Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The demise of the Nats, or why managers matter

The assertion has persisted for generations: Managers don't greatly matter.

The Washington Nationals right now are an intriguing case study for that assertion.

The Nats have had a chronic revolving door for the dugout boss, apparently at the instigation of ownership, which has been willing to spend heavily on playing talent but not on managers. They have had newbie managers (including the current occupant of the job, Davey Martinez) and really old managers (including his immediate predecessor, Dusty Baker), but their one common denominator has been a lack of bargaining power.

Matt Williams was their manager in 2014-15, his first and probably only stint as a major league manager. He won the divisional title in 2014, finished second in '15, and the defining moment of his tenure came when Jonathan Papelbon tried to choke Bryce Harper in the dugout and Williams had no clue about it.

Out went Williams, in ccame Baker. The change wasn't as smooth as that; there was a tentative agreement with Bud Black that fell apart because Black had higher salary expecations than the Nats were willing to pay. Baker had been out of the game for three years and was willing to take the job at a bargain price.

Baker now has 22 seasons on his managerial resume with a record well above .500 but only one pennant and no World Series titles. His in-game moves are often puzzling and his grasp of the metrics popular with today's front offices is not publicly apparent, but he has no peer at the delicate task of handling superstar egos. The Papelbon-Harper incident suggested that was a skill the new manager needed in Washington, and whether by intent or fortuity, the Nats got that skill.

The Nats won a pair of division titles under Baker but didn't win a postseason series.  Mike Rizzo, who heads the Nats' baseball operations, wanted to extend Baker after last season; ownership said no.

Martinez, long an understudy to Joe Maddon in Tampa Bay and Chicago and almost as long a prominent candidate for managerial jobs, got the Nats post. There was every reason to expect him to be a good selection. But it has not gone well.

The Nationals have, still, as much talent as any team. Harper, Max Scherzer, Anthony Rendon, Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy, Trea Turner, Gio Gonzalez ... Juan Soto, age 19, started the season in A ball and now has 14 homers in the majors.

And they're running third in their division, barely above .500, and looking worse than that.

What went wrong for the Nats this year? I suspect this is a case where "clubhouse chemistry" became a real thing.

Just before the trading deadline, Jeff Passan of Yahoo tackled that question, and in the process of describing the Nats quoted an unnamed veteran as calling the clubhouse "dysfunctional." It was almost a throwaway line in the piece, but it got Rizzo's attention.

Rizzo decided -- apparently incorrectly -- that the unnamed player was former Twins reliever Brandon Kintzler and promptly traded him away. A couple days after the deadline, another leading bullpen arm, Shawn Kelley, threw his glove on the ground after giving up a homer; Rizzo designated Kelley for assignment.

With Kintzler and Kelley subtracted, and with Shawn Doolittle and Ryan Madson hurting, the bullpen has become a mess. And Kintzler and Kelley were subtracted in an attempt by the front office to support a beleaguered manager.

One of the voices on MLB Radio, talking about the "dysfunctional clubhouse" description, saying that he'd been in the Nats clubhouse and had never seen a major league clubhouse so devoid of interaction. Whether it's "dysfunctional" or not, he said, it was unique.

And I suspect Harper is at the center of it. Consider this: He is the star on a team of stars, a former MVP, a Sports Illustrated cover boy at 16 -- and yet you pick the stat, somebody in that clubhouse has had a higher number.

Homers? Harper hit 42 his MVP season. Matt Reynolds hit 44 one year in Arizona.

Batting average? Harper's high is .330. Murphy hit .347 the next year.

RBIs? Harper's never had 100 ribbies. Murphy, Zimmerman and Rendon have all topped the century mark.

But it's Harper at the top of the food chain, Harper whose future is the source of constant comment and speculation. You can't watch a game on TV without seeing Harper in an ad. Think that can cause some grumbling?

Baker is, if nothing else, experienced at handling superstar egos -- and the interaction of the other egos.

Baker had Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent in San Francisco, a pair of MVPs who apparently detested each other, They won.

Baker had Sammy Sosa in Chicago. They won, although that situation got away from Baker.

In Cincinnati, Brandon Phillips, while not on the level of Bonds, Sosa or Kent, was one of the Reds' better players and a high-maintenance guy. Baker kept him focused and on track, something other skippers struggled to accomplish,

And with the Nats, there was scarcely a kerfuffle with Baker around. Before and after, drama aplenty.

Yeah, the Nats miss Johnnie B. Baker. Not for pitching changes and when to hit-and-run, but for all the other stuff that comes with a major league season.

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