Crash Landing: Brundage’s Irresponsible Mishandling of Nick Williams

A year ago, I was a vocal critic of Ryne Sandberg. It wasn’t a role I relished or enjoyed, but it’s one that I couldn’t escape. At the time, the reports from beat writers and the quotes from players painted a picture of clubhouse disarray which was directly attributable to Sandberg’s managerial style and impacted team performance. I typically avoid clubhouse storylines because they are frequently little more than gossipy whispers or fluff, but in this case, there was a clubhouse situation which had a direct impact on the product on the field. I took notice, I formed opinions, and I expressed them. Well, it’s time to step outside my comfort zone and do the same thing once again, only this time it’s about a clubhouse about sixty miles north of Citizens Bank Park.

My philosophy on baseball managers is that their primary job is to put their players in a position to succeed. This covers tasks from managing pitcher workloads to properly deploying platoons to the most basic of tasks: teaching and guiding players. For young players in general and minor leaguers in particular, the type of success they should be set up for by their coaches is long-term success. There may be a 30-year-old journeyman AAAA player who is more likely to succeed in a game against a particularly challenging opponent, but developing players need the opportunity to face those challenges head on to prepare for the possibility of a major league future. Preparing for success in the majors is the goal and it’s the goal at which Lehigh Valley manager Dave Brundage has failed 22-year-old outfield prospect Nick Williams in recent weeks.

On Monday night, Williams was pulled from the game for not busting it out of the box after hitting a broken-bat grounder. As Matt Breen of philly.com reported, Brundage elected to bench Williams for the following night’s game as well. It was the second time this month Brundage benched Williams for a perceived lack of hustle.

It’s a short piece worth a full read, but here a few key passages:

The outfielder was held out of triple-A Lehigh Valley’s lineup after not hustling Monday when he hit a ground ball to the pitcher. Williams broke his bat on the play and was frustrated. He threw his helmet when he returned to the dugout.

IronPigs manager Dave Brundage benched Williams for two games earlier this month when Williams did not run hard after hitting a pop-up that was dropped. It was not certain that Williams would return to the lineup on Wednesday.

…Brundage said that benching Williams is about “teaching him how to play the game right.”

…Williams appeared to be pushing for a promotion to the majors, but this incident could delay that. It also could give Williams a label in Philadelphia before ever playing a game with the Phillies. He said he read a few comments on social media but was not concerned.Matt Breen, philly.com

First, let’s look at the infractions being discussed: 1) Not running out a routine pop up. 2) Not hustling on a broken-bat grounder back to the pitcher’s mound. Hustle is a key and valid component in sports no matter how frequently it gets mocked in stat-friendly circles. Demonstrating effort — even if it’s only the illusion of effort — is key to success in any field and it’s magnified in baseball by the fact that, one time out of a hundred, hustling out of the box will be the difference between being safe or out after a fielder bobbles the baseball. There’s an excellent argument to be made that conservation of energy on routine grounders is a valid and responsible strategy for maintaining health, especially as a player ages, but that doesn’t negate the fact that effort and hustle matter. As a result, coaching staffs are correct to communicate to their players the importance of “giving 110%” or “leaving it all on the field” or whatever the appropriate cliche du jour is. But here we come to a key problem: communication.

As Greg Joyce of lehighvalleylive.com reported, that communication did not happen.

Asked if there was anything to Williams being pulled, Brundage said, “You can ask him. That’s about it.”

Williams said he received no explanation.

“Nope,” Williams said. “I can’t even tell you how I feel about that, honestly. It is what it is.” The Phillies’ No. 2 prospect said he was “extremely” surprised to be pulled.

“Can’t do nothing about that,” he said. “I didn’t say anything, I just took my seat. I don’t know. I have no explanation.”Greg Joyce, lehighvalleylive.com

This is the case of a manager getting extraordinarily nitpicky in his criticism of a player, publicly disciplining him, and not discussing the matter with the player. This is not an enforcement of a universal rule (I haven’t watched the IronPigs this season, but I would bet almost anything that there have been other IronPigs this season to go less than 100% out of the box without getting benched), but was instead a targeted lesson for Williams. And for what? A micromanagement of hustle for a guy who currently has the major leagues firmly in his sights. Motivation should not be an obstacle in coaching a player as painfully close the majors as Williams is right now and, yet, the only way Brundage can find to communicate a message is through punitive punishments.

