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.