Nationals Designate Shawn Kelley for Assignment: Fair Punishment or Overreaction Theatre?

Shawn Kelley‘s temper has officially cost him his job in the Washington Nationals’ bullpen. Kelley was designated for assignment by the team on Tuesday following his outburst on the mound during a 25-4 rout of the New York Mets.

Kelley surrendered three runs in the ninth inning, two of which came on a home run by Austin Jackson. After surrendering the home run, Kelley took his glove and slammed it on the ground in frustration.

According to Kelley’s agent, Mike McCann, the outburst was not borne out of having to pitch what was, at that point, a meaningless inning. McCann gave the following explanation to ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick:

“Agent Mike McCann said Kelley had no issues with pitching in a game that Washington led 25-1 at the time. Kelley was fresh from four days’ rest and began warming up in the bullpen before the phone rang to tell him he would be called upon to pitch the ninth inning, his agent said.

McCann said Kelley grew frustrated when home plate umpire Adrian Johnson implored him to work more quickly, while second base umpire Tripp Gibson simultaneously told him to slow down or be called for a balk.

Kelley looked into the dugout for help because he didn’t want to argue further with the umpires, be ejected from the game and force the Nationals to use another reliever, the agent said.”

Kelley later apologized to his teammates for his actions, but he was designated by the team nonetheless. The Nationals now have seven days to trade him, release him, or place him on outright waivers.

Washington’s general manager, Mike Rizzo, explained his reasoning for designating Kelley after his outburst.

“I thought that the act that he portrayed on the field last night was disrespectful to the name on the front of the jersey, the organization, specifically [manager] Davey Martinez,” general manager Mike Rizzo said Wednesday. “You’re either in or you’re in the way, and I thought he was in the way.

“That’s something that you don’t come back from. It was a disrespectful act, and I thought it warranted him leaving the team. I didn’t see how he could face the rest of his teammates and the coaching staff and the manager again after such a selfish act.”

Kelley, 34, has had a solid 2018 season, posting a 1-0 record with a 3.34 ERA in 35 appearances out of the bullpen. He also sports an impressive 32-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio to this point in the season. There is little doubt that the Nationals will find a trade partner who is willing to take Kelley on.

The bigger question is this: does the punishment fit the crime? Did Shawn Kelley deserve to be jettisoned from a contending team for one outburst on the mound? According to Mike Rizzo, it was, but is he potentially contradicting himself?

This is not the first time that the Nationals or their fans have seen inappropriate or demonstrative behavior from their players. Max Scherzer, for example, is known for wearing his emotions on his sleeve when he is on the mound. Granted, Scherzer has never had quite the meltdown that Kelley had on Monday night, but he has certainly come close. Scherzer has been seen swearing curses to himself on the mound, as well as jumping up and down out of frustration when his fielders are unable to make a play. Yet, Rizzo has never deemed it necessary to discipline his ace for any of those outbursts.

Scherzer himself already had a heated confrontation with fellow teammate, Stephen Strasburg, just a few weeks ago in the Nationals’ dugout. Both of the players involved, as well as the entire organization, swept the incident under the rug when asked about it after the game. Rizzo did not weigh in on the argument at all.

Rizzo was also present for one of the most infamous dugout altercations between Bryce Harper and Jonathan Papelbon, the Nationals’ closer at the time, three years ago. Papelbon was seen criticizing Harper for not running out a ground ball, which led to an argument between the two which ended with Papelbon physically assaulting his teammate in the dugout for everyone to see. Shockingly, Papelbon went back out to the mound the very next inning to pitch. However, Rizzo did subsequently punish Papelbon by suspending him for four games without pay which, when combined with the suspension he was already serving for plunking Manny Machado days earlier, caused him to miss the rest of the season.

While Papelbon was suspended for his actions he still did not lose his job as the team’s closer. As a matter of fact, Rizzo cleared the way for Papelbon to return to that role when he traded his primary competition for the closer job, Drew Storen, to the Blue Jays that offseason. Papelbon, as a result, would go on to reprise the role of closer during the 2o16 season under new manager Dusty Baker.

If Mike Rizzo has such a zero tolerance policy for public outbursts, why were neither of those incidents treated with the same severe punishment as the Shawn Kelley incident? It is fair to say that there is a discrepancy as it pertains to overall talent between players like Scherzer and Kelley. That said, Kelley has been a dependable reliever for the Nationals this year. The team is also still in the midst of a playoff race as they are just 5.0 games out of first place in the National League East division as well as the Wild Card.

Perhaps there are more details to the story that have yet to be revealed, but thus far it reeks of an overreaction that could potentially harm the Nationals in the long run as they strive to keep their playoff hopes alive.

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