Which brings us to the final and, in my estimation, most egregious failing in Brundage’s handling of this situation: the public punishment. One benching is standard enough for the baseball community. Players get benched and in the minors it may raise an eyebrow, but hardly anyone pays a notice. But two benchings in a matter of weeks? Now that grabs headlines and it saddles Williams with a problematic reputation before he ever suits up in Philadelphia. There are earned reputations of poor character which plague minor leaguers, but a guy who didn’t go 100% down the line on routine plays? Is that really the type of player who deserves to be saddled with character questions in the weeks leading up to his major league debut? Is this the message you really want to convey to a fan base deeply invested in the progress of prospects during a comprehensive rebuild? Is that putting Nick Williams in a position to succeed?

No. It’s putting Nick Williams in a position to be publicly embarrassed and forced to answer to the Philadelphia media for minor transgressions which have been transformed into a major concern. At a time when his primary focus should be on developing into the best ball player he can be, Nick Williams will now be forced to answer for controversies manufactured by his own manager. A manager must find ways to communicate, discipline, and motivate without putting unearned hardships on his player, but unfortunately Brundage badly bungled this situation and, in doing so, made Williams’ path going forward more challenging that it ever needed to be.

Leave a Reply

*

25 comments

  1. John

    June 30, 2016 08:35 AM

    -
    -39

    The coach is absolutely right. Conserve energy when your 22 years old? Give me a break. This coach is trying to take an immature hot dog attitude and nip it at the bud. Would you rather have him benched in a major league game that means something? Everybody can’t hit 340 but everybody can hustle.

    • Brad Engler

      June 30, 2016 10:34 AM

      @john, did you see the play in question. It happened right in front of him in an instant. Hard hit back to the box and the pitcher grabbed it. He could not have beaten the pitcher to first in a footrace at that point. His reaction was simply that – he had lost the AB and he knew it, and no amount of hustle would change the outcome. To me, there are plenty of times to demand hustle, but there are also moments when a player should be allowed to show the emotion he’s feeling, upset at a hard-hit ball being gobbled up before he even got out of his follow-through. Williams didn’t take the instant to think “oh I’d better run” because his mind told him the race was over. Good luck changing that reaction to anything other than “running for no reason”, with a public benching.

      Brundage was wrong in his handling of the benching and overreacted to the event in the first place. A failure of a man charged with professional development of a big leaguer.

      • Romus

        June 30, 2016 01:23 PM

        Pete Mack…”I don’t like it….if you are (not)the type of player that doesn’t play hard, we don’t want you…..I am sure it will sink in with him”.

      • Henry

        July 01, 2016 06:29 AM

        With all due respect that’s a load of bs. Williams knew exactly why he was benched. It’s not the first time he has not run out a ball. If you’ve ever played the game at a high level you’d know this generally not accepted by anyone. Did the manage handle it correctly by calling him out directly to the press? No but this whole thing has been blown way out of proportion.

    • L

      September 16, 2016 07:43 AM

      Exactly

  2. Paul

    June 30, 2016 08:52 AM

    This is the best criticism of benching players for perceived lack of hustle I have ever read. The key was that second benching — silly, and now Williams will have to answer for it. Literally and figuratively. I just hope Klentak and Macphail called out Brundage on this.

  3. Fat Ted

    June 30, 2016 08:56 AM

    It’s a manager trying to be seen, rather than helping the player to succeed. It’s rather selfish.

  4. Dante

    June 30, 2016 09:46 AM

    I agree with a lot if this, but I take issue with tying the impact of the punishment to his proximity to the big leagues. I think that is irrelevant. It shouldn’t matter if he’s a top prospect in AAA or a low upside guy in Lakewood – if the manager thinks this will be an effective motivational move, it has equal merit in each case. The manager is closer to these players than we are and likely has a better idea what can motivate them. We have seen a similar move done with Herrera at the MLB level (multiple times as well), so no player should be immune to being reprimanded for lack of hustle. Not all players respond to the same motivational tactics, so it’s not imperative to bench every player who doesn’t hustle.

    I think the main issue here was not communicating the problem to the player, at least not timely. It’s like he told his kid to go to his room, but never told him what he did wrong, expecting him to just “know” what he did wrong. I don’t understand this tactic, and it seems prevalent in baseball. It’s pretty clear that if the player did something wrong, he probably doesn’t see the error, so pointing it out is a clearly helpful way of addressing it directly and makes it easier to learn and move on.

