Now that you’ve had a day to chew on it, how do you feel about the beginning of the Matt Williams era?
In his introductory press conference Friday, Williams sure sounded the part of a 21st-century major league manager, as forward-thinking and embracing of the advanced metrics now frequently used to dissect baseball as he was respectful of the game he loves and true to his deep, traditional roots.
He seemed to say all the right things, but that’s by design. After all, introductory pressers are getting-to-know-you moments, and they’re even more important when the party involved doesn’t possess any significant managerial experience. But as recent history proves (see: Mike Matheny, Robin Ventura, Kirk Gibson, et al), experience isn’t always as important as knowledge, passion and the ability to connect with players on a personal level.
At first blush, it appears Williams has those traits. When a veteran like outfielder Jayson Werth sounds impressed after his first discussion with his new manager, that speaks volumes. And though Williams seems just aloof enough in his early dealings with the media - cracking wise about whether there was too much glare off his bald head during the press conference - there’s also plenty of fire in his eyes. The kind of fire that says, “I’ll work with you and listen to you, but you’d better remember I’m in charge.” Not in a heavy-handed way, but as a reminder that he takes the responsibility of his new job very seriously.
At very least, he deserves the opportunity to put his stamp on a veteran ballclub constructed to contend. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo is bound to do some tinkering with the roster between now and the mid-February beginning of spring training in Viera, Fla., but it was refreshing to hear Williams talk excitedly about abandoning the reliance on three-run homers favored by former manager Davey Johnson for a new scheme where runners are put into motion, where safety squeezes put pressure on opposing defenses, and where pitchers are encouraged to take the bat off of their shoulders and contribute to the offense.
Some of you on Twitter and some of those who comment on our blogs quickly honed in on perhaps the most telling nugget from Williams’ introduction yesterday: the notion that by working hard to score one more run, or diligently defending to prevent an opponent from scoring, that the Williams-led Nationals would set themselves up for success. It’s not exactly new math, the idea of scoring more runs than your opponent; but it’s clear that Williams has no interest, come September, pondering what might have been had a few one-run losses tilted the other way. The message seems to be: Maximum effort and no regrets.
Of all the things I heard, I think I liked most hearing Williams admit that he doesn’t have all the answers. He’s confident without being annoyingly cocky. He’s proud of his pedigree - and his All-Star nods, Gold Gloves, Silver Sluggers and a World Series ring speak volumes - yet keenly aware that they mean nothing now, at the start of this new chapter of his professional life. Yes, it’s curious that he inherited virtually an entire coaching staff from his predecessor; the flip side of that argument is that he’s smart enough to be willing to surround himself with good people who know the territory that’s unfamiliar to him.
Here are some leftovers from the press conference that didn’t find their way into yesterday’s coverage. Maybe they’ll help us better understand how Williams intends to put his unique stamp on the Nationals.
On his philosophy on analytics: “It’s interesting how all of this is part of the game now. It used to be we’d go out and throw balls against the little soft-toss net behind the cage, take some swings, take some grounders, get ready for the game. Spring training was, ‘Hey, let’s run through these three bunt plays and we’ll call it a day. Let’s go whack some balls and make sure that you’re ready for tomorrow.’ It’s gotten a little more complicated these days. I want to use all of it, but I want to use all of it in the right way. I want to get an example of what somebody is going to throw Ian (Desmond) on 2-0. Not necessarily how many sliders he throws, but what is he going to throw him 2-0? What is going to throw him 3-1? So he’s got an idea of what he’s going to throw when he gets ahead in the count. Or what’s he going to go to if he’s trying to get him out behind in the count. We can have paralysis by analysis sometimes, so it’s our job as coaches to take all that information in, filter it, give the guys what they need as opposed to trying to bog them down with information. I want to use all of it, but I want to present them the right information on an everyday basis to make them as good as they can be.”
On criticism that he was too aggressive as Arizona’s third base coach: “A couple of years ago, I led the league in getting guys thrown out at the plate, which is good, I think. I think it’s good. Now the fans of Arizona may think differently, and I’ve heard those fans from time to time. But I think that if you apply pressure, you have the advantage. So that comes in many different forms. You can apply pressure defensively. If you’re in a bases-loaded situation with nobody out, you actually can have the advantage defensively. May be a weird way of thinking, but that’s the way I think. So I will be aggressive. My natural tendency is to go. We saw that coaching third. I will rely on Randy (Knorr) to help me with that and the rest of the coaching staff to help me with that. But I want to steal second base. I want to hit-and-run. I want to go first-to-third. Those are important to me. I think we’ve seen that if we can score that extra run, we can be really special. So aggressiveness is key.”
On whether his lack of experience is a handicap: “I think there’s a lot of aspects to challenges as a manager, and, frankly, as a bench coach, as Randy will attest. There are different things that present themselves every day. We saw it in Game 3 of the World Series ending on an obstruction play. We’ve never seen that. Those challenges, things like that in the course of a game, present themselves. I don’t have 20 years of experience, I can’t claim that I do. But I do know that I have a bench coach and a group of coaches that know these players and have experience and have had success. I hope to learn from them, I hope that they learn from me and I hope collectively we can go in the right direction here.”
On the relationship between a player and his manager: “my job is to take care of these guys. I cherish that relationship, I protect these guys. I am the guy that they can come to and hopefully, Ian can come to me and go, ‘I’m having trouble with my backhand for some reason.’ Let’s work on it. Great. I’ve been there, I’ve done that, I’ve been that guy. Jayson can go, ‘I’m
having trouble doing this or I’m having trouble driving the ball where I want to.’ OK, well here’s a thought. We want to drive a run in, OK, let’s talk about it. I think the fact that I played, that gives me a little bit of authority or knowledge that, ‘Hey, listen, I’ve been there, I’ve been that guy.’ I struck out with the bases loaded, I drove in the winning run, all those things. I’m here to help them as is our coaching staff. They are going to play and they are going to play well. We’re here to try to guide that and help them reach their capabilities, eventually be Hall of Fame players, and eventually be world champions.”
On why he’s the best fit to take over as Nationals manager: “I was asked that question in the interview: Why you? I think the simple answer for me is, I bring passion to the game that I love. This game has given me a lot, and I need to return that. So in whatever aspect of the game we find ourself in, whether it’s offense, defense or pitching, whatever, I’m going to approach it with passion. I’m going to approach it with enthusiasm and a sense of work that I hope will make me a good manager and us a good team.”
On why he came back as a coach after earning millions as a player: “The game drove me back. It’s the greatest game on earth. The game’s given me everything I have in this world. It gave me family, it gave me pride and it gave me a sense of accomplishment. It gave me heartache sometimes. It gave me a world championship ring I get to put on my finger. Not a lot of guys get to do. The game has given me everything. There’s times in your life and in the game that things don’t go the way you want. ... But you owe it to the game to give it all you’ve got and I feel that way. And I believe that. What drove me back to the game after I retired is the game. Because it’s the greatest game on earth. It’s the hardest game to play and those that get to do it are very fortunate.”