With the halfway point reached and the All-Star Break fast approaching you’re suddenly going to see a lot of columns on mid-term grades and with this being Matt Williams first season as a manager let’s asses how he has done so far, or more importantly let’s discuss an issue I never planned on touching. That issue is what Bryce Harper said the other day upon his return. That Zimmerman should stay in left, Rendon should be at third, and Espinosa should remain at second. These comments weren’t too dissimilar from comments Ryan Zimmerman made a couple weeks ago on how he thought it best for the team that he stay in left, and that is what sparked me to write this. That and I read this column by Jonathan Bernhardt of Sports on Earth.
It contains an important phrase that sparked my interest and got my mind working and that was that Bryce Harper’s line-up is the best line-up for winning and Matt Williams’ is not. The best offensive line-up for the Nationals does include Span over Espinosa but the best defensive line-up for the Nationals would be much different. It would have Zim in left, Rendon at third, and unlike what Harper and Zimmerman want it would have Werth on the bench with Span in center and Harper in right. Neither the best offensive line-up nor the best defensive line-up is what is best for winning. A balance of the two should be reached in order to put the best team possible on the field and that is the exact line-up and defensive arrangement Bryce Harper purposed, but none of that is what sparked my interest.
The most difficult job a baseball manager has is managing egos, but he only has to do that job when he makes a move that is going to harm one of his veteran’s egos. Matt Williams has avoided doing that at all cost and he is lucky Ryan Zimmerman is such an amicable guy willing to do what is best for the team on his own. Jayson Werth before the season started said he was unwilling to lead-off and thus endth the conversation. Some players wanted Harper to be shown his place and so Matt Williams made an example of him and benched him in a game in which his spot in the line-up came back up with a chance to win the game. Matt Williams has yet to put himself in a situation where he has to manage egos and the only ego he is trampling on is that of a 21 year old kid the clubhouse believes hasn’t earned anything.
Think about that for a second. Think of the leaked quotes you’ve read in Boswell and Mike Wise columns. Think about how the perception of Bryce Harper has changed since Matt Williams took over as manager. Before the season started the most pressing need with Harper was to corral his injury, and to keep him healthy. Matt Williams did the opposite and created the drama and idea that Harper doesn’t hustle. All the evidence of Harper flying around the bases and running into walls went out the window with that one action and Matt Williams created an issue.
Before Matt Williams came to the Nationals Bryce Harper was seen as arrogant and pompous but he wasn’t thought of as spoiled. Matt Williams batted him sixth, he’s benched him, and sent the message that 21 year old baseball players are to be seen and not heard. Bryce Harper shouldn’t be batting sixth. His career .827 OPS is up there with Ryan Zimmerman’s .826 and Jayson Werth’s .830. In other words there is your top of the order, and if we go back to 2012 the Nationals offense was the best it has ever been with those three batting in the order of Werth, Harper, Zimmerman. If Matt Williams was concerned with winning and was able to manage egos that would not only be the Nationals outfield, but the top of the order as well.
The 2014 Washington Nationals are winning, but they aren’t doing it because of Matt Williams. By run differential the Washington Nationals should have a record of 47-36 instead of 45-38. Matt Williams’ team has underperformed their expected record by two games. That in and of itself isn’t big news, it could all be bad luck, but under Davey Johnson the 2013 Nationals and 2012 Nationals over-performed their expected record, and even a checked out Davey Johnson never batted Bryce Harper sixth in the batting order.
The perception of Bryce Harper has changed dramatically since Matt Williams took over. Davey Johnson treated Bryce Harper like the golden goose that was going to lead the Nationals to the promise land, and Matt Williams treats him like a 21 year-old kid that needs to shut his mouth until he earns the respect to open it. Under Davey Johnson there was very little drama concerning Bryce Harper, but with Matt Williams there have been columns after column saying Bryce Harper is the seventh best player on the Nationals and that until he wears a ring on his finger he isn’t good enough to carry the spit buckets.
I’m certain Matt Williams cares about winning. If the Nationals don’t win he loses his job, but he has yet to make any moves that will put the team in a better position to win and anger one of his veteran players. Perhaps all it is is that Matt Williams doesn’t think he has enough pull in the clubhouse to anger a veteran, but a good diplomat, a good leader would find the words to convince the veteran that the betterment of the team and the betterment of his teammates is going to help him in the long run just as much. i.e. Jayson Werth doesn’t want to lead-off, but if Jayson Werth leads off the Nationals have a far better shot at winning him a second World Series and if Werth can win a second World Series with a second team and Utley, Howard, and Rollins have won none without him then Werth can say he’s the reason the Phillies and the Nationals won the World Series, ego managed.
Managing in the big leagues is about balance. A big league manager has to do what is best for the team and at the same time hold together a clubhouse of 25 personalities. The first goal goes a long way towards accomplishing the second goal in that scenario, and Matt Williams has shown he’s learning. When Wilson Ramos failed to run out a grounder Williams didn’t bench him. He pulled him aside and had a chat with him, privately, as he should have done with Bryce Harper. But how much and how quickly will Matt Williams learn and will it be in time for the Nationals to make it to or even win a World Series with their current set of players?