I remember the first time I considered the possibility Matt Williams would be manager of the Washington Nationals. It was on a Sunday in August 2013, and the Nats were plodding their way through a mediocre summer. The team just gave away another winnable game, this time to the Kansas City Royals. The Nats didn’t just lose that day, they lost in the worst way imaginable: laziness. In the bottom of the eighth inning, the team allowed two baserunners, one when Adam LaRoche didn’t hustle to first base and one when Ryan Zimmerman failed to cover third base (I blogged about it at the time). The inning was symptomatic of the 2013 Nationals: unfocused and undisciplined play along with poor fundamentals. All season, the team appeared to have adopted the laid back “of course we’ll win the pennant” attitude of its manager, Davey Johnson. There were, of course, deeper problems with the 2013 Nats, but on that day, my frustration boiled over and I immediately dreamed of a new manager capable of giving this veteran team a swift kick in the ass.
About an hour later, almost as if by fate, I was watching an Arizona Diamondbacks game on MLB.TV as an Arizona player failed to properly execute a hit and run. The camera immediately cut to the third base coach—Matt Williams—and the scowl on his face. His anger was visible. If facial expressions could speak, the look on Williams’ face would have said “I can’t wait to get back to the dugout and light you up. On this team we execute fundamentals, son.”
One thought popped into my head. That’s exactly what this team needs.
Mike Rizzo must have been thinking the same thing that summer. During Matt Williams’ otherwise uneventful firing this month, Rizzo made a startling admission: he never considered anyone but Williams for the Nats manager position. The manager “search” that offseason was a sham. Williams was the first and only choice. It’s likely Rizzo watched the 2013 season with the same frustration I did. For 2014, Rizzo wanted the opposite of Davey Johnson. He wanted a guy who’d write detailed minute-by-minute schedules for spring training. He wanted a guy who’d demand adherence to fundamentals, and then have the courage to bench players who couldn’t comply. Davey was a laid back hipster. Rizzo wanted a “Marine”.
You see, that’s the way the world works. Everything is an overreaction to the event right before it. It’s not just baseball. In football, a “players coach” is almost always followed by a strong disciplinarian, and then the cycle reverses itself. A Jim Zorn is almost always followed by a Mike Shanahan. A Steve Spurrier is almost always followed a Marty Schottenheimer. It even happens in politics. It’s not a coincidence our nation elected Barack Obama and his cool, icy demeanor after eight years of George W. Bush and tough-talking Texas swagger. This is human nature. When people get tired of the Miami humidity, instead of looking for a temperate climate, they move to Alaska.
I don’t know Bud Black. I only know what I’ve read about him. It sounds like he was a competent manager in San Diego. He certainly has experience running a Major League clubhouse. But that’s the point isn’t it? After two years of Matt Williams and his bumbling amateurism, Mike Rizzo wouldn’t consider anyone else. His two finalists, Black and Dusty Baker, were not coincidentally two guys with the most managerial experience available.
So I don’t have a problem with the Bud Black hire. He might be the right guy. But it looks like Mike Rizzo may have doubled down on his previous mistake. Instead of conducting a full search, he zeroed in after developing a narrow set of criteria.
Overall, Rizzo has done a good job as General Manager. He’s demonstrated an ability to draft well and make smart trades. Other qualities, notably the ability to build a complete roster and improve the team in-season, have been lacking. Another troublesome area for Rizzo has been picking the right on-field leader for his ball club. He whiffed big on his last managerial hire. Now, he’s gambling on Bud Black. For the sake of his own job, he better hope Alaska is the perfect temperature.