’t wait to replace, Adam LaRoche.  He is in part benefiting from Matt Williams smartly platooning him against quality left handed starters, but his is delivering early in the season.  His OBP this year is 50 points above everyone else on the team.

Last week was a pretty tough week for most of the lineup with the exception of ALR. Espinosa and Loabaton.  Span, Desmond, Werth Harper and Rendon all had a bad weeks results wise.  Werth and Rendon  had BABIPs in the 100s which means they were hitting the ball, just at people.

Just a reminder, we use wRC+ (weighted runs created) because it provides a better context for understanding a players offensive contribution.  wRC+ takes wOBA and puts it on a scale with 100 being league average and 157 being 57% above league average

Name wOBA Last Week Season
Adam LaRoche 0.400 147 157
Anthony Rendon 0.369 69 136
Jayson Werth 0.359 52 129
Danny Espinosa 0.359 126 129
Bryce Harper 0.311 -19 96
Jose Lobaton 0.307 153 93
Ian Desmond 0.272 37 69
Denard Span 0.269 37 67
Sandy Leon 0.241 108 48
Nate McLouth 0.202 -23 20

The Nationals Week in WAR: Danny on the Move

Danny Espinosa, with regular playing time was the biggest mover gaining WAR this week: he gained in batting, base running and fielding.  Also, both catchers are now playing at replacement level.  Anthony Rendon continues his solid season gaining value with his bat.  Interestingly, Ryan Zimmerman picked up a .1 by the 3B defensive field coming back to him.

Biggest dropper this week was Jayson Werth, who lost considerable value through poor defense.

Name 14-Apr 21-Mar Last Week
Danny Espinosa 0 0.4 0.4
Sandy Leon -0.2 0 0.2
Jose Lobaton -0.1 0 0.1
Anthony Rendon 0.6 0.7 0.1
Ryan Zimmerman 0.4 0.5 0.1
Bryce Harper 0 0 0
Adam LaRoche 0.4 0.4 0
Denard Span 0.1 0.1 0
Nate McLouth 0 -0.1 -0.1
Ian Desmond 0 -0.1 -0.1
Kevin Frandsen 0 -0.2 -0.2
Jayson Werth 0.5 0.2 -0.3

Bryce Harper’s benching had nothing to do with “Hustle”–it was all about the Unwritten “Rules” of Baseball

I really didn’t want to write about this again. To be honest, I’m a little exhausted thinking, talking, and writing about Matt Williams’ reckless decision to bench Bryce Harper on Saturday for “lack of hustle.”

But just when I was ready to move on, I finally figured it out. Bryce Harper’s benching wasn’t about hustle. It was about the unwritten “rules” of baseball, and how the Nationals have a manager hell bent on enforcing them.

One of the more frustrating things about baseball lately is the fact that a few players in the league seem bizarrely dedicated to enforcing an unwritten “code” of baseball behavior that neither increases the competitiveness nor the enjoyment of the sport. For example, remember Brian McCann last season standing in front of home plate blocking Jose Fernandez after he celebrated “a little too much” after hitting a home run against the Braves? Forget about the fact that Fernandez is the one of the most exciting players of his generation, and his home run was a genuinely exciting moment.  In spite of that, Gosh Darnit, baseball players don’t celebrate home runs, and Brian McCann is here is enforce that. (Of the many contradictions in baseball’s unwritten code, pitchers routinely celebrate after getting a big strikeout—think Jose Valverde on Opening Day).

I was wrong about Matt Williams. He didn’t want Harper to hustle; he wanted Harper to “run through the base.” He didn’t care if Harper sprinted; baseball players rarely sprint their hardest on comebackers to the pitcher. Williams wanted Harper to jog the full 90 feet, because Gosh Darnit, those are the Unwritten Rules of Baseball, and it’s just what baseball players do.

Ignore the fact Bryce Harper was out by 45 feet and there was no logical reason for him to run all the way to first base. Williams expected him to do it anyway, not because it would help the team win, but because Matt Williams thinks that’s the way baseball is “supposed” to be played. Please also forget about the fact that Bryce Harper is the type of player who—if there was even a .001% chance of him being safe—would have torn every muscle in legs sprinting to first base.

On Sunday morning, I was watching a replay of the Nationals’ Friday night win against the Cardinals. At some point in the game–I believe the 6th inning—Ian Desmond hit into a double play with Adam LaRoche on first base. I couldn’t help but notice that LaRoche–who was out by a good 30 feet–never fully ran to second base. Instead, he smartly got out of the way of the throw from the shortstop to the first baseman, like runners usually do in that situation. Yet LaRoche wasn’t benched. Williams didn’t call him out in the press conference and media members didn’t write sanctimonious hot takes about LaRoche’s “lack of hustle.”  Any conceivable argument for Harper running through first base, you can make for LaRoche running through second—preserving the ability to win on replay, showing “hustle”, etc. Yet LaRoche isn’t expected to run the “full 90 feet” between first and second like he’s expected to run between home and first. In both the cases of LaRoche on Friday and Harper on Saturday, it was illogical to “finish” the play after the runner is clearly out. But the Unwritten Rules of Baseball aren’t about logic. Matt Williams doesn’t care if they’re logical. He only cares that you follow them, or you get benched, especially if you’re the youngest player on the team.

As I’ve previously written, a manager’s job to maximize his team’s chance of scoring runs and winning baseball games. At the moment, however, it appears Matt Williams’ priorities are elsewhere—enforcing an unwritten baseball code that in no way helps the Nationals score runs and secure wins.

You can approve of Matt Williams’ decision this weekend, but be aware it won’t help this team win any baseball games this season, and future decisions of a similar nature may actually accomplish the complete opposite.

A simple suggestion for speeding up Major League Baseball games

Baseball games are getting longer and longer.  Baseball games have increased in length an average of .7 minutes per year since 2002. And lately, the problem has gotten worse. The average baseball game took 2 hours and 56 minutes in 2011. In 2012, it was 3 hours flat. In 2013, it was 3 hours and 4 minutes. With replay, baseball games are even longer this year.

There are plenty of ideas to speed up baseball games, some common sense, some crazy. Here’s a simple idea we can all get behind.

On Sunday night, the Boston Red Sox made 3 pitching changes in 2 innings in the middle of the inning. Each of these pitching changes stopped the game in its tracks while ESPN went to commercial. One Red Sox pitcher threw one pitch. Commercial break. One pitch. Another commercial break.

Here’s a simple idea: when a manager makes a pitching change in the middle of an inning, the reliever gets zero warm up pitches. Why does a reliever need warm up pitches? He’s coming in from the bullpen where he should already be warmed up.

It’s possible some relievers want a warm up pitch or two to adjust to the mound or the catcher. If that’s the case, that reliever should start the inning, where he gets his full allotment of warm up pitches. If a manager makes a mid-inning pitching change, sorry, his pitcher needs to come into the game ready to go.

This would easily shave 5 minutes off the average baseball game and get the trend of longer and longer baseball games headed back in the right direction.