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Familiarity key to Williams’ hire

Oct 25, 2013, 5:07 PM EDT

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Major-league general managers only get so many opportunities to hire a new manager, even fewer opportunities to conduct a managerial search with a completely clean slate.

So when presented with such a scenario, Mike Rizzo did what almost any GM would have done: He went with the guy he’s always believed would make a great manager. Even though that guy is short on experience and has no connection to the Nationals aside from his longstanding relationship with Rizzo.

Matt Williams was going to be hired to manage a big-league club one of these days. Rizzo wanted to make sure it was his.

This isn’t, technically speaking, Rizzo’s first managerial hire. He already went through this process twice before with the Nationals, both in 2009 and 2011. But those circumstances bore little-to-no resemblance to this one.

In each of those previous cases, the Nationals faced an in-season managerial change, followed by an interim replacement who earned the right to return the following year in a permanent capacity: Jim Riggleman in 2009, Davey Johnson in 2011.

This time, Rizzo had the freedom to go in any direction he liked, in the wake of Johnson’s long-planned departure. There were three distinct paths he could take:

1. Promote from within, elevating either Randy Knorr or Trent Jewett from the current coaching staff to the top position, touting the allure of continuity and preference from within the clubhouse.

2. Find an experienced, well-known outsider to take over a team that won a division title in 2012, stumbled in 2013 but will be expected to contend for a World Series title for the next several years.

3. Find baseball’s next up-and-comer, someone who would be sought by other organizations but would jump at this opportunity before anyone else could snatch him up.

Option No. 1 was appealing. Knorr had as strong a case as anyone for the job, and he had overwhelming support from Nationals players and even Johnson himself. But Rizzo made it clear at season’s end he wouldn’t be basing this decision on the preference of his employees.

“I don’t think that’s a place for the players to dabble in,” he said during the season’s final weekend. “It’s an organizational decision, and it’s got to be an organizational fit.”

Perhaps the promotion of Knorr to manager also would have been tantamount to an endorsement from Rizzo that the just-completed season was acceptable in the big picture, as opposed to the disappointment it most certainly was. One of the Nationals’ problems this year was the lack of urgency expressed within the clubhouse when things weren’t going well through the season’s first half. Perhaps a hiring-from-within would have continued that theme.

Option No. 2 never really came into play. There simply weren’t any logical, experienced candidates in the mix. Not with Don Mattingly staying in Los Angeles. Not with Joe Girardi staying in New York. (And, no, Cal Ripken Jr. was never a serious candidate for the job, despite the not-so-subtle hints the Iron Man dropped along the way.)

Option No. 3 thus stood out as the most appealing choice, especially when considering Williams’ longstanding ties to Rizzo.

This is a name who had been linked to the job for months, an obvious Rizzo confidant who seemed likely to be among the leading candidates all along. Williams is well-respected throughout baseball circles, he’s known for being fiercely loyal to his players while also willing to call a guy out if needed. And he clearly has the kind of relationship you’d want from a manager and his GM.

Is the lack of experience a concern? Sure. But as stated above, there really weren’t any strong candidates with big-league managing experience, so it would’ve been a concern no matter who was hired.

Besides, this is the recent trend across baseball. Look at some of the most recent managerial hires in the sport: Jon Farrell, Mike Matheny, Mike Redmond, Bryan Price, Bo Porter, Robin Ventura. All relatively young guys with little previous experience.

What’s the most important relationship in baseball right now? You could certainly argue it’s between GM and manager. Those two must be in sync, sending the same message throughout the organization.

There’s no doubting the relationship between Rizzo and Williams. These two were made for each other.

It almost seemed a matter of when, not if, they’d ever work together again.

  1. Joe Seamhead - Oct 25, 2013 at 6:04 PM

    Thanks Mark Z for another insightful piece.

    A couple of musings regarding the reported decision to hire Matt Williams:

    First concerns Randy Knorr. The day that he filled in the late innings for Davey Johnson and he not just pulled Soriano, but publicly blasted him, was the day he shot himself in the foot with Mike Rizzo. I know many on here loved it when Knorr did it, but first, he was just filling in for a couple of innings. It was arrogant on his part to deviate from the plan that was used all season. Soriano is Rizzo’s closer. When Knorr pulled him, and then made his smart assed comments about throwing strikes, he not only kicked Soriano, but he also in effect publicly kicked Rizzo. It was a dumb move, even if it did work. Secondly, it was not very classy to dress down Bryce Harper, either. If I’m running a business and one of my assistant managers conducted their self in that fashion he/she would not have helped themselves towards getting the next promotion.

