LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — During the course of his 17-year major league career as a third baseman for the Giants, Indians and Diamondbacks, new Washington Nationals’ manager Matt Williams hit 378 home runs. After his fantastic media press conference on Tuesday afternoon at the Winter Meetings at the Swan and Dolphin Resort, let’s make it 379. The 48-year old former slugger knocked that sucker out of the park, displaying a firm commitment to his managerial philosophy, a sense of humor and a great understanding for the team’s 2014 needs and pressures during a presser which felt almost like a mini-strategy session.
Despite minimal managerial experience (he served as the interim manager of the AA Mobile BayBears for two months in 2007 and managed the Salt River Rafters of the Arizona Fall League last year), the Nationals’ hired Williams as the club’s fifth manager following his stint as first and third-base coach for the Diamondbacks from 2010-2013. Williams inherits a team that underachieved en route to an 86-win season, failing to make the postseason after a 98-win season in 2012, due in large part to defensive issues and a lack of offensive efficiency. The new manager emphasized the importance of defense and a thoughtful but focused approach to managing the team he hopes to bring to its first World Series (Williams won a championship in 2001 with the Diamondbacks). Here are some of the highlights from the 30-minute session. The guy is the real deal.
On coming into a good situation with the Nationals:
I come to a situation that I think a lot of managers would love to come to, frankly. It is a wonderful team that has good starting pitching, power, speed, defense, everything's here. What I have to do is make sure that I put those guys in position to succeed. It’s going to take more than 25, certainly, we all know that. The good thing about our club and our organization is we have guys that are ready, that are not going to be that 25. If something happens or something goes haywire and we need to get somebody there to play, they step right in and do it. That's a nice feeling to have.
On being the new guy and wanting to learn as he goes:
I'm the new dude. I have tried to let everybody know that, listen, I'm here to learn, as well. I can't sit here in front of you [and say] that I've got 20 years experience, because I don't. I need to learn from them. We sit in that suite up there and our scouting staff has hundreds of years of experience in the game. We've spent long hours in the last two days talking generalities of baseball, specifics of players, organization, certainly our guys that we have that are ready to come to the big leagues. Our guys that are going to be in the big leagues. I'm learning from them, which is a really refreshing thing. Now, I'm going to go out there and be the manager, okay? That's great. But it's going to take all of us to get to where we want to get to. And I've tried to let them know that that's important to me. And it's important to me to have everybody's input. And allow them to give their input I think is important, too. It's been refreshing.
On reaching out to current Nationals players (with an update on Jayson Werth’s beard):
It will all be done before we get to Spring Training. I've talked to seven or eight of the guys so far. I saw Ryan Zimmerman while I was in DC, Adam LaRoche was there. I got a chance to speak to him, sit down with him. Spoke with Ian [Desmond]. We've got a bunch of new babies, so those guys are busy. A lot of guys are busy, so sending texts back and forth, as of right now, let them get their feet wet and do the honey‑do's at home. We'll get to everybody before we get to Spring Training. Even to the point of sending them schedules…I spent an hour with Jayson [Werth], which was good. At his home, which was fun. He is shaggy right now (laughter), which is a good thing.
On the pressures associated with winning:
What I've learned is that this organization is very concerned with winning. There are high expectations, and we all embrace that. You don't get those high expectations unless you have a team that's willing to fulfill them or capable of fulfilling them. So all those things and all the pressure that comes along with that is good. We're embracing that and I'm excited about that. I've learned that they're meticulous in the way they go about planning. And we've had good dialogue, really good dialogue in the last couple of days, and in the suite and amongst the scouts and everybody involved, on potential players and what we could and couldn't do. It's been fun. It's been good.
On planning for the upcoming season and changes to the schedule:
It’s important to see players play. 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. We're going to have a little heavier camp than the organizations have in the last couple of years. So we'll have 60-plus players. It's a function of me wanting to see them, certainly. But it also works for our schedule. You 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 fine‑tuning done.
