What we can learn from bad baseball management

Bad hires affect everything — or, the Matt Williams story

By James daSilva 

I live in Washington, D.C., and go to about 15 Washington Nationals home games each year. I have an interest in the team’s performance and leadership, if only for all the hours and dollars I spend on the team.

As you may have heard, the team did not play well this year. Off the field, there were problems, and saying “the Nationals choked” had a more literal meaning than usual:

After this disappointing regular season, The Nationals fired manager Matt Williams and all his coaches. Williams may be a decent fellow, but there is no one who says he was a good manager, and he too often made decisions that were wrong in terms of process and results. He struggled with in-game tactical situations, struggled to understand how his actions could have long-term repercussions, struggled in communicating with his team and struggled to explain his actions to the media and, by extension, the fans.

But here’s my thesis: The failures of Matt Williams and the Nationals would not have been possible without the failures of upper management. This is a failure of hiring, a failure in assembling a support staff and a failure of feedback and leadership development.

At this point, you may be thinking, this is sports. Why do I care?

Well, sports is a business. Furthermore, baseball is a business loaded with data Big and small while remaining difficult to fully capture and analyze even with a century of reliable data, more measurements made available each year, and endless public and private examination and testing. But I bring up baseball because it’s not more complicated than most industries. It’s not more complicated than life, or the endless struggle to understand and figure out our fellow humans.

If baseball is not so unique, then, but simply a more public reflection of many industries’ challenges, then we can hopefully learn something from Matt Williams. Well, learn something other than that we’re talking about an organization best known for giant-headed mascots of U.S. presidents.

So, again, why am I more disappointed with the people who hired Williams, principally general manager Mike Rizzo?

Credit: James daSilva

Managers are there to help others excel, not to dominate the room

How many wins are baseball managers worth? It’s a difficult question, as is quantifying team chemistry and culture, at least compared with way we can measure player talent and performance. Also, there are a limited number of ways a manager can affect in-game performance. But the truth is, whatever the impact of a manager, it’s likely real and difficult to measure.

Isn’t this how most of us managers feel? We have great employees, we look great and so does the culture. They falter or the economy tanks, all is woe. How much did we do in either case? Did we get to select these employees? Are we even trained in how to select, evaluate or guide people? More on those last two factors in a bit.

In Matt Williams’ case, what could he affect? He could avoid obviously dumb moves. He could learn and play the percentages, including newer tactics like the heavy use of defensive shifts. Mostly, though, he could show up, be curious and manage the egos of his players and the eagerness of the media. As World Series-winning manager Jack McKeon once said:

[W]hen I took over that club, I knew that if I was going to win, I’d have to do it with my starting lineup. I knew I’d have to play them into the ground, because my backups weren’t that sharp. But to make a long story short, when I’d have team meetings I’d apologize to the extra guys. … But to a man, after the meetings they’d come over and say, “Hey Skip, don’t worry about us. We’re fine. Just keep doing what you’re doing.” You don’t find that in the game today, because there’s jealousy where guys want to play because that’s the only way they’re going to make any money. People ask me who the leaders were on that team, and I say, “Hell, my leaders were those extra guys.” They were the guys who gave the team support. They were the guys who never cried, or complained, or bitched about anything. They just pulled hard for the nine guys on the field.

Alas, Williams did not do those things often enough. He made tactically questionable moves, but worse, he made mistakes in handling those egos. When his 21-year-old star, Bryce Harper, showed a “lack of hustle” in jogging out a ground ball despite nursing a leg injury, Williams had the right to reprimand Harper. He went farther, removing Harper from the game and complaining about him in the post-game press conference. This year, he communicated so poorly that players anonymously trashed him in the media (not that that’s a good thing). Along the way, Williams alienated the team’s oldest player and de facto leader, Jayson Werth, to the point of Werth yelling, “When exactly do you think you lost this team?”

Even after mending his relationship with Harper, who at times this year praised Williams effusively, Williams inexplicably punished Harper for being choked by his teammate. That was after he lied to the media or remained deliberately remained ignorant about the altercation, which occurred less than 100 feet away from him during a game.

So, Williams did little to help himself. But shouldn’t Rizzo have investigated more thoroughly? Didn’t he realize he was hiring a coach from a team described as having a “morally reprehensible” mindset? At best, didn’t he realize that Williams was inexperienced in such matters and might need help, especially after early problems. That leads to my second disappointment.

Leaders need the right support, and they, too, need feedback

We don’t all get to pick who works for us or with whom we work. That’s not always bad — we all have blind spots and bias, especially in hiring. But in this case, it seems that keeping nearly the entire coaching staff of a 70-year-old, longtime manager and giving it to a 40-something, first-time manager was a mistake.

This is a tougher area to assess — there’s not much to suggest that the staff made huge blunders. But you can look at the frustrations of the players, as well as at players whose performance regressed, who failed to stay healthy or repeatedly endured the same failings and ask, “I wonder if the coaching staff and the manager are doing anything to fix this?”

As for the players, Williams inherited many from his predecessor, Davey Johnson, and nearly everyone was originally signed by general manager Mike Rizzo. But since Williams was Rizzo’s man, and the self-proclaimed team culture was Rizzo’s vision of “the Nationals Way,” Williams entered with a level of support and authority that, in theory, would allow all parties to get to know each other and work past conflict.

Working past conflict, of course, requires communication. It’s clear from all the anonymous complaints that the Nationals had an atmosphere where players felt they could not speak up. That could be a result of jerks among the team, Williams’ stifling attitude or management’s refusal to listen — or a combination.

Regardless, because Rizzo is not only general manager but also president of baseball operations, it’s his responsibility to maintain the culture of the organization — from the low minors up through the major league club. He can’t watch every interaction, but he can step in and enforce cultural expectations. That, of course, starts with considering the Nationals Way and doing proper due diligence when hiring a manager or acquiring players, including a certain volatile closer named Jonathan Papelbon.

It’s not that hard, is it?

An organization that’s not doing well is going to have more conflict than one that is successful. We will never find perfection, and there will always be problems and personality clashes. But, if you communicate, are respectful and operate under a common definition of values, objectives, expectations and culture, the “leadership” aspect is not that complicated, is it?

Let’s go back to Jack McKeon for the final word:

I let the players play and stayed out of their way. That’s always been my philosophy: Let the players play and let the coaches coach. That, and tell the players to have fun. Go out and give it your best shot.