Early in spring training, on one of his first days on the job, Matt Williams herded his players into a cramped office in the bowels of Space Coast Stadium. At the top of an otherwise blank whiteboard, he had written, “What is our DNA going to be?” The answer would come from the players. He wanted the baseline of a team philosophy to flow from them, not him. He believed the players should feel accountable to each other, not their new manager.
The tenets established that afternoon have helped define the tenor of Williams’s first season. Williams has worked to develop rapport with his players, who trust him and play hard for him. He entered a new situation and established himself as an authority figure, but also as a leader willing to delegate.
Friday night was Williams’s 100th game in office, an arbitrary benchmark political Washington often seizes upon as a signpost to measure success and failure. Despite inexperience and clumsy tactics, especially at the start, Williams’s tenure thus far has generated more of the former. Through unforeseen hurdles and adversity, Williams has positioned the Nationals as one of the league’s top contenders.
“It’s been challenging, but that’s okay,” Williams said. “That’s part of it. I don’t think any manager will ever go through a season where it all works right. I don’t think that happens.”
The Nationals ended Friday night with a 2½-game lead in the National League East despite losing more than half of their lineup and 40 percent of their rotation to the disabled list. They had outscored opponents by 74 runs, 26 more than their closest competitor in the National League.
“He’s led the team,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said of Williams. “He’s led the ballclub in some trying times. Things don’t always go this well. You lose your 3-4-5 hitters and a couple starting pitchers, and things can go south in a hurry. Matt didn’t allow that to happen.”
Williams came to Washington with an exacting reputation, and a nickname — “The Big Marine” — to match. But players say Williams has created a workplace conducive to success through understanding their preferences and constant communication.
Without downplaying the importance of in-game decisions, Williams said the most significant part of his job has been building relationships. He wants to understand players beyond their baseball abilities. He tries to learn about their lives outside the game. He strolls through the outfield during batting practice, seeing how players are feeling physically and mentally.
“That’s work,” Williams said. “It’s easy just to come and sit in the office and write the lineup and say, ‘Go get ’em, fellas.’ But to get to know them is another thing. That’s a constant effort, every day. It takes that, so they will trust. You have to develop that trust. That’s an ongoing process. I don’t know if that happens in three months — or a year or two or five. But you got to work at it.
“I want to be able to look in the guy’s eyes and know what he’s feeling. That doesn’t happen right away. You have to interact with people to have that happen.”
Williams has constantly sought feedback from coaches and players. As Ryan Zimmerman recovered from a broken thumb in late May, Williams came to believe he would fit better in the lineup in left field — not third base, the position the face of the franchise had manned for nine seasons. Williams broached the idea with Zimmerman gently, more partner than boss.
“He’ll always come ask,” Zimmerman said. “He doesn’t tell anyone to do anything.”
Early in the season, Williams and Ian Desmond debated where Desmond should position himself at shortstop. Desmond and Williams had differing opinions on the meaning of “straight up” — where a shortstop plays under normal circumstances. They eventually compromised.
“He might not have gone all the way over to where Matt is,” bench coach Randy Knorr said. “But he’s not where he used to be.”
“He’s a good dude,” Desmond said. “He’s a good guy to have around. He knows the game. He played hard. He wants us to play hard, lets us do what we want, pretty much. He’s not strict.”
As Bryce Harper neared a return from the disabled list in June, Williams met individually with players who would be affected. He spent 20 minutes talking to Danny Espinosa, whose role would change from starting second baseman to defensive replacement.
Before he met with any other player, Williams sat down with center fielder Denard Span and explained how he viewed his role. Harper had said to reporters he preferred playing center field, Span’s position. Williams reassured Span, who has started every game in center field since Harper returned.
“He told me what the situation was going to be and he stuck to it,” Span said. “He said, ‘Don’t feed into whatever is going on in the media. What I told you it’s going to be, it’s going to be.’ I got to respect him for that. He’s been a man of his word with me. That goes a long way.”
