When the Washington Nationals opted to hire Matt Williams as manager, they gave him the opportunity to alter the coaching staff. But he didn’t want to. The self-aware 47-year-old told General Manager Mike Rizzo that he only wanted to bring in one coach — a new position that will focus on advance scouting of opponents and defensive alignments. The reason? Watching from afar, Williams didn’t want to tinker with a formula — 184 wins over two seasons and a National League East division title in 2012 — that has clearly worked. And, he could lean on the existing coaches who the Nationals players far better than him.
Randy Knorr, who interviewed for the managerial position and is popular among the Nationals players, will return as bench coach. Steve McCatty and Rick Schu will remain as pitching and hitting coach, respectively. Tony Tarasco and Trent Jewett (first and third base, respectively) are also expected back. All of the coaches from the 2013 staff will return except for Jim Lett, the bullpen coach, who will be replaced by Matt LeCroy, a former Nationals catcher who was the Class AA Harrisburg Manager last season.
The biggest difference, however, will be the new position created by Williams. It signals a change in philosophy from Davey Johnson. Williams spoke openly at his introductory press conference about embracing the new wave of advanced statistics and analytics. “I want to use all of it, but I want to use all of it in the right way,” he said.
Next season, the Nationals will have a seventh coach on staff, Mark Weidemaier, formerly an advance scout and a special assistant in the Arizona Diamondbacks front office, to serve as an advance coach focused on defensive alignments. Weidemaier will be in uniform and in the dugout, but will be tasked with working with the Nationals other advance scouts and video scouts and filter the information down to the coaching staff.
“I believe that’s very important,” Williams said. “I believe that preparation is the most important part of this game … We understand that it’s a very fine line between 2 1/2 runs or 3 1/2 runs or 4 1/2 runs. It’s a very fine line. But I do understand also that if we can cut one down at some point during that game, we have a much better chance of winning with the kind of club we’ve got. So that’s important. That’s going to be our focus as a coaching staff, and we’ll let the players know certainly that we expect that to be a focus of theirs moving forward.”
The Nationals were among the teams least likely to shift the defense based on an opposing hitter’s tendencies in 2013, according to BillJamesOnline.com. Among the teams most likely to shift and save runs were the Baltimore Orioles, Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox, three of which made the playoffs. Williams’s hope of applying new ideas, including defensive shifts, resonated with some of the Nationals players at his press conference on Friday afternoon.
“It’s a breath of fresh air,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “We’ve played well over the last couple years and we haven’t got to the championship game. I think there’s nobody in our clubhouse or organization who isn’t open to trying something new. If that’s a defensive sabermetrics, I don’t even know if that’s – defensive numbers, whatever, the math side of it – I don’t think there’s anybody that’s going to be close-minded in trying something new because we know that we’re a better team that what we’ve done. Even in the 98-win season, we didn’t get to where we wanted to go and we’re all hungry. We know the window is only going to be open for a certain amount of time and I’m personally willing to try anything to make the most of it.”
Rizzo said the Nationals were looking to take advantage of the same defensive edge that other teams were exploiting.
“That’s one of the things [Williams] feels is very important, is defensive alignment and advanced sabermetrics and this is a guy he feels brings a lot to the table,” Rizzo said. “I’ve known [Weidemaier] myself for 25 years, worked against him many times as an advanced scout and he’ll be great addition to the team.”
In his effort to familiarize himself with the coaching staff, Williams plans to spend a week with Knorr in Arizona. Knorr obviously wanted the managerial job but he said he has since moved on and vowed to support Williams “100 percent.” Knorr said Williams, who lives in Arizona, offered to fly out to Tampa, where Knorr lives in the offseason, once news leaked last week of Williams’s hiring. But after Knorr accepted Williams’ offer to be his bench coach, Knorr told Williams to wait. Knorr would travel to Arizona and the two would watch the Nationals prospects in the Arizona Fall League.
“Just catch up and get to know each other a little bit and that usually turns into talking baseball, talk ball, and I’ll hear what he wants to do,” Knorr said. “It’ll help prepare me going in.”
Williams went out of his way to thank Knorr for being in attendance at the press conference, a decision Knorr later admitted was difficult for him because he didn’t want to draw attention away from the Nationals’ new hire.
“It can be a very difficult dynamic because Randy’s certainly popular among the players,” Williams said. “We have seen that they have given him their support during this process. I can’t claim to know them or know this team as much as Randy does. So I’m going to lean on him. He’s been kind enough to say ‘lean on me.’ I believe in this franchise, I believe in this team, I believe in our chances and I want to be here. He doesn’t have to be here. In our conversations he said he did and I trust that and I love that fact. I am going to lean on him heavy.”
While on the outside it may seem like an unusual working relationship between the chosen manager and the runner-up, players who know Knorr spoke highly of his personality and ability to adapt.
“If you knew Randy, you could see how that whole thing could work,” right fielder Jayson Werth said. “It takes a special person I would say, but Randy is a special person and that’s why he got so many guys on his side and so many people that wanted him back here, no matter what. I think they did the right thing, bringing the coaches back. We’re close. We’re right there.”