Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Search Begins

So it took less than 24 hours from the end of the last game of 2015 for Mike Rizzo to make the announcement that Matt Williams was fired. It wasn’t a surprising move, to be sure, and it puts a fitting cap on the disappointing season. Now the Nationals officially move on to the offseason by kicking off a search for a new manager.

Before getting into the specifics, let’s establish what went wrong for Williams that should dictate how the search for the 2016 manager goes. From the behind the scenes stories to Matt Williams’ refusal to adjust his bullpen usage, the ability to learn and adjust on the fly seem like the biggest problems Williams ran into during his tenure in DC. So ideally, the Nationals would find a manager who is better able to roll with the punches and adjust his game plans based on new information, analytics, or feedback from his players.

That’s a rather broad prerequisite, so to get into the detailed pieces, I’ll lean on Ben Lindbergh at Grantland, who put together his yearly “Managerial Meddling Index” last week. Among the handful of pieces of the game that a manger impacts, Lindbergh looked at the number of shifts employed by teams. The Nationals came in second to last with 215, up only slightly from 2014 when they shifted 201 times. Opponents of the shift are few and far between these days, sounding more like Charles Barkley yelling at nerdy high school kids than fact based points of view. The shift is here to stay and teams that can’t adapt (like the Nationals under Matt Williams) will get left behind. Considering the struggles that Desmond had to start the year and the fact that the Nationals were sending out a third baseman who had never played the position before in Yunel Escobar, the shift would have been a great tool for cutting down on groundball base hits. And sure enough, according to ESPN, the Nationals finished in 27th place in the majors at turning ground balls into outs, well below the league average.

Another new tool managers have been learning to use is the challenge, so it's no surprise that Matt Williams struggled with utilizing this tool as well. The Nationals ranked practically last in number of challenges, having challenged only two times more than the last place team. Further, when you take into account success rate and the game situation of the challenges, Matt Williams comes in far behind the rest of the majors. Studies have shown that MLB umpires actually do a really great job in making their calls. Best estimates say that there are 1-3 challengeable calls per game. If that is the case, the numbers say a manager should challenge any meaningful play that is close. There is no downside to losing a challenge, other than not getting another one, and no benefit to keeping your challenge in your pocket through the end of the game. Given how thin the margins between winning and losing can be, one out or one run can go a long way and mangers should be more aggressive than they are with their challenges. Certainly, the new Nationals manager needs to be more aggressive than Williams was in 2015.

Finally, the new manager needs to know how to manage a clubhouse and a bullpen. Barry Svrluga already detailed the ways that Williams failed to manage his bullpen, relate to his players, and communicate his big picture plans with his team. The new manager will have to do better. That likely means someone with managing experience, who knows how to get the most out of his bullpen and hopefully isn’t so stuck to the idea of a 7th, 8th, and 9th inning pitcher. Furthermore, the new manager should be open to the idea of platooning and lineup flexibility. Believe it or not, but Williams actually called for the least number of relief pitcher appearances during 2015. He had his role for each pitcher and each position player, and that was their role regardless of the circumstances. Danny Espinosa was your second most valuable position player during the first of the year? Too bad, he is a “bench player” that won’t see the field once Anthony Rendon returned, according to Williams. Tie ball game on the road? Can’t use the closer until the team builds a lead, willing to lose a game without using the team’s best pitchers. Those strategies are outdated and the Nationals need to find someone who understands why that's the case.

With those parameters in mind, let’s take a quick look at some of the possible hires:

Bud Black

Don’t judge the former Padres manager by his record with the Padres. It’s not his fault he was managing a AAA team playing in the NL West. Possibly more telling, Black had a 32-33 record with the 2015 Padres team at the time he was let go. The Padres would go on to finish 14 games under .500 without him at the helm. A former pitcher in the majors, he should be more plugged into the bullpen than Williams was. From reports, he was popular with his players and respected around the league. In an ESPN poll this year, he was voted the 3rd best manager at handling a pitching staff and 5th best at relating to players, voted there by people within the industry. Black seems like the early front runner, and for good reason.

Dusty Baker

While Dusty Baker certainly checks the experience box, by my estimation, it’s the only box he checks. During his long career as an MLB manager, Dusty brought old school playing time and bullpen usage complaints with him at every stop. He was fond of holding his best relievers until the last innings of games and for penciling in bad hitters with “good bat control” into the second spot in the lineup. Now, not saying people can’t learn on the job or change their managing style, but he probably applauded Williams’ insistence on sticking to his set up man/closer set up regardless of situation.

