LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla - One of the most interesting storylines that will play out when the Nationals arrive at Space Coast Stadium for their first spring training under new skipper Matt Williams is his evolution as a manager. While Williams has said he wants to be aggressive - playing to players’ strengths, forcing things on offense and making opponents defend against his club - Williams is pretty much a blank canvas as a manager.
Yes, there was some fill-in work at Double-A Mobile, and a stint as a field boss in the Arizona Fall League. But dealing with major leaguers is a whole different ballgame, with understanding deep histories and managing super-sized egos as important as positioning players on cutoffs or determining when to put a hit-and-run into effect.
Williams isn’t about to get caught up in whether the fact that foes don’t have a book on him constitutes an advantage for the Nationals early in his tenure. To hear him tell it, the focus is and always will be on the field, not in the dugout.
“What I’m concerned about is using guys’ talents the way they want to be used,” he said. “So if we have a guy that can steal 20 bases, we want to try to take advantage of that. We want to let him have that opportunity. That’s what I mean by being aggressive, that’s what I mean. It’s not, ‘Listen, when we get on first, we’re going to go.’ That’s ludicrous and that’s not something that you want to do as a manager.
“But we want to let guys use their talent. So that being said, aggression comes from not only offense, but defense, as well. We want to put pressure on the opposing team from a defensive standpoint, too. We have good pitchers. Certainly, a fantastic starting rotation and we want to put pressure defensively, as well. It’s just a question of knowing your guys. That’s what I’m concentrating on now.”
His first Winter Meetings as a manager have been a whirlwind for Williams, but he’s no deer in the headlights. He’s been meeting with the Nationals contingent at the Swan and Dolphin Resort, giving his input on everything from potential trades and free agent signings while learning key personnel from the front office down. He’s met with scouts on all levels of the organization and has started the process of implementing the coaching position he added to his major league staff. Mark Weidemaier has joined Washington from the Diamondbacks and will be responsible for defensive positioning based on advanced scouting reports.
“All the advance metrics analysis equipment and people are here,” said general manager Mike Rizzo. “We have the advance scout, Bob Johnson, and we have our two video people ... here, and Wiedemaier, who is going to implement all the information. They all get to talking and they’ve been talking on a daily basis. Getting all their forms together and getting the computer programming up and running the way we want it. We’ve made a lot of changes in the forms and formats and there’s been a lot of discussions about it. It’s been going along extremely well.”
Rizzo said the Nationals plan to implement the new system from the major leagues and down through the minor league system. The equipment, for example, won’t be the same at the Gulf Coast League as the Nationals will enjoy in the majors, but the process will help to train all players in the organization so that they can expect the same defensive alignments and shifts at all levels.
That will be one of the major differences fans will see between how old school managers like Davey Johnson and Jim Riggleman set up their defenses and how Williams, who embraces some of the advanced metrics now utilized to break down the game, prefers to proceed. For Williams, it’s part of an evolution, matching more than a century of strategy and belief with the newfangled number-crunching that has swept over the game.
Some things, however, won’t be changed by sabermetrics and its sometimes indecipherable acronym-based abbreviations that confound casual fans.
Williams wants to give his charges as much information as he can, but will balance that goal with the need to avoid what he calls “paralysis by analysis” - in other words, he doesn’t want to fill their heads with so much knowledge that they can’t just go out and react. Along the same lines, Williams wants to make sure he uses every guy on his team, meaning fans are likely to see the last couple of guys on the 25-man roster more than they might have previously been used to.
“It’s interesting because there’s two sides of that coin,” Williams explained. “You want to win every game - today is the most important game. But you also have to understand that I need Wilson Ramos healthy in September, as well. If we want to get where we want to get to and do what we need to do, I need him healthy. And he wants to be healthy. So those offâ€‘days in April are really important.
“So in that regard, I want to make sure that I’m getting guys starts that aren’t regular guys, so they’re fresh, so if I have got to pull a trigger in the eighth inning and have a guy to pinchâ€‘hit, that he’s got timing. I understand all of those things. So I want to do that.”
Will that fly on a veteran-laden team, where guys aren’t necessarily used to days off, whether they’re in April or August?
“Now it’s up to me to make the decision,” Williams said. “Listen, I know (Ryan Zimmerman), I know you’re doing well, but today is an offâ€‘day for you, and that’s the way it’s going to be, because this is better for the long run. I’m going to have to make those decisions.
“I’m not afraid to because I understand the grind of 162 (games), and I also understand the grind of making it and winning the World Series, as well. So it’s a lot of games. So we have to make sure we’re mindful of their health, if we’re going to get to where we want to get to.”
Williams is already formulating plans for 2014 - for everything from how spring training drills will be run to possible lineups. He’s got to get his eyeballs on as many players as possible in a short period of time. So when the Nationals get to Viera, Fla., for six weeks of spring camp, they might be in a different environment than the slow-and-steady workouts Johnson preferred. And Williams expects to have about 60 guys in major league camp when workouts begin.
“It’s a function of me wanting to see them, certainly,” Williams said. “But it also works for our schedule. (I think) you (will) see a little bit of different schedule, I think, than you’ve seen in the past. It will be rapid fire, and it will be very short. But that’s by design, that we can get our work done as a group and then we can break off into our individual work later in the day or earlier in the morning to get our fineâ€‘tuning done.”
Beyond learning his players, Williams wants to make sure he sees the player beyond the profile.
“That’s important: to see players play,” he said. “And again, you can look at stats and say, ‘This guy hit 25 homers,’ but I want to know the intricacies of the player. I want to know what his instincts are.”
It may take some getting used to, but Williams is up to the challenge. For now, the approach resonates with Rizzo, who likes the way Williams is approaching the formative days of his tenure. In settings both formal and casual, the GM said Williams is a quick study and fitting in nicely.
“The thing that’s stood out to me is he’s a good listener,” Rizzo said. “He really absorbs information, filters it, takes his time and then gives an assessment of it. He fits in perfectly in the room. His input is concise and articulate, and he shows a lot of the same characteristics he did in the interview process, but on a whole new level of specifics, according to how he sees this roster unfolding, how he’s going to utilize it throughout the season.”
Beyond that, Williams is quickly becoming one of the guys, meaning for a more seamless transition.
“Matt has really been immersed in with the guys,” Rizzo said. “He’s a baseball guy. We have a baseball shop. So he fits in perfectly there.”