    • Mark

      June 30, 2016 12:35 PM

      Not sure what the big deal is.. I can tell you when I got sent to my room or had my car keys taken, I knew exactly why and didn’t have to be told.. but am I going to tell you why.. probably not. I have seen numerous times a pitcher fielding a ground ball and the toss to the first baseman doesn’t go as planned, where if the runner is running hard outta the box he’s safe at first.

  5. Jerome

    June 30, 2016 09:49 AM

    -
    -19

    I think Brundage misspoke. I believe he really meant to say that he wanted to teach Nick Williams to “play the game white”

    • CJ

      July 01, 2016 01:32 PM

      I don’t think you made the point you wanted to make, but you made one you certainly did not want to make.

  6. rlh1004

    June 30, 2016 11:06 AM

    Really the only part of this that I take issue with is the lack of communication. That, to me, is just unbelievable… How can that much of a communication disconnect occur at the highest levels of such a lucrative industry?

    What Williams is going through seems comparable to my struggles with trying to figure out what made my wife so angry with me… Need “Mind Reading for Dummies”.

    • Romus

      July 01, 2016 08:01 AM

      Actually on a side…Williams and Garret Anderson would make an interesting physical profile and defensive comp….not sure about their minor league metrics however. Also appears Williams will be ticketed for LF in Philly.

  7. Kevin

    June 30, 2016 02:40 PM

    where does this sense of entitlement come from?
    the manager and the player should absolutely be on the same page, so the manager has to let the played know specifically why he was benched. the point of the benching is so that the player learns from what he did wrong, but none of these prospects regardless of what level of prospect they are should be/feel entitled to not have the same things expected of them such as always giving it 100%. if Nick Williams feels embarrassed then that’s his own fault. if he was benched once and then still did something deserving of another benching then I guess he didn’t learn the first time. the triple A manager doesn’t care and shouldn’t care what the fan base thinks of this happening. it’s the managers job to make the player a better player, and for the player to learn from his mistakes, especially in the minors so the same mistakes are not made in the majors where there would be a lot more attention.
    this would be like criticizing a father for disciplining a child for something the child did wrong.

  8. Nathan Fisher

    June 30, 2016 04:23 PM

    One of my favorite Phillie players was Jim Thome who taught me (a Phillies fan for 66 years) about being professional, playing the game with respect, and being a leader. When the Phils took the field between innings, Thome was ALWAYS the FIRST player to assume his position ready to throw the ball to his fellow infielders. Nick Williams has to learn to subordinate the “I” and focus on the”TEAM!” Another of my “favs” is Chase Utley who would NEVER give up on a play.
    Hopefully, Nick Williams will grow and learn and overcome this challenge.
    Corrine: I hope we can agree to disagree regarding this issue. I AM a fan of your articles!

  9. pete rose

    June 30, 2016 05:08 PM

    If you polled the team anonymously, bet Brundage would win. These things don’t happen in a vacuum, everyone has to care and play hard or give off the illusion of caring – he’s being paid to do a job. Bet Nick would be pissed if the owner walked his pay check to him whenever he felt frustrated.

  10. ryan

    June 30, 2016 05:37 PM

    Can we please stop talking about this like there was a mistake made on Williams’ part? He’s playing in an instructional league and was probably more focused on the outcome of an at bat where he was focusing on something else. Next time all of you self righteous armchair coaches are working on a new skill at work, imaging your boss coming over and reprimanding you (publicly, no less) for making a spelling mistake.

    Utley is my favorite player of all time, a big part of which is attributed to his hustle. On the other hand, we’ll never know how much unnecessary damage he did to his knees running out completely useless plays. In reality, he probably eeked out a hundred extra bases at the expense of a few seasons. I don’t think Cano ever had the ceiling of Utley, but he’s going to waltz into cooperstown while Utley is going to be a hard sell.

    Here’s a final piece of life advice for everyone. There is a concept called opportunity cost associated with every action. It’s the notion that while performing any act, or making any decision, you are also forgoing all of the other actions or decisions you could be making at that same time. Successful decision makers generally turn the decisions that they would make every single time into habit, which I assume Brundage is trying to do with running like a maniac out of the gate. I challenge the assertion that you should run as hard as possible to first base on every single play. Instead, I’d expect the highly trained professional hitter to assess each situation to maximize the outcome.

