After leading the Nationals to a league-high 96 wins and a division title in his debut season, Matt Williams was named the National League Manager of the Year by the Baseball Writers Association of America in a regular-season vote announced Tuesday night, beating out Pittsburgh’s Clint Hurdle and San Francisco’s Bruce Bochy. Williams, who claimed 18 of 30 first-place votes and was named on 25 ballots, became the fourth first-year manager to receive the award.
Williams called the honor an “organizational award” and credited General Manager Mike Rizzo, his staff and his players. He expressed pride that the Nationals had been recognized and deflected the achievement to those around him.
“It just means that our organization had a great year,” Williams said. “We set out with the goal to be competitive every day and to go out there and have a chance to win, and we accomplished that. It’s a sense of pride for the organization.”
Managers of teams as talented as the Nationals rarely produce such awards, which most often gauge which team most out-performed preseason perception. But Williams earned the award even with a team many predicted would win the National League East. He relied heavily on an incumbent coaching staff.
“I don’t know if there’s a staff that works harder on winning every day than ours,” Williams said. “I get to sit there and accept the award for them. I’m proud of that and humbled by that.”
Williams maintained a steady hand in the face of constant injuries to key players and learned when to cede control to his veteran players.
“He managed a team that was supposed to win, and they won,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said last month. “There was a lot of ups and downs that could have went the wrong way. We saw on other teams, when you lose middle-of-the-lineup bats for an extended period, sometimes those other teams go the wrong way.
“Everyone remembers when we were hitting on all cylinders. I remember the days when we had Greg Dobbs at first and Zach Walters at third and [Jose] Lobaton catching and [Nate] McLouth in the outfield. We pieced together an outfield for about 45 games that did not resemble at all the lineup that we had on this whiteboard here in the office in January. Through it all, Matt kept the ship afloat.”
Williams inherited an 86-win team that buckled under the weight of World Series expectations in 2013. The Nationals’ 10-win improvement ranked third in the National League, behind only the Miami Marlins and San Francisco Giants. After a spate of early injuries, the Nationals stood at 27-28 on June 1 before a 69-38 finish.
“I think that I learned our team,” Williams said. “Being the new guy, you don’t know. You don’t know until you get there and you can roll your sleeves up and get your hands dirty. I got a chance to know the guys personally. I got a chance to hear their frustrations and share their success, too.”
In the champagne-soaked locker room the night the Nationals clinched a playoff berth, right fielder Jayson Werth assessed Williams’s impact with a smile. “More than anything, he kind of stayed out of our way and let us play,” right fielder Jayson Werth said. “He pushed all the right buttons and pulled all the right strings. He did a good job — first-year manager. He was given a good team, though, and he didn’t screw it up.”
The sentiment may seem comical, even demeaning. It is not an insignificant compliment. For a first-year manager, especially one hired to improve a talented team that disappointed, knowing when to loosen the reins requires security and smarts.
“He certainly exuded leadership and a calmness,” Rizzo said Tuesday afternoon at the GM’s meetings in Arizona. “I thought that he had a great season throughout. As he got to know the players, what they can do and what they like to do and can perform, I thought he got more comfortable with himself and was very, very effective coming down the stretch. I thought he did a great job from start to finish, but certainly proved himself as a guy that was very confident and deserves to be the manager of the year.”
Williams focused on detail without being overbearing, and he produced results. Acting on feedback from players at the start of spring training, Williams emphasized solid, aggressive base running. By most any measure, the Nationals were the best base runners in the majors.
“As a staff, we tried to empower our players,” Williams said. “The players decided we were going to be a good team.”
From the start of his managerial career, Williams faced unforeseen challenges. Right-hander Doug Fister strained his lat on the last day of spring training, and Wilson Ramos broke his hamate bone in the seventh inning on opening day. The Nationals lost franchise player Ryan Zimmerman to a broken thumb, moved him to left field upon his return and watched him tear his hamstring, an injury he never fully recovered from. The Nationals played 18 games all season with their entire projected starting lineup.
In the season’s first month, Williams benched star Bryce Harper for failing to run out a groundball. In public perception, Williams had driven a wedge between himself and Harper. In reality, Harper respected the decision and the rest of the Nationals’ clubhouse appreciated Williams holding Harper, the Nationals’ biggest draw and one of their best players, to a standard. Late in the season, Harper invited Williams to his wedding.
The manager of the year award is a regular-season honor, and debate over Williams’s performance in the National League Division Series will persist at least until the Nationals return to the playoffs. Williams removed Jordan Zimmermann one out away from a shutout in a Game 2 in favor of closer Drew Storen, which led ultimately to a defeat. In the series-clinching Game 4, Williams inserted rookie Aaron Barrett in the pivotal seventh inning with no relievers warming behind him, and Barrett allowed the winning run on a walk and a wild pitch.
But Williams still helmed a 96-win power. The Nationals can show their faith in Williams this winter. Last November, Williams signed a two-year contract that included two team options, for 2016 and 2017. If the Nationals do not exercise their first option, Williams will manage 2015 in the final guaranteed year of his contract.
“Those are discussions between Matt and myself,” Rizzo said.
Baltimore Orioles Manager Buck Showalter, whom Williams played for on the Arizona Diamondbacks, won the American League award. He also led a 96-win division winner.
Williams insisted he “never” felt comfortable in his first season, a byproduct of his unrelenting attention to detail. He said a manager shouldn’t feel comfortable, because each day will present a new challenge.
“At this point, we’re looking forward,” Williams said. “Can’t wait to get to Viera and get it started again.”
James Wagner contributed to this report.