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Matt Williams, Terry Collins, And The Mystery Of Managing

Matt Williams was the National League Manager of the Year in 2014. In 2015, he's getting criticized and kicked around. He didn't get worse. He just has a weird job.

by Alexander Goot
Sep 8 2015, 3:23pm

Photo by Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

There are a nearly infinite number of ways in which someone can do a bad job as a major league manager. A manager can foul up a ballclub by filling out a bad lineup card, leaving a starting pitcher in for too long or taking him out too soon, misusing the bullpen by either using it too much or too little, by failing to properly deploy the bench or relying upon it excessively, not using advanced stats or over-using advanced stats, by "losing the clubhouse" in any number of ways, or simply by making the serious mistake of agreeing to work for Jeffrey Loria.

The list of things that one must do in order to be a successful major league manager is, of course, much shorter. A good manager must win. Everything else is graded on a curve. Win as much, or more, than you are expected to, and everyone else will find a way to explain how and why you are a good manager. The rest is the rest.

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So yes, managing is one of those jobs that is only really talked about when things have gone horribly wrong. A year ago at this time, Ned Yost was the man who launched a thousand analytical breakdowns, (and at least one Halloween costume), with his attempts to sac-bunt his way into the World Series. One season later, with the Royals defending an AL pennant and on divisional champion cruise control for the last three months of the season, it's likely that the only time you've heard Yost's name is when he's explaining to Major League Baseball how Bluetooth works. He didn't become a better manager, probably. He might never have been that bad. The Royals look great, though, and suddenly Yost does, too.

At the other end of the spectrum sit Terry Collins and Matt Williams, who are both the managers of the two teams vying for the NL East crown and the subject of much gnashing of teeth as the season hits the home stretch. It wasn't supposed to be this way. Williams' Nationals were expected to overwhelm the rest of the division after adding Max Scherzer to a team that won 96 games. Instead, the team has been injured and inconsistent, opening the door for Williams to prove himself strategically inept, which he has done repeatedly. It is either a coincidence that Williams—the National League's Manager of the Year just last season—has done so while his bullpen has fallen apart, or it isn't.

When you're pondering the imponderable, and also trying to get Eric Young Jr. in the lineup more often. — Photo by Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Objectively, though, his missteps have been frequent and farcical, with the most egregious involving his resistance to using his most talented relievers in the most important situations. One month ago, the team's divisional lead was swept away by a three game series in which neither deposed closer and eighth-inning ace Drew Storen nor new closer Jonathan Papelbon made an appearance. Last Tuesday, Papelbon was again glued to the bullpen bench as the team blew a late lead to the St. Louis Cardinals.

"Everybody wants to know why you don't use Papelbon in that situation?" explained Williams following the defeat, "Let's say, for instance, Pap throws a clean ninth and we score in the 10th. Who's closing the game for us? I guess it'd be 'Somebody,' right?" Well, yeah, in the same sense that, if this win-now Nationals team misses the postseason altogether, "somebody" else will probably be managing next year.

Thankfully for Williams, Collins and the Mets appear to have left the door open, for something like the same reason. Collins has seen a number of late inning matchup decisions explode in his face. On Sunday, he took a page from Williams' own playbook by watching a late lead turn into a loss in the eighth and ninth innings without an appearance from all-world closer Jeurys Familia. On Monday, the bullpen pitched brilliantly through bad luck, held the Nationals scoreless over five and two-thirds innings, and made Collins look like a genius. This is how it goes.

That is the job, and being graded in hindsight is the hardest part of it. Until this season, the two men had largely avoided criticism. Last year, Williams looked like an elite tactician because his team was talented and the division stunk; for Collins, the gigantic Madoff-shaped hole in the Mets budget generally absolved him from much responsibility for the team's struggles.

"Gio, I know you're upset. I just want you to know that I'm not replacing you with our closer." — Photo by Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

But now, with the division in the balance, there is no place for either man to hide. Williams and Collins will answer for every button that is pushed, every signal that is sent, every pitch that is, or isn't thrown by the Mets moonlighting New York City Bureau Chief. Ultimately, their job is not simply to make decisions, or not just that. It's bearing the brunt of all those who believe that they could make better ones, which is to say, everyone. Bullpen management is a big part of it. Sin-eating is, and always will be, the majority.

Which of these two men will emerge with their narrative improved, their perception bolstered, their reputation in better working order? There are any number of ways in which it all might play out, but the answer is invariably going to be whichever one claims the division. As much as we might like to think that an age of metrics and probabilities has taught us to trust the process, rather than the outcome, baseball is a results-oriented thing, and W's and L's tend to stick in the memory longer than any given double switch.

A good manager must be a teacher, a leader, and a strategist in equal measure; this is not any easier than it sounds, and is legible only in the results. But the job description says that they must mostly be a winner above all things, be it by their own virtue or by sheer dumb luck. Occasionally, this will earn the winning manager some acclaim. Mostly, it just wins them the right to be left alone for a bit, which is really its own reward.

This is the job, finally—there are so many ways to lose, and no one way to win; no one knows what brilliance looks like, but failure is instantly identifiable. It's not that anyone watching has any reason to believe they could do a better job than the man currently managing. It's just that they don't have proof that they'd do any worse.