During his playing career, Matt Williams was a skilled third baseman who won four Gold Glove awards and slugged 378 home runs during a stellar 17-year career.
It’s those attributes that will serve him well in his new role as manager of the Washington Nationals.
Introduced on Friday as the new skipper, replacing Davey Johnson, Williams was recognized as a gritty player who embodied the old-school way of playing. However, in his comments, Williams acknowledged that sabermetrics and new analytics will be a big part of his philosophy.
"Old school is old school, and that's great," Williams said, "but if you don't get along with the times, bro, you better just step aside."
Williams is retaining almost the entire coaching staff that served under Johnson in 2013, but there is one notable exception. He hired Mark Weidemaier, who will be in charge of defensive positioning and alignment.
As a third base coach with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Williams was well known for his aggressive style in sending runners home. He stated on Friday that he has no intentions of backing away from that style.
"I will be aggressive. My natural tendency is to go. ... I want to steal second base. I want to hit-and-run. I want to go first-to-third. Those are important to me," Williams said. "I think we've seen that if we can score that extra run, we can be really special. So aggressiveness is key."
Williams also said that he doesn’t believe things are broken in Washington. The Nationals played at near the .500 level for much of the 2013 season before getting hot in September and finishing with an 86-76 record.
"I can't say anything needs to be fixed. What I can say is that there are some things we can refine," he said. "I think we can play a little bit smarter baseball. I think we can use the tools that are given to us a little better."
For sure, Williams takes over a team with a plethora of talent. Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Ian Desmond and Jayson Werth form a terrific nucleus. Along with young stars like Anthony Rendon and Taylor Jordan, the Nationals will be one of the favorites to win the National League pennant in 2014.
Desmond attended the press conference, and after listening to Williams’ comments, he said, "I'm intrigued by all the things he is saying."
General manager Mike Rizzo told the Washington Post on Thursday that the traits that Williams possessed as a player will translate well in his new role.
“Matt Williams’s ascension to the manager’s position took a long time and took a lot of stick-to-it-ness for him,” Rizzo said. “Here’s a guy who has made a lot of money as a player and doesn’t need to get into coaching or managing. But because of his passion for the game and his love for baseball, it kinda feeds him. He wants to be in it. He’s a guy who was a manager in training as a player. He was one of those players who was a manager on the field and put his apprenticeship in as a coach in the big leagues and a manager in the Arizona Fall League, so that type of thing. There are different routes to the manager’s office. I think experience is important, but you can get experience in many different ways.”
So, Williams will now get to work in preparing for his first spring training and starting the process of getting to know his players. As he grows into his role, he’ll likely have a few missteps along the way, and he’ll go through times when he’ll wonder why he ever took the job. But in the end, his selection as the Nationals manager will in fact be a decision that could well turn the Nationals into champions in the not-so-distant future.