Attempting to Deduce Matt Williams

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As soon as the news of who the Nats would hire was leaked I was asked my
opinion of the move. At that time I had no opinion and it is still hard to form
one as the Nationals are holding off until after the World Series to make the
move official. Once it is official there will be a press conference and
interviews and we’ll have somewhat more of an idea of what Matt Williams’
philosophy is. As of right now there are some ways to figure out what Matt
Williams might do by looking at the Arizona Diamondbacks.   

The most important thing to understand in this is that Matt Williams isn’t
Kirk Gibson, but it is hard to think that he didn’t learn something working
under Kirk Gibson and that as a member of his coaching staff some of their
philosophies might be the same. One of the most important things that the
Diamondbacks did offensively in 2013 is they didn’t bunt. The Diamondbacks were
one of the least bunting teams in the NL finishing with the third least bunts
in the NL while the Nationals were near the top in sacrifice attempts with the
third most. The Diamondbacks were also one of the best teams in the NL in
getting on base with a .323 OBP which was good for the fourth best in the
league. This high OBP came from the fact that they had the third most walks in
the NL.   

How much that has to do with Gibson or
Williams is questionable, but all season out of Cincinnati it was heard how
Joey Votto needed to walk less and swing more. That he was a middle of the
order bat and his job was to drive in runs and not let the opposing team pitch
around him. There have been times in the career of Dusty Baker when he has
almost disdained the walk. He called Barry Bonds a base clogger. At the very
least it appears that the Diamondbacks philosophy was not to be afraid of
walks; that they valued not making outs and moving the line to the next man up.
That will ultimately add more runs over the course of the season than hitting a
lot of sac flies or making outs to move a runner from first to second or second
to third, and having a manager that won’t shy away from it is important.

But again it is unknown whether it is
the philosophy that led the players taking what was given or if they were those
types of players to begin with. Davey Johnson preached much the same thing but
framed it under the terms of being aggressive in the strike zone. I never
bought into the idea that the philosophy of being patiently aggressive would
confuse the players into not knowing if they should be passive at the plate or
hacking, but it confused enough followers of the Nationals that I did start to
wonder if it also confused the players. The idea of looking for a pitch in the
zone that can be handled and going after it should be the hitting philosophy of
every team and perhaps Kirk Gibson and his staff were better able to convey
this to their players than Davey Johnson was with the term patiently
aggressive.   

I like the lack of bunts and the amount
of walks from the Diamondbacks, but one of the big things we’ve heard about
Matt Williams is that he will hold his players accountable. The area where the
Nationals lacked this most last season was defense. Davey Johnson gave many of
his veterans Spring Training off and at the start of the 2013 season the
defense looked plain sloppy. The Nationals finished ranked 17th in the majors
in UZR while the Diamondbacks finished second. Now this doesn’t mean much as
the teams have different players, but it may means more than it appears. Davey
Johnson was asked about defensive shifts when he took over the Nationals and he
said he didn’t like them, that there is a reason that defenders were put in
those positions. From watching the Nationals it appeared that they didn’t shift
much, but defensive shift data is hard to find online and it is hard to know
how often the Nationals shifted compared to the Diamondbacks, but here is the
thing about the Diamondbacks defense: Parra and Pollock were the only elite
defenders with over 900 innings at their position. Their bench offered value in
the field with Cliff Pennington and Cody Ross adding value defensively whereas
with the Nationals they didn’t have a single bench player who was a positive in
the field.   

This may speak to the philosophy that
Gibson had when constructing a bench and maybe it rubbed off on Williams. Davey
Johnson wanted a bench full of hairy chested beef, and when the players that he
wanted to slug couldn’t, the bench offered nothing. If a player that is a good
defender suddenly finds themselves in a hitting slump they can still offer
value to a team through their defense. This may be the off-season where the
Nationals finally pay out major league contracts to bench players and go with a
bench of MLB veterans instead of AAA players and MiLB free agents. The latter worked
in 2012 and didn’t in 2013, but with a different philosophy behind the
construction of the bench there could be some changes there and from the
appearance of the Diamondbacks roster Matt Williams is going to want MLB
veterans that can play multiple positions and the bat is secondary. This is
probably a good idea as the NL average pinch hitter hit .221/.288/.333 in 2013
and the day of the pure pinch hitter is long gone.  

With the little amount of information I
expect to see a few things from Matt Williams in 2014. I expect the Nats to
have more of a Spring Training. That Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, and Adam
LaRoche will play a good number of games and that Williams will tag these three
as his leaders in the clubhouse and on the field. They will be his Lieutenants
in other words. For any manager it is important to get the veterans to buy in.
Sparky Anderson had separate rules for the stars that played under him, Kirk
Gibson being one, but on some things he would pull them aside and explain how
if they didn’t go along with his big ideas none of the other players would and
he needed them. I expect Williams to do much the same, and it will start with
taking Spring Training seriously.

Also I expect to see the Nationals bunt
less and to be more disciplined at the plate. For so much of the season the
Nationals would watch themselves into being behind in the count and then swing
at bad pitches. Some of this changed when Rick Schu took over, but I expect
that Williams will be better able to express to offensive philosophy of waiting
for your pitch and driving it and if it isn’t there taking the walk or fighting
off as many quality pitches as possible. The biggest change, in my opinion,
will come in the field. The Diamondbacks have a couple good defenders, but they
aren’t ranked second in defense just because they have Parra and Pollock. They
had to be positioned correctly to get to as many balls and convert as many outs
as they did. I expect to see the Nationals shift more and be better positioned
for the hitter at the plate under Williams.    

There is still a lot that we don’t know
about how Williams will manage. We have no idea how he will use his pitching
staff. Will he let Strasburg, Gio, and Zimmermann have a longer leash than
Davey Johnson allowed them? Or will he go to his bullpen at the first sign of
trouble. The Nationals starters threw 968 1/3 innings in 2013 good for eighth
in the NL and the Diamondbacks 976 1/3 which was fifth in the league, but I
don’t think anyone would argue that the Diamondbacks had better starting
pitching than the Nationals and that maybe the Nationals should have ridden
their big three arms more than they did. The Diamondbacks had two pitchers in
Miley and Corbin over 200 innings pitched while the Nationals had Jordan
Zimmermann. In 2010 and 2011 with the A’s Gio Gonzalez was a 200 innings a year
pitcher, but he has yet to do it with the Nationals. Williams may very well be
more willing to ride his best pitchers than Davey Johnson was. Kirk Gibson
certainly wasn’t afraid to let lesser pitchers do deeper into a game so give
Williams better pitchers and perhaps he will be the one to let slip the dogs of
war.  

Then there is the other side of the
pitching. The Diamondbacks must have played a lot of extra innings games
because despite the fact that their starters pitched slightly more innings than
the Nationals their bullpen pitched significantly more innings. In fact the
Diamondbacks played 25 extra innings games to the Nationals 15 making this
bullpen data close to meaningless. With everything being equal the Diamondbacks
relievers would have pitched less as their starters pitched more, but they
ended up in ten more extra innings games than the Nationals. They did end up
going 17-8 in those games, but records in coin flip games is not so much a sign
of testicular fortitude as it is of luck.   

The big takeaway from all this is that
the Nationals will be different in 2014 than they were in 2013. Less bunts,
more defensive shifts, improved plate discipline, and starters being allowed to
go deeper in games are all things we could see from a Matt Williams led
Nationals. We will certainly start to know more when the move is made official
and questions are asked and we’ll know even more when Spring Training starts
and the veterans are either given an extended vacation or play like everyone
else.