Williams' approach to detail gets Nats' attention
First-year manager drawing rave reviews from players early in camp
VIERA, Fla. -- Matt Williams picked up a can of potted meat somebody had left on his desk, and, having never before come across this decidedly low-rung product, made the unfortunate decision to read the ingredients.
"Mechanically separated chicken," Williams said aloud, with a frown.
Indeed, while that would no doubt make for a great metal band name, it leaves a little something to be desired on the food front.
So this was one piece of fine print the notoriously anal-retentive Williams probably ought to have avoided.
On measure, though, Williams' detail-oriented tendencies are a strength in a Major League Spring Training camp with 62 players navigating their way around five full and two half-fields. Williams had the bulk of his first spring at the helm of the Nationals mapped out as far back as the Winter Meetings, down to every last drill and possibly even including me writing this very sentence.
And now that "schedule" -- a word Williams uses so often that his coaches began docking him $1 for every utterance, and the jar is filling quickly -- is being put into practice under the Florida sun, with early, rave reviews from a built-to-win ballclub that underachieved a year ago.
"He keeps it loose, keeps it fun," said left-hander Gio Gonzalez, the subject of a practical joke when Williams used one of his Instagram poses on a projector during a morning meeting Monday. "But when it comes down to business, he gets to it. He came here with a game plan."
A game plan and an energy level due not to a diet of potted meat, but rather to pure appreciation. Rare is the first-time skipper who inherits a club with serious World Series aspirations (well, ordinarily that's rare, although Bryan Price and Brad Ausmus might disagree with that particular hypothesis), and it has only taken a few days for Williams to prove to his players that the bar is set high here.
"We're here to accomplish something," Williams said matter-of-factly. "I've got a really nice opportunity to be the manager here. I'm energetic about it, and I want to be."
Williams' expectations are high for his players, who are already learning that if you're on time for stretch, you're late. But they're also high for himself. That's why Williams and third-base coach Bob Henley could be found at an otherwise empty Space Coast Stadium after Sunday's workout, practicing the relay of signs from the dugout.
They were doing it again on Monday, as Williams walked from a bullpen session to a pitchers' fielding practice drill.
"It's a part of the process," Williams said. "I know. I've been the guy out there [at third base], so I know how important it is for me, as the third-base coach, to understand what the manager is thinking. I'm on the other side now, so I have to make sure he's comfortable with me and my idiosyncrasies or body language or whatever."
This appreciation of intricacy is, of course, part of what the Nats expected from Williams when they hired him to replace the retired Davey Johnson. General manager and president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo has known Williams long enough to know the personality he'd bring to the position, and Williams has done enough homework on the 2013 Nats to know what was missing from that surprisingly lackluster squad.
"He evaluated the team from last year," said Rizzo, "and his personality is a detail-oriented guy who played the game the right way and was fundamentally sound. He's going to drive that into the players' psyche. These guys have a lot of pride in themselves and recognize you have to play the game the right way."
The Nats last year were undone not only by injuries and a slow-to-evolve offense but also by those little things that kill. They had a bad bench, an unexpectedly porous defense and, too often, a lack of execution in controlling the running game.
Rather than drastically shake things up, Rizzo was content to bring back the roster largely intact, save for the trade for Doug Fister that bolstered an already stellar rotation and a rebuild of the bench that added speed in Nate McLouth and, just last week, the pitch-framing strengths of catcher Jose Lobaton.
It is the job of Williams and his staff to ensure the execution is up to snuff, but several of the holdovers have already demonstrated their dedication to the process. Williams singled out how Stephen Strasburg, unprompted, began practicing his slide-step during his first bullpen session. Gonzalez is putting increased emphasis on PFPs after several notable absences on first-base coverages last season, one of which led to him getting an in-dugout earful from Jayson Werth.
"Hopefully I can minimize the damage by handling the basics now," Gonzalez said. "That's routine stuff that shouldn't even be a problem."
Clearly, Williams is having no problem getting these guys to buy into his beliefs. The frustration of un-met goals, coupled with the tease of being one of the best teams in baseball in the 2013 season's final two months -- to no avail -- lingers here, as it should. The Nats don't necessarily know they're the team that went 34-20 in August and September, but they're convinced they're not the team that went 52-56 in April, May, June and July.
That's half the battle.
"I don't look at short samples [like August and September]," Rizzo said. "I very rarely go by short periods of time. The majority of these players are homegrown players we've seen for many, many years. They have a track record. That's what we go by. The small samples and short samples don't tell the full story.
"We know the kind of guys we have here, and I think you have to be honest with yourself and look at what you have. We tried to fix the flaws that were exposed last year, and hopefully we've done that."
Williams, ultimately, can only do so much, and spring is likely the only time you'll read or hear about PFPs and slide-step routines.
What the Nats do expect to carry into the season proper, however, is a focus and energy level that, either because of relative lack of refinement or something more puzzling, was not up to the standards of a championship-caliber club last year.
That starts in these not-so-lazy days of spring camp, with a detail-oriented leader and his deeply scrutinized schedule, building a base and establishing a psyche that, with any luck, results in a finished product more appealing than potted meat.