The regular baseball season ended yesterday, which means the end of the line for the disappointing 2015 Washington Nationals. The bookmakers pre-season favorites to make the World Series limped home in second place in their division, 7 games behind the New York Mets, with a record of 83-79. Today they fired manager Matt Williams.
Washington fans are debating whether the Nats’ season represents the biggest disappointment by a Washington team in memory. I say it does. The hockey team has often been disappointing in the playoffs. But anything can happen in the playoffs, and at least the Caps have made the playoffs when expected to.
The 2000 Redskins were very disappointing if one believed that the acquisition of past their prime (time) Deion Sanders and Bruce Smith made them a Super Bowl contender. I didn’t, but I did buy into the 2015 Nats.
So what went wrong?
We can start with the usual suspect — injuries. The team began the season without the services of the three batters at the top of their projected lineup: Denard Span, Anthony Rendon, and Jayson Werth. Not long after that, they lost their talisman Ryan Zimmerman (projected to bat fifth) for an extended period. That’s half of the lineup. None of the four managed to play 100 games this year. Span played only 61.
Ace starting pitcher Steven Strasburg missed 10 starts and must have been ailing in many more. His ERA was above 5.00 when the team finally shut him down in early July. After returning in August, he was so good that he ended the season with a 3.46 ERA.
These are only the most significant injuries.
But the team was relatively healthy when it headed into the back stretch of the season tied with the Mets. Thus, injuries can only carry the analysis so far.
A second key factor was (ex)manager Williams. Commenting about Yogi Berra’s managerial career, I wrote “isn’t it amazing how well ‘bad’ managers perform when they have a reliable closer?” Matt Williams had a reliable closer throughout this season yet managed poorly. That’s because he was a bad manager, not a “bad” manager.
For most of the season, Williams rigidly followed the unwritten rules for using relief pitchers (use closers only in “save” situations, never in a tie game; have them pitch only one inning, the ninth; always let them start that inning; etc.). As I have often complained, these “rules” seem designed to prevent managers from thinking, to protect them from being second-guessed, and to enable closers to amass impressive numbers of saves and thus help their bargaining position at contract time.
They shouldn’t dictate decisions in important games. For example, slavish adherence to the unwritten rules should be eschewed when you’re playing the team you’re tied for first place with in a three-game series in August, as the Nats did this year.
The Nats dropped all three games, two of them by just one run. Neither of Williams’ relief aces (Drew Storen and Jonathan Papelbon) appeared in any of the games. Why? Because the formula was never right for them to be called on.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of Williams’ poor decisions. But he’s gone now, so let’s move on to. . .
Ian Desmond, who next to Bryce Harper was the most heralded Nats regular that played regularly. Desmond reportedly turned down a seven-year $107 million contract extension. He thus entered the season knowing he would not be back next year.
That’s okay. Players do this all the time. But under the pressure of playing for his next contract, Desmond proved unable to perform at his usual high level. In fact, we were well into the season before he could be counted on to make a routine defensive play.
Desmond’s struggles at the plate lasted even longer. After the Mets swept the Nats in early August, Desmond’s batting average stood at just .216. He would raise it to .233 by the end of the season. But with so many regulars hurt early in the year, the Nats needed consistent production from Desmond, a clubhouse leader. They didn’t get it.
Then, there’s Drew Storen. Brilliant in the closer role, he was demoted to eighth inning man when the Nats acquired Papelbon. He was fine in this role for a few games, but then collapsed.
On August 6, his ERA was 1.52. By the end of the month, it was 3.24 and by season’s end 3.44. Moreover, Storen blew several big leads in important games.
Many blame management for moving him up one inning. Is there a causal relationship? I don’t know, but Storen also pitched poorly after losing the closer role in 2013, so maybe there is.
It’s difficult for me to understand, or sympathize with, a pitcher who goes into a tailspin because he’s assigned to pitch a different inning. And it’s difficult to be confident that such a pitcher won’t let you down as a closer when it really matters (as Storen has done in the playoffs).
The old school would have it that pitching one inning is pitching one inning, regardless of the inning’s number. I’m with the old school on this one.
Speaking of the old school brings us to the Jonathan Papelbon-Bryce Harper dust-up. This incident, in which, after an argument, Harper challenged Papelbon to a fight and the latter commenced trying to choke the team’s superstar, occurred after the Nats were out of the pennant race. It’s worth considering nonetheless.