Williams wants the clubhouse to establish and enforce its own guidelines. He demands players arrive by a set time, but once there, they can perform their own pre-game routine. Players choose whether they want to take extra batting or fielding practice. In hot weather, Williams has permitted shorts during batting practice.
“If you have a manager that has a ton of rules, they’ll be enforced for a month, then they’ll be pushed to the limit,” Zimmerman said. “Some people will follow and some people won’t follow. You have older guys that don’t follow them and some guys that do. And that almost creates more of a problem than if you just didn’t have the rules. It goes back to that trust issue.”
But when players have broken the rules they set for themselves, Williams has acted. On the night of April 17, in a listless 8-0 loss to the Cardinals, Williams witnessed multiple Nationals, some of them veterans, violate one tenet of the team’s self-imposed DNA: They failed to run out groundballs. Williams, in a rare act, marched into the clubhouse. The next player who didn’t run out a groundball, he announced, would be benched.
“It just happened to be Bryce,” Williams said. “So you deal with the ramifications of that.”
Williams understood the public reaction would create noise. But he believed he needed to keep his word. One Nationals player said Williams would have lost respect if he didn’t bench Harper. And even Harper himself said later he respected the decision.
Williams has been successful in implementing improved defense and aggressive base running, two goals that players emphasized in their spring meeting. After a dreadful first month, the Nationals have become one of the best defenses in the majors. They’ve also created more value on the bases than any team in the NL. Players credited that phrase Williams introduced: DNA.
“That’s a word I’ve said a million times this year, but it’s the truth,” Span said. “I think he wanted us to take a step back. Last year, we didn’t have a DNA. We didn’t collectively as a team, it was almost like we individually tried to go up there and win the game, whatever the situation was. This year, collectively as a team, we’ve come together. We’re not going up there trying to hit a grand slam with nobody on base.”
The reason Williams has succeeded lies in building relationships and developing the Nationals’ style. He can still improve his tactics, but players say he has progressed as an in-game manager.
“He’s done a great job of making adjustments as he’s gone along,” reliever Tyler Clippard said. “He’s still learning. I’m sure he’ll tell you the same thing. The overall demeanor he brings to the table, he’s very much a player’s manager. He’s out there taking groundballs sometimes. He’s throwing BP. He’s in the trenches. You feel like he’s got your back. That’s what you want out of your manager. We as players knew there were going to be some things he had to figure out as a first-time manager. I think he’s done a great job of making those adjustments.”
Early in the year, Williams exuded nervousness. Little by little, he’s grown more relaxed, comfortable. He warmed up pitchers in the bullpen without bringing them in so often that, at one point, relievers pleaded with coaches for Williams to be more cautious — and he has. He pulled starting pitchers earlier at the start of the season than now. Early on, injuries prevented Williams from creating a set lineup, but he has settled on one with renewed health.
“He’s becoming more and more patient during the game,” Knorr said. “Early on, he wanted to really go after it. He lets the guys play now. He talks with them all, has great dialogue with them all. It just took a while for those guys to get to know him, and for him to get to know them.”
Williams has leaned on his coaching staff, most of which he inherited. Daily, he listens to input from Knorr, hitting coach Rick Schu and others on how to make the lineup. During games, Williams huddles with coaches to make decisions. He wants opinions and information on the fly. He appointed Knorr to oversee the defensive running game, letting him determine when a pitcher should throw to first base.
“I have no ego in regard to that,” Williams said. “Everybody in here, we’ll all here to win.”
The 100-game mark provided a big, round number to take the measure of Williams. He is still new in Washington, but not in baseball. So Williams knows to wait before he takes his own stock.
“To evaluate how I’ve done, I don’t know,” Williams said. “I’ll be able to say if we make it to where we want to make it to. And then we’ll know. Right now, I simply don’t. We’re going to play tonight.”