Nationals Manager Matt Williams is a hire who values defense and finding advantages

Steve Spurrier had a funny first news conference. Manny Acta was introduced as the next great manager. On the first day, every Wizards coach looks like a success; then they meet their players. Caps coaches can break your hand; they just can’t lift a Cup. Except for Jim Zorn, who wanted his family to wear “maroon and black,” how bad can the first day on the job actually be?

So, maybe, we shouldn’t read too much into Matt Williams’s introductory news conference as the Washington Nationals’ new manager Friday. But you can see why Jayson Werth, who was in attendance, said, “I think we got the right man for the job.”

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Williams still looks like he could hit homers, and he belted 378 of them. He’s going to bring energy — and demand it, too. Williams mentioned that shortstop Ian Desmond, sitting in the front row, had suggested the Nats “work a little harder” next season, presumably on fundamentals, especially in spring training. Williams said that sounded very good to him.

“Attack” was also a word Williams enjoyed sprinkling in his conversation, like an Italian chef with garlic.

“Attack in every way possible,” he said. “I even think you can apply pressure defensively when the other team has the bases loaded and no outs.”

The Post's Adam Kilgore and James Wagner offer their thoughts on the hiring of new Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams. (Nick Plum for Synthesis/Koubaroulis LLC./The Washington Post)

“I led the league in getting guys thrown out at home plate,” he said proudly of his work as Arizona’s third base coach. “My natural tendency is ‘go.’ ”

That “go” will include stealing second base more, going first-to-third more and (some more garlic, please) stealing third base, teaching the Nats to adore the safety squeeze as much as he does and even (at the edge of sanity) finding out whether “some of our good-hitting pitchers can hit-and-run, too.”

Williams was asked how he would get along with catcher Wilson Ramos with whom he once had a screaming argument over a slow home run trot by Ramos.

“Werth stood up and yelled at me that day; I love that,” Williams said of the cuss-a-thon. “That’s competition. That’s baseball. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t like me. It means he’s on the other team.”

Natitude may soon morph into Mattitude. The fact that Randy Knorr stays as bench coach only reinforces the image of Arizona’s broad-shouldered staff with Williams and Don Baylor backing up Manager Kirk Gibson. If Atlanta throws at Bryce Harper three times next year, Justin Upton will end up in the dirt twice. “That kind of stuff won’t go down the same way anymore,” one National said.

Good idea or risky? Too late to ask now. The Nats won’t be in the start-’em category of teams, like Tony La Russa’s belligerent clubs, but they may be in the finish-’em group. That bridge was crossed with this hire.

Williams, a four-time Gold Glove winner, also mentioned that “you bring your glove to work every day” and that the team for whom he had been third base coach last year “led the league in fielding percentage.” Oh, and he’s hired a seventh coach who’ll be in charge of radical defensive positioning, advance scouting and aligning pitching theory with defensive patterns. Williams mentioned that two Diamondbacks just won Gold Gloves this week. (No Nats did.) Did somebody say defense?

The Washington Nationals and general manager Mike Rizzo announced Matt Williams as the fifth manager in Nationals' history. (Nick Plum for Synthesis/Koubaroulis LLC./The Washington Post)

Last year the Diamondacks led the National League in Defensive Runs Saved Above Average (plus-88), while the Nats were 13th (minus-14). Such know-all defensive stats are like toddlers. Don’t trust them too much. But if half the gap between plus-88 and minus-14 is real and Williams can help close it, that’s several wins. The playoffs were jammed with teams that shift more — and more often — than the Nats.

The new manager believes in modern statistical analysis, though always in balance with other perspectives. An old-school player, he enjoys new-school things.

“If you don’t get with the times, bro, you better step aside,” Williams said Friday.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of Williams’s plan is that he sees baseball as a game of fractions of runs.

“It’s a fine line between two-and-a-half, three-and-half and four-and-a-half runs,” he said, knowing the best teams live by finding tiny edges with constant emphasis on mental focus and unselfishness to get their runs-allowed down from 3.75 to 3.25 and their runs-scored up from 4.25 to 4.75. You scout and develop, trade and sign, the biggest talent. Then go to the mat for the smallest crumbs.

Williams’s roots run back to his own managers.

“Dusty Baker is my mentor. He taught me to be a professional hitter. . . . He’s the ultimate players’ manager. You always hear that guys would run through a wall for Dusty. He values the opinion of veterans, like I’ll value Jayson Werth’s opinion on something,” Williams said in a my-own-man moment since he must know that Baker wanted to interview for the Nats job but wasn’t asked.

“Buck Showalter was the most prepared manager. He’d watch the game again for three hours after it was over and sleep at the ballpark. Not sure I can do that,” Williams said. “Bob Brenly had a club with veterans [that won the ’01 World Series]. He showed that you can take the reins off — allow the players to lead their own clubhouse. I think we have players with the ability and desire to lead. . . . Young players fall in line.”

For Washington, which knows relatively little about a major baseball figure who spent most of his career on the West Coast, this was barely the appetizer of a getting-to-know-you dinner that will last for many months.

How much is eyewash when he says he wants “to help Bryce Harper be an MVP, a Hall of Famer. I want him to be that guy.” Maybe all of it is sincere.

Williams knows is he inherits a hungry — and somewhat angry — club.

“Davey Johnson is a Hall of Fame manager in my book. This is not a ‘clearly something is broken’ situation. It’s not like you need to blow everything up,” Williams said. “We need to play a little smarter, use our tools a little better.”

Werth, Desmond, Knorr and rookie Tanner Roark all came to listen to Williams. Throughout October, Werth watched the postseason, driving home “the reality that we weren’t there. Each game that came on, it hit home,” he said. “Like [Williams] said, ‘We just need to execute.’ If we execute, we’re there.”

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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