On working with GM Mike Rizzo regarding personnel decisions:
It’s new because I've never really been the manager that was able to speak in that regard. But it's been great. They ask my opinion. They want to know what I think. They want to know how I would have that player play within the team concept. They want to get any thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses and what they can and can't do. All of those things are important. It is a collective effort, though, I'll tell you that. Rizz takes advice from a lot of people, digests it, processes it, and makes sure that he makes the right decision. And he's done a wonderful job of that.
On expectations for 2014:
This club is very talented, certainly. And they're a little disappointed in how things went last year, especially. Two years ago, winning more games than anyone else and not making it to where they wanted to get to is disappointing. But they're even more disappointed in what happened last year. They want to make amends for that. They want to make sure that doesn't happen again. And that's the players talking, which is great. So you sit there as the manager, man, these guys are on it. They're ready to go. They are itching to get back and start and all of those things. We're going to have to do things right next year, and all of that, to play well. But they're looking to get back, which is a really good sign.
On areas of improvement in 2014:
I can look at the stats and say, you know, what everybody else has said. One, we have to be better than 13th in the league in defense. We have the ability to be better than that, much better than that. So that's something that we want to address. There's a lot of factors that go into that, of course, but it's something that we want to make emphasis on. We want to get to spring and say here's the plan, let's try to go execute that plan.
Offensive efficiency has been talked about a million times, but it's true. Rick Schu is very in tune with that and he's excited to get back to Spring Training. He had a half a year with these guys, and they made great improvement. But he's excited about that prospect, and scoring some more runs.
We know with the pitching staff and what we had last year, and certainly the addition of Doug Fister, it even comes into play more this year, score three runs a game, you have a really good chance. We have to concentrate on that kind of stuff. We've got some fellows with some speed, and we can use that as well. Those are the areas that we want to look at a little bit closer.
On bringing a renewed focus on defense to the team:
We will have defensive meetings certainly every day. Every day within the season for 162 games there will be a defensive meeting. That will be with the pitcher, how he attacks the guys and how we play behind him…We give them the road map. We have all the information in the world that we could possibly want. We want to give that to the staff, let the staff go crazy trying to figure all that out. And then provide something very simple to the players that they can follow or have as a road map going in. And then let them play the game. If you get too aggressive statistically with the players, it tends to be paralysis by analysis. I want Ian to play, I want Ryan to play. I want Stephen [Strasburg] to go out there and not worry about this guy's OPS, but what am I going to do to get him out and have the confidence that I make this pitch and he hits it, he's going to be in the right spot. I think we're making a little bit more of a concentrated effort on playing defense. We're not inventing the wheel, we're just shifting the focus a little bit.
On incorporating advanced statistical measurements into his managerial approach:
We have it already. As I speak Mark Weidemaier [the Nationals’ new defensive coordination advance coach] and our advance scouts are in a meeting. And we've been doing those meetings over the last two or three days. Getting to know each other, one, setting a plan, creating the forms, creating the analysis how we want it, and making that plan going forward. So all of that stuff is being done now. So when we get to the point where we get to actually put the cleats on and the umpire says play ball, we have a plan going forward.
On what it means to be an “aggressive” manager:
What I'm concerned about is using guys' talents the way they want to be used. 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. 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. 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.
On Bryce Harper’s tendency to play hard:
I think you can't control that. Bryce is going for the ball. If he wants to go to the wall to get the ball, he's still going for the ball. You can't tell him not to do that, so sometimes he's diving into the stands and get banged up. And something we may have to deal with. But I love that about him. I love that. I love the fact that he plays the game the right way, every day, and he's all out for his team. If Stephen throws a ball and a guy hits a ball that may just go over the fence, Bryce is going to try to catch it. We love that. And you can't change that about him.
On making sure the team is built for the long haul of 162 games and beyond:
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. Those off-days in April are really important. 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 pinch-hit, that he's got timing. I understand all of those things. I want to do that. Now it's up to me to make the decision, listen, I know Zimm, I know you're doing well, but today is an off-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, and I also understand the grind of making it and winning the World Series, as well. It's a lot of games. We have to make sure we're mindful of their health, if we're going to get to where we want to get to.
Amanda Rykoff will be covering the Winter Meetings this week for The Outside Corner. Follow @amandarykoff for Twitter updates.