    On Williams: How does he deal with pitchers? Will he retain McCatty? Personally, I think the National’s pitchers inability to hold baserunners is more on McCatty than anybody else. Also, word is Matt wants to bring in the Diamondbacks assistant hitting coach.

    I also wonder how Matt Williams got along with Justin Upton? I’ve seen J Upton as being a major primadonna, and don’t get the impression that Williams would be tolerant of that personality.

    On Davey Johnson: We were lucky to have had him, warts and all.

    • NatsLady - Oct 25, 2013 at 9:20 PM

      I have to agree on Knorr/Soriano. That way lies disgruntlement in the bullpen, and there was already enough of that. Now, if this year it’s decided that Soriano should be in a set up role at some point, fine, but you don’t do that on the fly. Knorr took a lot on himself, when a more modest approach, “I’m just the sub here,” seems appropriate.

      Now, on the holding of baserunners: in spite of what Rizzo said, I think there was a semi-deliberate policy to focus the pitchers’ attention on the man at the plate rather than the man on base. Some great pitchers had that policy.

      You can see that Roark, who had a LOT of time in the minors, was very good at holding runners, but Stras, who had very little time in the minors, isn’t. Six weeks in spring training is probably not enough time to develop that skill, unless time is taken from other skills, such as PFP and pitching mechanics.

      This year the MLB average for starters CS was about 31%. The Nats had the lowest percent (17.4%). HOWEVER, they were about average in the actual number of stolen bases (95). The team with the fewest stolen bases was the Cardinals with 39. That may be their pitchers–but it may also be their catcher…

      The team with the MOST stolen bases? The Boston Red Sox with 133 (24% CS). (Just talking starters here). So a team with a below average ability to hold runners and the most stolen bases against their starters made it to the World Series.

      Honestly, I do want the pitchers to hold runners, but it’s not my highest priority.

      • NatsLady - Oct 25, 2013 at 9:25 PM

        Sorry, I misspoke, my stats were for all pitchers, not just starters. I got tangled in my spreadsheets.

    • wheretheyaint - Oct 26, 2013 at 12:24 AM

      Glad to hear that others were uneasy with Knorr’s Al Haig moments with Soriano and Harper. Made me uneasy, but what I mostly heard around Section 208 was admiration/approval. I agree he probably talked himself out of the manager’s job with those two comments… assuming he was ever really in the running.

      Agree re: Davey and his warts – he’s always had them, but it’s always been a good ride with him.

      Given his manner (and also his size), Williams looks like he might wind up resembling another Mets manager – Gil Hodges.

      • nationalsprospectsdotcom - Oct 26, 2013 at 10:03 AM

        assuming he was ever really in the running.

        This is the more logical inference, as opposed to the illogical/emotional retrofitting of a single incident to match the narrative. Rizzo has shown a distinct pattern of favoring the guys that he signed, drafted, or was previously associated with.

  2. NatsLady - Oct 25, 2013 at 8:47 PM

    If you get a chance, listen to this podcast, especially the first part concerning the Red Sox and how their front office deliberately set out to change the culture. A lot doesn’t particularly apply to the Nats, but some surely does, and it’s fascinating. The baserunning section is unbelievable.

    The second part of the podcast is about the Cards, not as interesting or novel, IMO.

    http://espn.go.com/espnradio/grantland/player?id=9863131

    Alex Speier and Matthew Leach
    October 22, 2013
    Jonah Keri talks to Alex Speier of WEEI.com about the Red Sox, team chemistry, and the value of baserunning, and to Matthew Leach of MLB.com about the Cardinal Way.

  3. NatsLady - Oct 25, 2013 at 11:36 PM

    Found this info on a D-Backs site.

    Should [Williams] depart, it would give the Diamondbacks four openings on manager Kirk Gibson’s staff, which is already without a hitting coach, pitching coach and first base coach.

    And Gibson this week acknowledged the possibility that, if he got the job, Williams might want to take another coach with him to be a part of his staff in Washington. The most likely candidates would appear to be assistant hitting coach Turner Ward and bullpen coach Glenn Sherlock.

    http://www.azcentral.com/sports/diamondbacks/articles/20131025matt-williams-expected-to-be-named-manager-of-washington-nationals.html?nclick_check=1

    • Joe Seamhead - Oct 26, 2013 at 9:26 AM

      I like Coach Lett! I don’t really know exactly what he does out there, but he’s a neat character to watch.