    Maybe someone’s done this before, but for any type of enlightened debate on the effectiveness of running at max speed, we’d need to know two things.For all balls put in play that are immediately categorized as highly likely outs, we’d first need to know the expected value of reaching base at max speed minus the expected value of jogging speed. That’s your delta. That’s the entire upside. Second, for all balls put in play, you’d need to calculate the expected injury risk of immediately running at max speed minus the risk of injury while jogging.

    Then, assuming we could get that information, we’d need to assess the present value of all current players, multiply the likelihood (and type!) of additional injury risk of running at full speed and come up with a risk profile for each player. Aka, the replacement gap between Trout and Bourjous (last year for example) if Trout suffers a hamstring injury running out a dribbler to the pitcher vs the nearly zero gap between current Bourjous and Goeddel.

    Even with all of that info, you’d still need to take into account fielders, positions and general conditions to really make a solid decision. That said, I believe it’s a complicated situation that can’t be summed up with “play the game the right way”.

    The easiest rebuttal to that tirade would be to say “there is no opportunity cost to running hard every single time,” which I disagree with, but at that point we’d need to agree to disagree. In that case though, I’d love to quantitatively hear how much you really expect to gain by giving max effort in extremely low probability situations.

    • pete rose

      June 30, 2016 06:04 PM

      Like i said above, these things don’t happen in a vacuum. You think coaches and people don’t recognize frustration from failure & pressure? We only find out about the camel back breaking incident, but everyone in the locker room knows who cares, who’s a me guy and who’s a turd. But people can always grow and get better.

  11. Bill

    June 30, 2016 08:36 PM

    This article tells me nothing? why do we still publish this shit?

  12. Eric D

    June 30, 2016 09:10 PM

    Where is the issue? Players at the MLB level who are bigger stars then Williams (and prob bigger then he will ever be) have been benched for the same thing. Also it was the bottom of the 8th inning in a game he was 0-4, do you only bench him for half an inning (if winning)? What does that do? Williams was prob happy that he didn’t have to go back out into the field (not to mention he also threw his equipment). With all the talk of what minor league players make I doubt a fine would have been what Williams wanted as a replacement “punishment”. I can’t imagine that Williams didn’t know exactly why he was taken out esp bc it’s happened before . . . just because he didn’t say anything that night, i’m sure he had a conversation the first time it happen where he let him know if it happens again he’s coming out and being benched (I’ve coached since I stopped playing in college and there was never a time I or any other coach disciplined a player and they didn’t know why, I mean think about that). You can also make an argument that it’s good this is happening at AAA and not at the next level.

  13. JustBob

    June 30, 2016 10:13 PM

    There are always two sides to any issue but I find it highly unlikely that Brundage didn’t speak to Williams after the game about this entire thing.

    Brundage should have just said it was a matter he was not going to discuss publicly but I tend to think Williams is lying that he has ‘no reason’ on why he was benched too.

  14. Henry

    July 01, 2016 06:30 AM

    With all due respect that’s a load of bs. Williams knew exactly why he was benched. It’s not the first time he has not run out a ball. If you’ve ever played the game at a high level you’d know this generally not accepted by anyone. Did the manage handle it correctly by calling him out directly to the press? No but this whole thing has been blown way out of proportion.

  15. Rei De Bastoni

    July 01, 2016 09:34 AM

    As far as I’m concerned, if you’re not going to get mad at a pitcher for running out most grounders, you can’t get mad about a position player not running out a guaranteed out.

    The reason we don’t get mad at a pitcher doing it is because WE DON’T WANT HIM TO GET HURT RUNNING! If we acknowledge that possibility for pitchers, it must be the same for position players, especially in a throwaway instructional league game.

    Remember Ryan Howard’s final out in the Division Series against the Cardinals? He came out of the box and blew his wheels trying to run too fast.

    And what is this hustle for? An extra 2 or 3 bases a year max? How many pop ups get dropped, how many easy dribblers get flubbed just enough but not too much that the hustle gets the batter the base?

    Yes, if it’s anywhere near close, he should be going hard.

    The fact he’s not listening to his coaches is troubling. But this generation’s obsession toward keeping things done the old way without any critical thought about it is the most concerning of all.

Next ArticleProspect Matt Imhof Announces He Lost An Eye In A Training Accident