In a development as shocking as the sun rising in the east, the Nationals have fired manager Matt Williams just one day after the end of a season in which the Nationals went from World Series favorites to dysfunctional laughing stock in part due to his mismanagement. Williams's entire coaching staff was also let go.
Hired to replace the retiring Davey Johnson after the Nationals’ similarly disappointing but far less embarrassing 2013 season, Williams, a former five-time All-Star, joined Washington after several seasons as a coach with the Diamondbacks. However, his managerial experience was limited to a single season in the Arizona Fall League and five weeks as a replacement skipper in Double A in 2007. In his first year on the job, the Nationals, once again favored in their division, won a league-high 96 games despite injuries to several key players, making Williams a surprising winner of the Manager of the Year award.
Williams’s win wasn’t just surprising because of his lack of experience coming into the job, but also because there was a widespread sense that he was not a very good tactical manager, and there were questions about his interpersonal skills, as well. On the latter front, Williams made the controversial decision in his very first month on the job to pull then-21-year-old slugger Bryce Harper from a game because he failed to run out a ground ball, despite the fact that Harper had been nursing a tight quadriceps muscle in the days leading up to that game.
Though the voting for year-end awards happens before the postseason begins, Williams provided plentiful examples for critics of his in-game decision making by mismanaging his bullpen in the Nationals’ Division Series loss to the Giants. Most significantly, Williams pulled Jordan Zimmermann one out shy of completing a 1–0 shutout after a walk despite the fact that he was only at 100 pitches and had retired 20 straight batters before the base on balls. Closer Drew Storen, who had blown Game 5 of the 2011 Division Series in his previous postseason appearance, quickly allowed that walk to score; the Nationals ended up losing, 2–1, in a grueling, record-tying 18 innings. Then, facing elimination in Game 4, Williams let setup ace Tyler Clippard and Stephen Strasburg, who was available in relief, watch from the bullpen as pitchers further down the team’s depth chart blew a 2–1 lead in the seventh inning.
Williams’s team was hit even harder by injury this year than they were last year, but, more despite their manager than because of him, the Nationals still managed to reach the final day of July with a three-game lead for first place in the NL East on the Mets. The Nationals took that lead to Queens to face New York in a three-game that started mere hours after the non-waiver trading deadline, hoping to put some distance between themselves and their challengers. Instead, the series proved to be their Waterloo, and Williams’s fingerprints were all over a sweep at the hands of the Metropolitans.
Though Storen had rebounded from another poor postseason with four dominating months as the Nationals’ closer, general manager Mike Rizzo acquired Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon just before the deadline, giving Williams two dominant high-leverage relievers at the back of his bullpen. In the first game of the Mets series, Williams failed to use either one after his team tied the game in the eighth inning, and the Mets won via a 12th-inning walk-off home run. In the second game, the Nats got out to an early 2–0 lead, which Mets first baseman Lucas Duda cut in half with his seventh home run in his last six starts. Nursing a one-run lead in the seventh inning, Williams let rookie starter Joe Ross hit for himself despite the fact that Duda was due to lead off the bottom of the inning; Duda subsequently hit Ross’s first pitch for a game-tying home run. To cap it off, in the eighth, after a Curtis Granderson double off lefty reliever Matt Thornton, Williams ordered him to walk Yoenis Cespedes to get to Duda despite Duda's .298/.353/.543 line off lefties and two homers that game; Duda doubled to drive in the winning run.
By that point in the season, there had already been widespread calls for Williams’s dismissal. That series seemed like it would force the Nationals’ hand, but Williams remained and continued to make head-scratching decisions as the Nationals sank out of sight, suffering another three-game sweep at the hands of the Mets in early September in their home ballpark.
On the penultimate Sunday of the season, with the Nationals having been eliminated the day before and about to fall 9 1/2 games behind New York, Papelbon confronted Harper, the likely NL MVP, in the dugout over another incident in which the now-22-year-old didn’t show enough hustle, according to his cantankerous elders. The veteran closer initiated a shouting match, then escalated it by attempting to choke the team’s best player. Williams, who had long since appeared to turn to stone on the bench, somehow failed to pick up on exactly what was happening in the melee on the other side of the dugout and sent Papelbon, the active pitcher in the game, back out to pitch the next half-inning, then expressed surprise when told of the details of the fracas after the game.
Later that week, a devastating three-part exposé by The Washington Post’s Barry Svrluga detailed just how little control Williams had over his team and just how little respect he had engendered among his players. Most striking was an incident in late August in which Williams failed to give veteran leftfielder Jayson Werth advance notice that he would be rested in a Saturday afternoon game against the Brewers. Werth, according to Svrluga, ripped the lineup card off the wall and confronted Williams about, in Svrluga’s words, “what most of the clubhouse considered to be a chronic lack of communication with his players.”
“When exactly do you think you lost this team?” the furious Werth reportedly asked Williams.
With Williams and his staff purged, the question now becomes whether or not the fall-out from the Nationals' disastrous season settles on the front office, as well. Rizzo has done a fantastic job building the team into a perennial favorite, but his acquisition of Papelbon was an utter disaster in terms of its impact on the fragile Storen, who was pushed into a setup role and lost his effectiveness, and the clubhouse. Rizzo was also a strong supporter of Williams even after it was clear to everyone else that he was in over his head.
Rizzo will most likely remain, but with four key players hitting free agency this fall (Zimmermann, shortstop Ian Desmond, centerfielder Denard Span and righthander Doug Fister) and more entering their walk years in 2016 (including Strasburg and Storen), Rizzo will not only have to repair the damage done by this season (which could include finding a way to unload Papelbon), but he will also have to restock his coaching staff and repair his roster. It’s not all that unlikely that the team's ownership might want to entrust those tasks to someone else.