Nationals’ Matt Williams is learning that filling out lineup card is just the beginning


Matt Williams seeks input from all corners of the organization. “It’s truly a team effort in that regard,” he said. “It’s not just the manager going, ‘Here’s my lineup.’ There’s a lot of thought that goes into it.” (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Matt Williams thinks of Dusty Baker as more than just one of his former managers. When Williams struggled to stick in the major leagues as a rookie, Baker helped fix his swing. When the Arizona Diamondbacks released Williams, Baker offered the 37-year-old a roster spot in Chicago with the Cubs. When managing in the major leagues became Williams’s goal, Baker shared advice on how to spark his career. He considers Baker a mentor, someone between friend and father-figure. “He’s a special man,” Williams said. ¶ Baker’s first managerial job was in 1993 with San Francisco, where Williams played third base. Baker pared the roster and set the lineup based on ingrained expertise and gut feel. For the most part, players avoided his office unless invited in. Baker spoke to reporters before and after games, but most of his comments weren’t disseminated until the next day. His highest-paid player, Barry Bonds, made $4.5 million. Across the bay, the Oakland A’s employed an advance scout named Billy Beane, who filed reports on minor leaguers. No one paid him much attention. ¶ “I think when we first came up, the general manager had less of a role in picking your team,” Baker said. “Everything is so much by the numbers, we forget there’s people playing the game. There’s a certain amount of heart and intellect and instincts that can’t be quantified.”

In his first season as Washington Nationals manager, Williams has the same title as Baker did in 1993, but the job description has changed. Today’s manager funnels information from the front office to the field. He serves as a team spokesman before and after 162 games. He soothes egos and stifles tension. Making a double switch? That’s nothing.

Strategy’s a small part

In 2014, managers confront an instantaneous media culture, players making salaries exponentially larger than theirs, an expanding trove of data and 25 personalities from disparate backgrounds. Their words will be dissected, their decisions will be scrutinized and their sleep will be restless. Observers judge managers by the decisions they make from first pitch to last out. That may be the easiest part of the job.

“Fredi [Gonzalez] and I laugh during the season all the time,” Atlanta Braves General Manager Frank Wren said of his manager. “We’ll verbalize it: ‘If the fans only knew what we’re dealing with today.’ It’s little things like you deal with with your kids.”

The most crucial moves managers made in the past involved strategy — pulling a starter, giving a runner the green light, calling a suicide squeeze. As the proliferation of statistical analysis has made in-game strategy more uniform, the most important roles a manager plays have shifted.

“I think in the past, it was probably more of a priority on your ability to be a good game manager and to understand how to teach the game,” Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa said. “The frame of mind was more taken for granted, that the guys would have it. But I think there’s been a real vision that your toughest job each and every year is creating a frame of mind that clears out the distractions and gets tuned into excellence as a professional, respect as a teammate, a competitor. I think we’re all realizing there’s nothing automatic about it anymore.”

As salaries have escalated, players have become more emboldened to question, or even challenge, a manager. Williams may not allow a player to sway him on how much he should be playing, but he welcomes input.

“Guys are not afraid to knock on the door and come in and talk about it,” Williams said. “That’s a good thing. In the past, it wouldn’t necessarily be that way. I think players are taking a little initiative, which is good.

“Ultimately, the decision has to be the manager’s. Otherwise, it just won’t work. Right, wrong, or indifferent, it’s got to be the manager’s decision. Playing guys, days off, all of those things come into play.”

Field staffs and front offices once operated in separate universes. General managers acquired talent. Managers deployed it. “I think it’s changed,” Williams said. “There’s more input from the front office.”

Front offices collect more scouting and statistical information than ever before. In order for the data to be useful, a manager and his coaches must be able to understand and interpret it for their players.

“I think the [manager] position has evolved,” Beane, now the A’s game-changing general manager, said in an interview with Grantland.com. “You want to create a true link with what the front office has done over the course of the winter and how those players will be used, and ultimately apply all of that on the field in real time.”

“The gap between the front office and the manger has receded,” Tigers Manager Brad Ausmus said. “It’s almost like they’re interwoven in the modern game. It’s different from organization to organization, but I think that’s the biggest change.”

Important information

Within the Nationals organization, Williams has embraced new information and the men who provide it. Three times this spring, Williams said, he met with front office officials about how best to implement statistical analysis.

Director of Baseball Operations Adam Cromie, Baseball Analytics Manager Samuel Mondry-Cohen, assistant general manager Bryan Minniti and General Manager Mike Rizzo attended the meetings. They discussed lineup construction, defensive alignment, offensive strategy and roster building. Rizzo will not stand in Williams’s way — “I’ve never given a manager an order,” he said. But Williams seeks input from all corners of the organization.

“It’s truly a team effort in that regard,” Williams said. “It’s not just the manager going, ‘Here’s my lineup.’ There’s a lot of thought that goes into it.”

While managers need to lean on their front offices, they also need to be agile enough to know when to act against the trend. What Baker may call “heart and intellect and instincts” really do matter. Managers need to know their own players and study the opposition. If an opposing hitter is 0 for his last 12, Williams said, he may order a different defensive shift than if he’s 6 for his last 12.

“The metrics are wonderful for your pregame prep,” La Russa said. “They help understand who you’re trying to beat, what they do well, where they struggle, what your club does. All that’s great stuff. I can see it’s important. But once the competition is on, the real goals are the adjustments of a manager and a coaching staff. And they make them based on what they observe about their team and the other team.”

The preponderance of information adds to the importance of a manager understanding personalities in his own dugout. The same scouting reports that maximize one player’s performance may derail another’s.

“That’s why it’s very important to get to know your customer,” Houston Astros Manager Bo Porter said. “You don’t want to give someone too much information that he will get brain overload. There are some that are information junkies, that feel like if they don’t have the information, they absolutely are at a loss.”

“It all begins with communication skills,” Wren said. “You’ve got to be able to relate.”

In that regard, the position has not changed. GMs and managers agreed that cultivating a workplace conducive to success matters most. The mechanics have shifted, but the goal remains the same.

“I don’t see how it’s changed hardly at all, except more information that everybody gets,” longtime Braves manager Bobby Cox said. “The role is running the club, controlling the club, making sure players are ready to go every day, fired up.”

Williams will certainly encounter challenges, but his mentor is available to help. Baker, who will not be in a dugout for the only the second season in 21 years, could tell Williams that no matter how much the job has changed in the past two decades, one aspect has not.

“All I know is,” Baker said, “you can lose a lot if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Adam Kilgore covers the Nationals for The Washington Post.
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