Nationals emergency

Matt Williams could go from Manager of the Year to scapegoat in Washington

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Here are a few fun facts about baseball managers of the year:

1. Bobby Cox won the award in 1991, when he led the Atlanta Braves to their first-ever pennant. Over the next dozen years, he managed the Braves to 11 division titles, four pennants and a World Series championship.  He did not win the award a single time during that stretch. Among those who won the award in those dozen dry years: Larry Bowa (for a second place finish), Jack McKeon (twice), Larry Dierker, and Dusty Baker (three times — yes, three times).

The team turned over some, and Cox became popular with the voters again. He won the award in 2004 and 2005, even though in the first year Tony La Russa’s Cardinals won 105 games and in the second year the Braves won just 90 games, the second-lowest win total of the Cox regime up to that point. They also lost in the first round of the playoffs both years.

2. The quickest firing after winning a manager of the year award happened to Davey Johnson, who was forced out the day he accepted the award. But Joe Girardi was fired about a month BEFORE he officially won his 2006 manager of the year award, so that’s probably the record.

3. You would have to say that Buck Showalter has had the poorest luck. He has won the award three times, but it’s the first that stings the most. He was named manager of the year in 1994 after leading the Yankees into first place when the strike happened. A year later, he managed the Yankees to their first postseason appearance in 14 years — and THAT is when he got canned. Joe Torre came in, and you know the rest.

Showalter also managed the Arizona Diamondbacks to a 100-win season in their second year of existence — this earned him a fourth-place (FOURTH PLACE!) finish in the award behind Jack McKeon, Bobby Cox and Larry Dierker. Weird.

4. Three different managers — Buck Rodgers with the Expos in 1987, Tony Pena with the Royals in 2003 and Showalter with the Rangers in 2004 — won the award though their teams finished third in their divisions. Joe Girardi won the award in 2006 for the Marlins, though they finished fourth. He is the only person to win the manager of the year with a losing record.*

[*The year Girardi won, by the way, Willie Randolph’s Mets won 97 games after winning 83, 71 and 66 the three years before. The point to make here is that you often hear about how tilted such voting is toward New York. I think the fact that Derek Jeter never won an MVP, that Joe Torre won just two manager of the year awards (and in one he was actually tied with Johnny Oates) and that Willie Randolph lost this award to Girardi suggest that the New York bias is a complicated issue.]

5. Best I can tell — I went through the list — no manager of the year has ever been fired in the middle of their next season. Lots of manager of the years were fired in the second year after winning the award. Jim Frey. John McNamara. Hal Lanier. Frank Robinson. Don Zimmer. Tony Pena. Just trust me, there have been many. But none have been fired in the middle of the next season.

So Matt Williams has a chance to become the first.

I actually don’t think the Washington Nationals will fire Williams because GM Mike Rizzo doesn’t seem to operate that way. But you have to believe there will be some discussions. The Nationals came into this season as the consensus favorite in the National League. I know I fell for them. Well, look, they had won 96 games the year before. They finished third in runs scored, and that was before Bryce Harper emerged. They finished first in ERA and added Max Scherzer to an already stacked rotation. How could you pick anyone else?

And now the Nationals have a LOSING RECORD.

True, the Nats have been hammered with injuries throughout their lineup. They’ve been hammered by underachieving seasons from more or less everybody not named Harper or Scherzer. Rizzo tried to fix the late-inning bullpen troubles by making that trade for Jonathan Papelbon which I think created all sorts of bad mojo. It’s not entirely clear what can or cannot be blamed on Matt Williams.

But that’s our story, isn’t it? You cannot look at the history of the manager of the year award without thinking: Sheesh, we really have no idea what makes a good manager. John McNamara and Jimy Williams won the award as manager of the Red Sox but Terry Francona did not. In 2009, Jim Tracy won the award for finishing three games behind Joe Torre’s Dodgers. In 2010, Bud Black won it by finishing two games behind Bruce Bochy’s Giants. In 2013, Terry Francona (who, remember, never won it in Boston) won the award by finishing a game behind Jim Leyland’s Tigers. Does any of that make any sense?

Let’s put it this way: Bruce Bochy has won the award once, or exactly as many times as Tony Pena, Gene Lamont, Kirk Gibson and Eric Wedge. And do you know when he won the award? Right, he won it in 1996 when he managed the San Diego Padres to a quick postseason exit. He has never won the award while managing the perennial underdog San Francisco Giants to three World Series titles.

So did Matt Williams do a good job last year when the Nationals won and he was named the manager of the year? Who knows? Is he doing a bad job this year with the Nationals floundering? Who knows?

The one thing we do know is that the Nationals are playing stupefyingly bad baseball, and Williams’ public stance doesn’t inspire much confidence. “One swing of the bat and we just might win that one tomorrow,” he says. “And you never know what can happen from there.” The Gipper speech, it ain’t.

And so the one thing that COULD motivate Rizzo to make a move now is to provide some kind of spark for a dead-battery team. That’s kind of a desperation move, and it’s a cruel thing to do to a loyal employee who gives everything — I have little doubt that Matt Williams is a good soldier. But the manager switch does turn things around sometimes, and let’s be honest, this is a cruel business. Hiring and firing at the big league level isn’t like hiring and firing the people where you and I work. Let’s not confuse this with real life. In the big leagues, everybody understands the rules. Everyone — players, managers, general managers, even owners — are walking the high wire, breathing in the altitude for as long as they can. It’s like Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger says: “Being a manager is to promise winning … and survive losing.”

In Washington, the winning was promised. And Williams is in pure survivor mode. He won’t win any manager of the year awards this time around. But if he can turn this thing around in time to save himself, well, I expect that will be the best managing job he’s ever done.