The Washington Nationals have emerged as an annual contender because they built a minor league system that could sustain them. Ask anyone in the organization about their success in the majors, and you’ll inevitably hear about their success in the minors — the stability, continuity and community. The staff that have fostered these farm systems do not often get to spray champagne after division titles or sit in luxury suites during playoff games. More often, they spend those franchise-making moments on back roads or baseball fields, miles away from the spotlight.
Monday, the spotlight found one of those key figures.
Nationals Senior Adviser of Player Development Donald ‘Spin’ Williams was named the 2016 Mike Coolbaugh Award winner, an honor given by Minor League Baseball to “an individual who has shown outstanding baseball work ethic, knowledge of the game and skill in mentoring young players on the field.” In 2008, Coolbaugh was in his first year of coaching for the Tulsa Drillers when he was killed by a line drive. He spent 17 years as a minor league player and appeared in 44 big league games.
Williams’s list of duties is even longer than his title, which obscures his importance somehow. Williams is like the elder statesman of the Nationals’ farm system, a renowned pitching guru who sits just out of sight and alters the careers of those who take the mound for the Nationals year after year.
“He’s impacted so many people — not just people, but staff here,” said Doug Harris, the Nationals’ assistant general manager. “This award encapsulates who he is as a man and how much he impacts everyone around him on a daily basis. He is as selfless an individual as you’d want to find. Everything he does is about helping other people and with his needs last. He’s just done so much for every particular player, from putting an arm around him, to tough love when it’s needed. He’s helped turn staff from young staff to guys who can be a part of championship staffs in the big leagues. I’m gushing because it’s so well-deserved.”
Williams spent 27 years as a coach in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ organization before joining the Nationals in 2006. He served as a “pitching consultant” in those days, and was promoted from “pitching coordinator” to his current position before the 2015 season. In his current role, Williams is able to roam more and affect more players, offering thoughts not only to young pitchers but even to young hitters still learning to deal with the emotional part of the game.
In conjunction with pitching coaches at each level and the rest of the Nationals player development staff, Williams helped mold nearly every homegrown pitcher to rise through the system. Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Tanner Roark, Blake Treinen, Sammy Solis, Koda Glover and a long list of others all developed into big league pieces under Williams’s watch. Harris pointed to Roark as a current example of Williams’s influence.
“I think of some of the real heart-to-heart conversations he had with Tanner, not only from a mechanical, technical aspect, but from a mental standpoint and how he got Tanner to believe in what he was capable of doing,” Harris said. “That’s a great example, but to list one person or staff member is unfair, because for him, it’s every day, a tidbit here and a tidbit there.”
Williams is the eighth winner of the award, the first from the Nationals organization. The 60-year-old has spent nearly two-thirds of his life as a major league coach, with such success stories as the revival of down-and-out Oliver Perez during the lefty’s first Nationals tenure. Perez had just been released by the New York Mets in 2011 when he landed a Class AA job with the Harrisburg Senators — an all-out plummet for a pitcher who signed a big deal in a big market but never panned out. Williams suggested Perez move to the bullpen, which rejuvenated his career. He is now under contract with the Nationals through the 2017 season.
Williams will receive his award at baseball’s winter meetings, which will take place in Washington during the first week of December.