NLDS exposes Matt Williams’ limitations as a manager–what will we see in 2015?

In my 3am post-mortem of the 2014 NLDS, I neglected to mention to the Game 4 managerial malpractice of Matt Williams. I did this because I knew the rest of the baseball world would be analyzing and overanalyzing everything Williams did–and didn’t do–in the decisive loss of the series.

My restraint was rewarded because on FoxSports.com, Dave Cameron took a blow torch to the Nats manager in a piece that was both harsh and completely fair. I suggest you read every word.

Matt Williams mistakes last night were completely self-evident. He didn’t use his best available pitchers in the most important moments. In the seventh inning, he let Matt Thornton face a hitter (Posey) he shouldn’t have faced, and then turned to an inferior pitcher (Barrett) to end the crises he himself created. The game ended with the Nats three best available pitchers–Strasburg, Clippard, and Storen–still in the bullpen.

I don’t have too much more to say about Williams’ bullpen usage–or lack thereof–because these mistakes are so obvious. Again, read the Cameron piece for a full explanation.

I’m far more interested why Matt Williams keeps making these mistakes. One year into his tenure as manager, it seems Williams is the type of manager who prefers–almost without exception–putting his players in predictable situations. Oftentimes, it appears Matt Williams lacks creativity or the ability to think outside the box. I don’t believe that. Williams has the ability to think outside the box. He just chooses not to. He’s far more comfortable putting his players in predictable situations, while making the assumption that consistency will lead to success.

Unlike many MLB managers, Matt Williams was a star player. He didn’t bounce from level to level and team to team. He played 16 of his 17 MLB seasons with only two teams. Over half of his nearly 7600 MLB plate appearances were from the cleanup spot. Matt Williams was a player who didn’t see a lot of change in his career. There’s a good chance he believes a chunk of his success came from this consistency. Every day, same team, same place in the order. Stability led to success over time.

This is why he kept Denard Span in the leadoff spot through the first half of the season when he struggled to get on base, and it’s why he kept Adam LaRoche in the cleanup spot through his sporadic slumps throughout the season. And most relevant to last night’s debacle, it’s why he kept Tyler Clippard pitching almost exclusively in the 8th inning and Soriano and later Storen pitching exclusively in the 9th.

But as we saw, this approach has its drawbacks. While deferring to predictability, Williams kept an inferior pitcher on the mound last night when they needed their best available player to end what become the Giants series-clinching rally.

And his predictable approach kept Bryce Harper confined to the 6th spot in the batting order for almost the entire season. Williams long ago tabbed Adam LaRoche as the “cleanup hitter” and he never budged. His desire to avoid back-to-back lefties in the order gave Williams no other option than batting Harper 6th, even when it became obvious in the playoffs he was the Nationals best hitter.

If Williams had been willing to think outside the box, he may have moved Harper into the 4th spot in the order. Maybe then, one of Harpers 3 home runs would have come with a runner on base. And maybe last night he wouldn’t have batted with 2 outs in the 9th, and his walk could have sparked an actual rally.

Williams has the entire offseason to think about his mistakes, and maybe he’ll have a summit with team leadership (i.e. Rizzo) to discuss his managerial approach. Matt Williams has likely earned a second season as Nationals manager. Whether he’ll recognize his own faults is the outstanding question.

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5 thoughts on “NLDS exposes Matt Williams’ limitations as a manager–what will we see in 2015?”

  1. The Nats are never going to win a World Series with Matt Williams as manager. It’s ridiculous that the Nats have that much pitching & that much young talent and are leaving in the hands of an unproven leader.

    For all the bad bullpen moves, the fact he didn’t change the lineup at all was just as damning. How does Harper keep hitting 6th? How do you keep auto-outs Werth & LaRoche 3-4? How does Zimmerman stay on the bench?

    Williams was the Nats’ biggest liability going into the playoffs and it burned them. Unless he radically alters his style, nothing will change. And Rizzo saying, “We never second-guess here” doesn’t exactly make me feel confident.

  2. I get your frustration, but I wouldn’t go as far to say the Nats cannot win a World Series with Williams as manager. Williams clearly has faults, but players ultimately decide championships. If the Nats keep making the playoffs–and Williams has demonstrated he can lead a team to the playoffs–they’ll continue to have a chance.

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