Attempting to Deduce Matt Williams

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As soon as the news of who the Nats would hire was leaked I was asked my opinion of the move. At that time I had no opinion and it is still hard to form one as the Nationals are holding off until after the World Series to make the move official. Once it is official there will be a press conference and interviews and we'll have somewhat more of an idea of what Matt Williams’ philosophy is. As of right now there are some ways to figure out what Matt Williams might do by looking at the Arizona Diamondbacks.   

The most important thing to understand in this is that Matt Williams isn't Kirk Gibson, but it is hard to think that he didn't learn something working under Kirk Gibson and that as a member of his coaching staff some of their philosophies might be the same. One of the most important things that the Diamondbacks did offensively in 2013 is they didn't bunt. The Diamondbacks were one of the least bunting teams in the NL finishing with the third least bunts in the NL while the Nationals were near the top in sacrifice attempts with the third most. The Diamondbacks were also one of the best teams in the NL in getting on base with a .323 OBP which was good for the fourth best in the league. This high OBP came from the fact that they had the third most walks in the NL.   

How much that has to do with Gibson or Williams is questionable, but all season out of Cincinnati it was heard how Joey Votto needed to walk less and swing more. That he was a middle of the order bat and his job was to drive in runs and not let the opposing team pitch around him. There have been times in the career of Dusty Baker when he has almost disdained the walk. He called Barry Bonds a base clogger. At the very least it appears that the Diamondbacks philosophy was not to be afraid of walks; that they valued not making outs and moving the line to the next man up. That will ultimately add more runs over the course of the season than hitting a lot of sac flies or making outs to move a runner from first to second or second to third, and having a manager that won't shy away from it is important.

But again it is unknown whether it is the philosophy that led the players taking what was given or if they were those types of players to begin with. Davey Johnson preached much the same thing but framed it under the terms of being aggressive in the strike zone. I never bought into the idea that the philosophy of being patiently aggressive would confuse the players into not knowing if they should be passive at the plate or hacking, but it confused enough followers of the Nationals that I did start to wonder if it also confused the players. The idea of looking for a pitch in the zone that can be handled and going after it should be the hitting philosophy of every team and perhaps Kirk Gibson and his staff were better able to convey this to their players than Davey Johnson was with the term patiently aggressive.   

I like the lack of bunts and the amount of walks from the Diamondbacks, but one of the big things we've heard about Matt Williams is that he will hold his players accountable. The area where the Nationals lacked this most last season was defense. Davey Johnson gave many of his veterans Spring Training off and at the start of the 2013 season the defense looked plain sloppy. The Nationals finished ranked 17th in the majors in UZR while the Diamondbacks finished second. Now this doesn't mean much as the teams have different players, but it may means more than it appears. Davey Johnson was asked about defensive shifts when he took over the Nationals and he said he didn't like them, that there is a reason that defenders were put in those positions. From watching the Nationals it appeared that they didn't shift much, but defensive shift data is hard to find online and it is hard to know how often the Nationals shifted compared to the Diamondbacks, but here is the thing about the Diamondbacks defense: Parra and Pollock were the only elite defenders with over 900 innings at their position. Their bench offered value in the field with Cliff Pennington and Cody Ross adding value defensively whereas with the Nationals they didn't have a single bench player who was a positive in the field.   

This may speak to the philosophy that Gibson had when constructing a bench and maybe it rubbed off on Williams. Davey Johnson wanted a bench full of hairy chested beef, and when the players that he wanted to slug couldn't, the bench offered nothing. If a player that is a good defender suddenly finds themselves in a hitting slump they can still offer value to a team through their defense. This may be the off-season where the Nationals finally pay out major league contracts to bench players and go with a bench of MLB veterans instead of AAA players and MiLB free agents. The latter worked in 2012 and didn't in 2013, but with a different philosophy behind the construction of the bench there could be some changes there and from the appearance of the Diamondbacks roster Matt Williams is going to want MLB veterans that can play multiple positions and the bat is secondary. This is probably a good idea as the NL average pinch hitter hit .221/.288/.333 in 2013 and the day of the pure pinch hitter is long gone.  

With the little amount of information I expect to see a few things from Matt Williams in 2014. I expect the Nats to have more of a Spring Training. That Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, and Adam LaRoche will play a good number of games and that Williams will tag these three as his leaders in the clubhouse and on the field. They will be his Lieutenants in other words. For any manager it is important to get the veterans to buy in. Sparky Anderson had separate rules for the stars that played under him, Kirk Gibson being one, but on some things he would pull them aside and explain how if they didn't go along with his big ideas none of the other players would and he needed them. I expect Williams to do much the same, and it will start with taking Spring Training seriously.

Also I expect to see the Nationals bunt less and to be more disciplined at the plate. For so much of the season the Nationals would watch themselves into being behind in the count and then swing at bad pitches. Some of this changed when Rick Schu took over, but I expect that Williams will be better able to express to offensive philosophy of waiting for your pitch and driving it and if it isn't there taking the walk or fighting off as many quality pitches as possible. The biggest change, in my opinion, will come in the field. The Diamondbacks have a couple good defenders, but they aren't ranked second in defense just because they have Parra and Pollock. They had to be positioned correctly to get to as many balls and convert as many outs as they did. I expect to see the Nationals shift more and be better positioned for the hitter at the plate under Williams.    

There is still a lot that we don't know about how Williams will manage. We have no idea how he will use his pitching staff. Will he let Strasburg, Gio, and Zimmermann have a longer leash than Davey Johnson allowed them? Or will he go to his bullpen at the first sign of trouble. The Nationals starters threw 968 1/3 innings in 2013 good for eighth in the NL and the Diamondbacks 976 1/3 which was fifth in the league, but I don't think anyone would argue that the Diamondbacks had better starting pitching than the Nationals and that maybe the Nationals should have ridden their big three arms more than they did. The Diamondbacks had two pitchers in Miley and Corbin over 200 innings pitched while the Nationals had Jordan Zimmermann. In 2010 and 2011 with the A's Gio Gonzalez was a 200 innings a year pitcher, but he has yet to do it with the Nationals. Williams may very well be more willing to ride his best pitchers than Davey Johnson was. Kirk Gibson certainly wasn't afraid to let lesser pitchers do deeper into a game so give Williams better pitchers and perhaps he will be the one to let slip the dogs of war.  

Then there is the other side of the pitching. The Diamondbacks must have played a lot of extra innings games because despite the fact that their starters pitched slightly more innings than the Nationals their bullpen pitched significantly more innings. In fact the Diamondbacks played 25 extra innings games to the Nationals 15 making this bullpen data close to meaningless. With everything being equal the Diamondbacks relievers would have pitched less as their starters pitched more, but they ended up in ten more extra innings games than the Nationals. They did end up going 17-8 in those games, but records in coin flip games is not so much a sign of testicular fortitude as it is of luck.   

The big takeaway from all this is that the Nationals will be different in 2014 than they were in 2013. Less bunts, more defensive shifts, improved plate discipline, and starters being allowed to go deeper in games are all things we could see from a Matt Williams led Nationals. We will certainly start to know more when the move is made official and questions are asked and we'll know even more when Spring Training starts and the veterans are either given an extended vacation or play like everyone else.  


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