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.