By his own admission, Matt Williams’ managerial style will be a work in progress. At his introductory press conference Friday afternoon at Nationals Park, the sixth field manager in Nats history was consistent in his use of the word “fluid” to describe how he’ll approach his rookie season as a major league skipper.
“The plan’s fluid,” he said, “and it will present itself differently every day.”
But it won’t be difficult to pinpoint one facet of the Williams era that will quickly distinguish the former third base coach of the Arizona Diamondbacks from his immediate predecessor, Davey Johnson. Asked to describe himself in a word, the 47-year-old Williams didn’t skip a beat.
“I think it’s aggressive - in every aspect,” William said. “We’re going to try to take advantage of the situation that presents itself to us. We’re going to try to ... If a guy’s slow to the plate, we’re going to run. We want to put guys in motion and hit-and-run. We want to do some things that are maybe outside the box in getting a guy in from third base. Certainly, that’s a process. But that’s what I think. You can’t score unless you touch the plate, so we got to go. And we got to defend that plate with everything we’ve got as well.”
All it took was one mention of Nationals wunderkind Bryce Harper to make Williams’ eyes light up. For a manager who prides himself on being aggressive, Harper is just the kind of player he wants to build around.
“He is all-out, every day, all the time, every game,” Williams said. “He’s paid for it by getting injured and running into walls. The greatest compliment I have heard is Mr. (Ted) Lerner, the night he ran into the wall in L.A., asked how the wall was. Everybody loves that about him.
“Now can we be a little smarter sometimes? Sure. And not necessarily run into that wall? Of course. The kid’s 21 years old. Let him go - this is a stallion. This is a guy that is ready to just explode. We’re going to try to give him the game plan to do that.”
How that will be accomplished, how Williams will undertake the job of endearing himself to a clubhouse that was firmly in the corner of bench coach Randy Knorr as Johnson’s successor, is to be determined. But Williams doesn’t think a major overhaul is needed for a club that crumbled under the expectations of a 98-win 2012 season and its first playoff appearance, a club that stumbled out of the gate in 2013, unable to finish strong enough to return to the postseason.
“I think we can refine some things,” he said. “Just make a tweak here or there that will allow us to ... get an extra run a game. Or cut down a run per game. The stats don’t lie, like I talked about. If we can score one more and cut ‘em down one, we have a really good chance. And so that’s the objective. On an everyday basis, that’s what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Williams has precious little managerial experience. A few weeks as a fill-in skipper at Double-A Mobile a couple of seasons ago, and last fall as the man in charge of the Salt River Rafters in the Arizona Fall League. But he’s learned something from each of the coaches and managers he’s played under, and hopes those baseball lessons help define him.
Dusty Baker, his hitting coach in San Francisco, taught him the mechanics of hitting. Through long talks in the cage, Baker became a trusted mentor. Williams hopes to replicate Baker’s ability to relate to players. Some in baseball think it’s a knock to be considered a players’ manager; Williams believes forging effective relationships with those on his team is critical.
Williams calls former Arizona manager Buck Showalter, now at the helm of the Orioles, the most prepared field boss he’s ever encountered. Williams isn’t sure he wants to sleep at the ballpark like Showalter did when he skippered the Diamondbacks, but he wants to mimic his former manager’s detail-oriented focus.
From Bob Brenley, who steered the D-backs to the 2001 World Series, Williams learned to appreciate the leeway veterans were given to lead the clubhouse. That, Williams said, laid the groundwork and allowed for younger players to fall in line while keeping their eyes trained on the ultimate goal.
Williams especially wants to hear from his players and coaching staff. In the press conference, he pointed out outfielder Jayson Werth, a veteran on an experienced ballclub, and said he was interested in what every corner of his clubhouse thinks. The fact that in June 2011 he jawed across Chase Field with Werth after criticizing Nats catcher Wilson Ramos for admiring a home run a little too long? Ancient history, now that they’re on the same side, sharing a common goal.
“That’s the kind of relationship I want to have with this club, with these guys, that they can come to me with anything and I can go to them with anything, and it’s a conversation between men,” Williams said.
Williams, while decidedly old school in some regards, has also embraced the notion that advanced metrics mesh with the eye test to create a fuller view of the game on the field. In that respect, he’s like Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, an early convert to sabermetrics who still appreciates the impact of what he can see, hear and feel on the diamond.
It’s not such a fine line, balancing between old school and being sabermetrically friendly, Williams said, even though they’re opposite extremes to some observers.
“It’s only extreme if you let it be extreme,” Williams said. “Old school is old school, and that’s great. But if you don’t get along with the times, bro, you better just step aside because this just is not going to work. You can’t be so one way or the other that you’re just blind to the other side because there’s advantages to looking at the other side. So I try to take a little bit of all of it. Old school in how we go about it? Yeah. Respect your opponent, go hard, do the things you need to do to be a good teammate - all of those things. That’s old school. ... But there’s also some analytics that can apply, too, and we have to look into all of it and use all of it if we want to compete for a championship.”