  4. David Proctor - Oct 26, 2013 at 12:19 AM

    Also, the Rockies beat reporter Troy Renck posted this on twitter:

    Matt Williams’ reported hiring to manage the Nationals did not exactly create a lot of buzz here at Series, but I .
    know that the was close to getting the Rockies job last fall. Walt Weiss won out, in part, because of the unusual circumstances of the position. He accepted a one-year deal, and was comfortable having a front-office presence in the clubhouse. It’s unknown if Williams would have accepted the job if offered. But he was so impressive in his interview that the Rockies paused before naming Weiss. The job came down to Weiss and Williams, with Giambi the third candidate. Williams has been pushed by the Dbacks for openings. He has a commanding presence, and learned his craft in the Arizona Fall League. He will have to deal with the initial backlash of being the first player with PED ties to manage. Williams has a strong personality. I am fascinated by this choice. It feels like there’s no gray area here. He will either be an inspired hire or too green to be in charge of a team capable of challenging for the World Series crown

  5. Another_Sam - Oct 26, 2013 at 8:00 AM

    Seamhead, I agree with your thought. As we all know all too well, the boss is the boss.

  6. Joe Seamhead - Oct 26, 2013 at 9:00 AM

    Well, I haven’t seen it mentioned anywhere, but the really important response, of course, will be what Jayson Werth has to say about it!
    AH HOOOOO!

    • NatsLady - Oct 26, 2013 at 9:08 AM

      So far, I’ve only seen comments by Denard Span and Ryan Mattheus… (in Kilgore’s article). Guess it depends on who answers the phone.

      • David Proctor - Oct 26, 2013 at 9:15 AM

        I thought those were two odd guys to ask. Mattheus probably won’t even be on the team next year and Span’s only been here one year. You’d think he’d try to get Werth, Zimmerman, Desi, etc. But maybe those guys just didn’t want to talk.

      • Jw - Oct 26, 2013 at 10:57 AM

        Thank God they now have a manager who will put Mattheus in a locker. That way he won’t be needing to bang on the door to get in.

  7. Theophilus T.S. - Oct 26, 2013 at 10:31 AM

    There is a lot of pussy-footin’ goin’ on around here. Every article — even articles by the same author — about Williams waffles from “intense” to “mellowed” to “a pusher” to “easy-going” and back again. On “Intentional Talk” this a.m. Millar implied that some players had taken advantage of Johnson’s loose managerial style and that Williams wouldn’t tolerate that. Now I think Millar is sometimes a buffoon but obviously that is a perception held in some corners of MLB — and it happens to coincide with mine.

    Sometimes a team really over-achieves and then falls back, but mostly I don’t think a team drops twelve games unless some knuckle-headism is at least partially responsible. Injuries do not explain it all as some of the most luminous under-achievers were not injured.

    More than Knorr’s frustration w/ Soriano I think his (and Jewett’s) handicap in the job search was the players’ perception they were buddies and pals after years of riding the buses together the minors. Overall my impression is that Rizzo wants more accountability and less self-diagnosis/treatment in the clubhouse. I hope that’s what they’re getting.

  8. slidell2 - Oct 26, 2013 at 10:47 AM

    I don’t quite get this criticism of Knorr for pulling Soriano. Maybe folks think he should have handled the situation the way Davey did with Storen in the now-infamous Game 5. No one should be above being held accountable for their performance, whatever “the Plan”.
    Knorr’s big mistake in this age of coddling primadonnas, was not keeping his mouth shut afterwards.
    To paraphrase a common saying; “what’s said on the mound stays on the mound”.

    • David Proctor - Oct 26, 2013 at 11:08 AM

      Knorr also called out Bryce Harper and I found that totally uncalled for since everyone knew Bryce was hurt.

  9. David Proctor - Oct 26, 2013 at 11:08 AM

    Our entire team apparently had surgery.

    Strasburg had surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow. Bryce had surgery to remove and repair the bursa sac in his knee. LaRoche had surgery to remove “loose bodies” from his left elbow. All should be ready well before Spring Training.

  10. Doc - Oct 26, 2013 at 11:53 AM

    I, for one, appreciated the way Knorr handled Soriano in that game. Soriano presented as not wanting to be in the game, and Knorr read it similarly.

    i don’t really think that Knorr went foo far out of his way in talking to reporters. He would have been criticized by those same reporters for making something up, or being otherwise evasive. It was refreshing to hear someone call a spade a spade, when it’s merited.

    The Harps incident was a little less obvious. However, in both Soriano’s and Harper’s situations, I don’t recall seeing any responses by the players, which leaves us with some pertinent missing info.

    If the Red Sox’s success this year, is about changing the ‘culture’, then some good things should happen with Williams at the helm. Millar hears things that we don’t hear. He may act like a clown on occasions, but that’s all part of his show, which is about entertainment. Kevin knows baseball, and when required, he demonstrates it.

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