David Huzzard: Early returns on Matt Williams and the Nats

The early-season magnifying glass is intense. Coming into the series against the Marlins, Bryce Harper was in a bad slump. His upper and lower halves were not in sync and he struggled to get around on the ball, and because it was the only sample size people had, they put more meaning to it than it deserved. If Harper had had two bad series in the month of June, no one would have noticed, but because it is April everything is noticed.

The same can be said of Stephen Strasburg and the two bad starts he’s had to start the season. A phrase heard often this time of year is that players and teams are “on pace for (fill in the blank).” In baseball, no one is ever on pace for anything. It is a game of averages, of ebbs and flows, rises and falls, peaks and valleys. Baseball is not a game of steady progression. That makes it difficult to judge anything that happens over the course of the first couple of weeks of the season, but still we try.

Matt Williams is the biggest difference between the 2013 and the 2014 Nationals, but how much his presence matters has yet to be determined. Record-wise, the Nationals are in the exact same place as they were in 2013, but in 2013, the Nationals had been outscored by three runs. So far in 2014, the Nationals have scored 42 runs and allowed 26. A much bigger and better difference to see for a 6-2 team and one that holds more promise for the future.

Early in 2013, the Nats were winning, but it wasn’t pretty. The 2014 Nationals have made a couple of fielding errors, but the 2013 Nats were just plain sloppy. They couldn’t get out of their own way and it is hard not to credit a lackadaisical spring training to some degree. As soon as Williams was hired by Mike Rizzo, he mapped out spring training. It wasn’t going to be a boot camp for the players, but it was going to be more structured and taken seriously. Spring training 2013 felt like a chore that could be put off because it didn’t matter, whereas spring training 2014 felt like training for the regular season.

It is going to be years before Williams the manager can be properly judged. His career could go the way of Tommy Lasorda, who took over a very good Dodgers team from Walter Alston and appeared in four World Series, winning two. It could go the way of Manny Acta, who didn’t have a chance with a very bad Nationals team and then went to Cleveland and wore out his welcome there, as well. Or it could go the way of Terry Francona, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre, who didn’t have success on their first stops but found it in their second.

Early returns on Williams aren’t much different than promised. There has been some aggression on the bases when it comes to going first to third or running on contact. The Nats have stolen the fewest bases in the National League and it is uncertain if that is going to change as the season progresses. The Nats are still built as a power-hitting club that would do better to wait for the three-run homer than to try and force the issue. Williams doesn’t want to force the issue so much as take advantage of opportunity.

The aggressive baserunning on contact plays has paid off in a couple of extra runs scored. Think of a hit to the outfield gap with a runner on first. The outfielder has to retrieve the ball cleanly and make a good throw to a cutoff man, who then has to handle that throw and throw it accurately to home plate, where the catcher is waiting to receive the throw and apply the tag to the runner. That is six separate actions that have to all go smoothly in order for the runner to be out while the runner is completing the one and single action of moving forward at a heightened speed. This was the philosophy of Ty Cobb, to make the other guy beat you, and it is the philosophy of Matt Williams. Put the pressure on the defense and make certain they know they’re the ones that have to beat you, and not the other way around.

The end of 2014 is a long way off. Eight out of 162 games is nothing. The Nationals are off to a good start and how much of it has to do with Williams has yet to be determined. It is an easy trap to fall into to try and judge with the only sampling on hand, but we’re months away from the conclusion to the 2014 season and years away from the end of Williams’ career as a manager.

David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals at Citizens of Natstown. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHuzzard. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our regular roster of writers.

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