The fight must be understood in the context of an incident that occurred a few days earlier. Papelbon threw two pitches at Orioles star Manny Machado, who had a key home run off of Max Scherzer and spent some time admiring it. After the game, Harper complained, “I’ll get drilled [in retaliation] tomorrow.”
I’m not old school enough to defend throwing at Machado. But Harper’s comment reinforced the suspicion that for Harper, it’s always about Harper.
If Papelbon’s pitch had led to a fight with the Orioles, he would have had the right to expect his teammates to defend him. The least he could expect from Harper was not to be thrown under the bus before the media.
Keep in mind too that Papelbon was probably acquired not just because of his ability as a reliever, but also to add some attitude to the team. He’s known to be a S.O.B., and unlike the Nats, he has a history of post-season success and a World Series ring.
Papelbon almost certainly had Harper’s comment in mind when, a few days later, he yelled at the young superstar for not “running out” a pop-up. The criticism was silly — Harper ran it out to first base. Yes, he stopped there, but few players would have headed to second on an obvious out in the context of this game.
Harper tried to brush off the criticism at first, but when Papelbon persisted, Harper reportedly said “let’s f___ing go” and the brief fight was on. (Manager Williams, by the way, didn’t know it had taken place even though two of his coaches helped break it up).
Papelbon later took the blame, as he should have. In his comments, though, he made several references to “brothers” and added, “next year when we are in the thick of it and we’re grinding together and big games mean something, we’ll pick each other up.” I take this mean that Harper did not behave like a “brother” or pick Papelbon up after the Machado incident.
Papelbon may not be around next year to be Harper’s brother. Harper had a monster year, and it’s not wise to fight with face of the franchise. Let’s hope, though, that the face of the franchise adopts a less self-centered attitude going forward.
Speaking of attitude, that of the local fans and media puzzles me. They continued to treat Desmond like a hero even as he was about to walk out on the team and was helping to sink its pennant prospects in the process. One writer even criticized management for not holding some sort of ceremony for the shortstop.
As I said, there’s nothing reprehensible about Desmond selling his services to the highest bidder. But he doesn’t deserve a parade.
The fans’ reaction to the Harper-Papelbon fight seemed over the top. The Washington Post collected some of the reaction:
“We don’t need a player like that on the team,” Patty MacEwan of Alexandria said, sitting in front of a sign asking the team to designate Papelbon for assignment. “That was assault; I don’t care what anyone else says.”
Another, Angela Halsted of Arlington, said she had trouble sleeping Sunday night because of the incident.
“I thought what he did was completely out of line, totally toxic, and the whole boys-will-be-boys response to it was really disturbing to me,” she said. “I don’t want someone like Papelbon on that team.”
After a third fan pledged to donate $100 to a charity of the team’s choice if Papelbon was jettisoned, fellow travelers promised thousands of dollars of additional donations. . . .
Jocelyn Dorfman had never before jeered a player on her favorite team; she said she would have reconsidered her fandom had Papelbon been in uniform Monday.
“I think he’s just horrible, and I think he will have a despicable impact on this team,” she said, while pledging an entire paycheck to charity if Papelbon is removed from the roster. “I still am not able to process what happened. I have two master’s degrees in psychology, and I can’t process that behavior.”
Hide the women and children, the Nats have a mean hombre on their team. Avert your eyes, professional athletes have had a scrap.
Only in Washington, D.C. (I hope). Maybe we’re getting the baseball team we deserve.
UPDATE: Lee Smith, a brilliant analyst of the Middle East, argued in the Weekly Standard that Nats fans should blame general manager Mike Rizzo, not Matt Williams. It seems to me, however, that his article mostly highlights Williams’ deficiencies.
Smith makes the excellent point that situational hitting was mostly a foreign concept to the Nats. That’s on field management, it seems to me.
The Washington Post recounted how, when mired in a slump, Ian Desmond asked his coach (and friend) Randy Knorr for a tip. Knorr told him to stop swinging from the heels all the time.
The advice, which I think applied to most of the team’s hitters, helped Desmond. But why did Desmond have to ask for it? This too is on field management.
It’s true that Rizzo assembled the team. But the talent he assembled is formidable.
It’s also true that Rizzo has had good luck (Strasburg and Harper were available in back-to-back seasons when the Nats had the first draft pick) and that he has made some mistakes (most notably hiring Williams).
But I’m hard pressed to see as Rizzo as a major culprit given the team’s record before he arrived and its record in the past four years, during which the Nats have won two division titles and had seasons of 98 and 96 wins.