Ron Wotus

The current bench coach for the Giants, Wotus doesn’t have MLB managing experience, but he has spent the last 16 seasons as bench coach for Bruce Bochy, himself one of the most respected managers in the game. Bochy has led the Giants to 3 World Series titles and evolved a lot over that time frame. At the start of his career, Bochy was very Matt Williams-esque, sticking to routine bullpen usage and deferring to veteran players over younger, more talented players. Bochy has adjusted, though, now open to using former starters like Tim Lincecum in high leverage situations in the playoffs and giving playing time to young guys like Joe Panik and Matt Duffy. The hope would be that Wotus would bring a similar approach to the game as manager of the Nationals, and the willingness to learn and adjust.

Dave Martinez

Another current bench coach, Martinez started with the great Joe Maddon in Tampa Bay and followed him to the Cubs. He also interviewed for the Nationals managerial job before Rizzo settled on Williams two years ago. For the analytics crowd (including yours truly), Maddon is one of if not the best manager in the game. He is great in the clubhouse where he brings in exotic wild life or magicians, among other things, to keep the team loose. He is constantly seeking out new information, whether or not it relates to baseball, to try and do a better job as a manager. He’s not afraid to shift, use players in platoons or new defensive positions, or use his best bullpen arms in high leverage situations before the ninth inning. Given that Martinez has been with Maddon so long, one would have to believe that Martinez would bring a similar style and approach as a manager himself.

Cal Ripken Jr.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m as big a Cal Ripken fan as there is. I spent my little league days playing shortstop and wearing number 8 and somehow convincing my parents to make the drive from NW DC to Baltimore multiple times a summer to watch Cal play. While Cal may relate to the players better than Williams did, he has even less professional coaching experience than Matt Williams had at the onset of his Nationals tenure. For a team that doesn’t carry the expectations of the Nationals and a team where he could learn on the job, Ripken may be a good choice. But the Nationals will yet again carry World Series expectations into 2016 and don’t have time for a manager to learn how to manage a bullpen and make double switches on the fly. As much fun as it might be to imagine Cal wearing a Nationals uniform, it’s not the right choice for this team.

Randy Knorr

The odds of Randy Knorr, the former Nationals bench coach under both Davey Johnson and Matt Williams, getting the nod as the new manager of the team seems slim considering he was just released by the team along with the rest of the coaching staff on Monday. However, Rizzo came right out and said that Knorr would be considered and that his release didn't eliminate him from consideration. It's hard to believe the Nationals would refuse to pick up Knorr's contract only to hire him on as manager later down the line, but it's not impossible. Knorr has been a favorite in the clubhouse for a long time, having coached in the Nationals' farm system where he developed strong relationships with guys like Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa. He's worked at the big league level under two managers at the extremes of strategy and personality in Johnson and Williams, so it's hard to say what he would look like as the full time manager. We can say with certainty, though, that he would have a better connection to his players than did Williams.

Ron Gardenhire

The former Twins manager has been out of a job since being fired by the Twins following the 2014 season. During his twelve season span as the Twins skipper, though, he won AL Manager of the Year once (2010) and finished in second in the voting five additional times. He took a squad that consistently had one of the smaller payrolls in all of baseball and won their division six times. Of course, Gardy spent his time managing in a more old school manner, but was in line with the majority of the league in doing so during that time. Would he be open to shifts and platooning? Using his bullpen smartly and aggressively? Hard to say.

There are several other names floating around the rumor mills right now, but those appear to be the early front runners, if you will. As individuals come in for interviews with the Nationals, we will get a better idea of what direction Mike Rizzo is headed. There is one thing to keep in mind, though. A great number of the flaws of Matt Williams pointed out in recent days were actually heralded as the reasons Williams got the job in the first place. Rizzo was so impressed with Williams’ uber detailed Spring Training schedules and workman like attitude that he essentially cut short the managerial process after settling on Williams. He saw him as the opposite style of Davey Johnson, a player’s manager, and exactly what this Nationals team needed. Clearly things went south, but Rizzo has to take some of the blame. This next hire might make or break Rizzo’s legacy with the Nationals. Will he make the same mistake twice?

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