Don’t fire Matt Williams just because

I don’t know if you’ve been following this story, but the Washington Nationals were supposed to be the best team in the National League this season, and instead they’re … well, they’re better than the Phillies and the Marlins, anyway. 

Two months ago, the heavily favored Nationals held a slim 3½-game lead over the surprisingly second-place Mets. One month ago, the heavily favored Nationals clung to a slimmer one-game lead over the surprisingly second-place (but recently reinforced) Mets.

Today — the morning of Wednesday, September the 2nd — the once-heavily favored Nationals trail the surprisingly first-place Mets by 6½ games, which is to say the Nationals are nearly finished.

The reasons for the Nationals’ arguably disastrous season are many and generally sundry, but it’s human nature to search for the juiciest reason, and for a scapegoat. And I think we’ve all settled on Matt Williams and his questionable opinions about the best practices involving Jonathan Papelbon.

Papelbon joined the Nationals on the 29th of July. Since then, he’s pitched only 11 innings. During that time, the Nationals have lost nine games by one or two runs, plus Tuesday night when they lost 8-5 on a three-run, walk-off home run. Papelbon has pitched in only three of those games. All of them were home games in which the Nationals were trailing, which meant a save situation wasn’t likely.

Tuesday night was ugly, and Papelbon never got into the game. If you want to read all the details, Craig Calcaterra’s got you covered. With a metaphor and everything. Williams certainly doesn’t help himself with his nonsensical-sounding justifications:

“He’s our closer,” Matt Williams said Wednesday morning in his weekly spot with “The Junkies” on 106.7 The Fan, speaking of Papelbon, idle the previous two nights. “He’s the one that closes the game.”

This does not reflect modern baseball thinking. It does, however, reflect Williams’s thinking, be it April or October. We know this because – and sorry for repeating such a story, but there’s really no choice now – with the Nationals facing extinction in last year’s playoffs, Williams used Aaron Barrett, Matt Thornton and Rafael Soriano in an elimination game while Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen and Stephen Strasburg rested for spring training.

So here was Papelbon, the key trade-deadline acquisition, sitting and watching from the bullpen Tuesday night. This wasn’t Game 4 of the National League Division Series, but in order for the Nationals to even envision getting back to such a scenario, it was a game they had to have.

Here’s the problem with firing Matt Williams, though … his non-use of Papelbon in so many close games absolutely does reflect "modern baseball thinking," if by that term we mean the way most modern baseball managers think.

Has Williams been more rigid with Papelbon than most other managers would have been? Maybe. But if so, by just a little. Most managers still manage to the statistic and stick, for the most part, to precisely defined roles for their relief pitchers. Hell, Ned Yost and his bullpen are the toast of baseball, and Yost is as rigid as anybody.

Is this how I would manage? Of course not. But looking just at the evidence at hand, I can justify firing Matt Williams if a) he’s lost the confidence of his team or his bosses, or b) I’m going to replace him with someone who’s not wedded to rigid roles for his relief pitchers.

I can’t speak to the first of those criteria, but as for the second? Good luck, pal. Managers don’t like to think that hard.