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September 17, 2015 / Nat Anacostia

Evaluating Matt Williams: Should he be fired?

Over the last month as the Nats have collapsed, there have been repeated calls for Matt Williams to be fired. The staff of the Washington Post has come to his defense, with Tom Boswell arguing (albeit tepidly) that you can’t prove that Williams is a lousy manager, with Barry Svrluga arguing that Williams could improve if he followed Ned Yost’s example, and with Chelsea Janes reporting that Bryce Harper loves Williams as a manager.

How do we evaluate a manager? And how does Williams measure up?

I see five major areas in which we can try to evaluate managers:

1. In-game strategy: Does he follow strategies that have been demonstrated to lead to a higher probability of success?

We’re talking about questions that can be answered using probability and statistics such as the following:

  • Should Anthony Rendon be asked to bunt in the bottom of the ninth with the Nats trailing by one, a runner on first, no outs, and a 3–1 count?
  • Should the closer be asked to pitch in tie games on road?
  • In a close game, should you let the pitcher bat if you’re likely to lift him in the next inning at the first sign of trouble?
  • Should you ask Michael A. Taylor to hit in the leadoff spot in 28 starts?

Using research such as Inside the Book, we can work out the best strategies and determine how making suboptimal choices affects the probability of winning. Fans who are sabermetrically oriented (sometimes including myself) love to criticize managers for making poor decisions. Certainly, we’d hope that managers would understand probabilities and strategies well enough to avoid common mistakes, though unfortunately this is not the case for most managers. Williams has come in for more than his share of criticism for his in-game decisions.

The problem with this line of analysis is that once you plug in the numbers, you find that managers’ in-game decisions simply don’t make that much difference. For example, with his .284 on-base percentage, Taylor is a terrible choice as a lead-off hitter. But if you plug in the numbers, batting Taylor lead-off instead of seventh or eighth lowers the team’s probability of winning a game by just a fraction of one percent. Even the most egregious errors affect the probability of winning by perhaps 5, or at most, 10 percent. If you tried adding up the impact on wins of all of Williams’ strategic mistakes, I’d guess that they turn out to be less than one game. And most managers make at least some similar errors, so relative to the average manager, there’s really not going to be much to go on. You could easily argue that a manager’s other good attributes outweigh the occasional strategic blunder.

2. Decisions about playing time: Do his line-up decisions give the team its best chance to win?

Here, I think we’re getting choices that potentially have a bigger impact on the team’s success or failure. For example, we’re talking about these kind of questions:

  • Should Drew Storen have been asked to come in to face Yoenis Cespedes again the night after his meltdown began with a double given up to Cespedes?
  • Should Casey Janssen have been asked to pitch the bottom of the ninth of a tie game against the Cardinals the night after he gave up 4 runs on 4 hits and a walk against the same team?
  • Was Max Scherzer overused in June and July when he went 8+ innings 5 times in 6 starts?
  • Was Storen overused in August before the game in which he gave up a grand slam to Carlos Gonzalez?
  • When Jayson Werth and Rendon came off the DL, were they rushed back into the lineup too quickly, leading to slumps?
  • Should Ryan Zimmerman have been given more rest while he was battling with plantar fasciitis?

These are important decisions. Getting them wrong could easily cost the team several losses. A problem in evaluating a manager on these decisions, however, is that we can’t really know what would have happened had a different decision been made. The questions I’ve selected indicate some of the decisions that I think Williams may have gotten wrong, but there’s really no way to prove that things would have gone better with a different decision.

3. Communicating with players: Do players understand what their role is and what’s expected of them?

Now we’re getting into the gray area where I, and most fans, have only a vague idea of what’s going on between a manager and his players. I’m convinced, however, that communicating with players is one of the key skills for a successful manager.

Although I admit I don’t know much about Williams’ communications skills, I do notice a couple of troubling signals. For example, when Tanner Roark was sent down to Potomac in late August to be stretched out as a starter, he reported, “I was kinda shocked by it.” That reaction suggests that Williams and Mike Rizzo weren’t communicating their plans and expectations for Roark. Similarly, Storen apparently wasn’t prepared for the Jonathan Papelbon trade.

So while I’ll admit I don’t know much about Williams’ communication style with his players, I do worry somewhat about it.

4. Communicating with the media and fans: How well does he serve in his role as spokesman for the team?

Although managers aren’t hired or fired for their ability to communicate with the media or the fans, the fact of the matter is that the manager is usually the most visible spokesman for the team. Williams speaks to the media in both pre-game and post-game interviews and does other events such as a weekly radio interview. These interviews won’t win or lose games, but they presumably help the team in establishing and building up its fan base.

I judge Williams to be merely adequate in communicating with media and fans. He comes across as honest and straight-forward, but he also comes across as rigid and humorless, especially in comparison with his immediate predecessor, Davey Johnson. When the National media started picking on Williams last month, he seemed to provide them with an ample supply of seemingly rigid, thoughtless quotes that could be ridiculed.

Again, I wouldn’t fire a manager solely, or even mainly, because of lack of communication skills with fans, but I don’t think Williams is helping his case in this department.

5. Everything else: How is he as a clubhouse leader, manager of coaching staff, supervisor of batting and fielding practices, enforcer of player discipline, etc?

Here’s the big unknown for us as fans—all this other stuff is obviously extremely important to the team’s success, but unless you have a close friend who’s a player or coach, most of us have no insight into what a manager is like in these areas.

Ultimately, I think the decision whether to fire a manager is usually made by the owner, rather than by the general manager. Although owners know more about the internal working of a team than the average fan, the fact is that they are somewhat outsiders—they rely on their general manager or other team executives for most of their information. And because GMs are not disinterested parties, I’d guess that most owners feel like they can’t have complete trust in what their GMs or other executives tell them.

With imperfect information on managerial performance, I think owners make the same decision that stockholders and investors make—if the team/enterprise succeeds, the manager is rewarded and kept, but if it fails or disappoints, the manager will be fired. At least that strategy enforces incentives on the manager—he knows that if he doesn’t get his team to succeed, he risks losing his job. Although Boswell is right that we can’t prove that Williams is a bad manager, I also agree with the general wisdom that managers of disappointing teams should expect to be fired. Because we can’t directly measure the impact of a manager, judging them based on the performance of the team is the best we can do.

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