If there was any doubt that the Washington Nationals will be listing a job opening for manager after this dumpster-fire of a season concludes, yesterday’s dugout brawl between Jonathan Papelbon and Bryce Harper should have sealed Matt Williams‘s fate. The Nationals responded to Papelbon’s chokehold on Harper by suspending the boorish closer for four games, which combined with his acceptance of a three-game suspension from Major League Baseball for plunking Baltimore Orioles third-baseman Manny Machado last week means Papelbon’s is done for the year.
But at a press conference Monday afternoon, Williams said he is also punishing Harper for “his part in the altercation” by benching the MVP candidate for the day. More knowledgable baseball sages have already written that Sunday’s scrape should be the end of Williams’s mismanagement of a team that was supposed to contend for the World Series, especially with Williams’s decision to let Papelbon pitch the inning following his brazen attack against Harper.
“But if you saw the expression on Papelbon’s face as he entered Williams’s office after the game and you saw the look on Williams, too, this was probably the one day you really would like to have ‘The Big Marine,’ with the put-somebody-in-a-locker reputation, as your manager,” the Washington Post‘s Thomas Boswell wrote.
The New York Times‘s Tyler Kepner added: “…for Williams not to immediately remove Papelbon from the game defies logic. Papelbon went after the best player in the game, Harper, the 22-year-old superstar whose emergence has been by far the best thing that has happened to the Nationals this season. And Papelbon got away with it.”
Williams’s explanation of his post-fight pitching decision to still put in Papelbon—”He’s our closer”—and his move to bench Harper today as punishment for being choked and shoved by a teammate raises questions about the incident, especially in light of Williams’s claims that he was not aware of the fight until he saw it on video after the Nationals’ 12-5 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies. But he later revised that defense to say he only caught a tiny bit of the scrape from the corner of his eye. Did Williams see the fight or not? Was he right to admonish Harper in addition to Papelbon? Is there any outcome from yesterday that does not include Williams being fired?
As you can see from the chart below, there is not. Matt Williams was likely already doomed thanks to his terrible game decisions, but with his inability to prevent and respond to violence between his players, he is in a Kobayashi Maru of his own making: