Well before he became the platoon-wielding manager of the A’s, Bob Melvin was apparently already alerting players to the at-bat-limiting potential of statistical analysis.
Matt Williams, the former slugging third baseman and now-manager of the Washington Nationals, spent his final seasons as a player in Arizona, where Melvin was bench coach of the Diamondbacks from 2001 to 2002.
“He was the Turk, if you will, late in my career,” Williams said, invoking an old NFL term for the employee who summoned players to the coach’s office in training camp to be cut. “He would come to my locker and say, ‘Hey, the computer got you, so you’re not going to play tomorrow.’”
Williams is now on the other side of those conversations as the first-year manager of the Nationals, who close out a three-game series in Oakland this afternoon. A five-time All Star during his 17-year major-league career – 10 of which he spent with the Giants – Williams coached the past four seasons in Arizona before the Nationals hired him this offseason to replace outgoing manager Davey Johnson.
Aside from a stint in the Arizona Fall League in 2012 and a short period as an interim manager in Double A, it’s the first managerial position for Williams. Still, Melvin said, it’s no surprise to see Williams, 48, making decisions in the dugout opposite him. The two go way back – they were teammates in San Francisco from 1987 to 1988, and Williams was a minority owner of the Diamondbacks when Melvin managed there.
“He was always a guy that got a lot of respect from teammates, is all about competition and winning,” Melvin said. “He exudes that. Once he got back into the coaching ranks, it was a matter of time.”
Williams said he and Melvin have a good relationship and that Melvin has “always been willing and able to answer questions” since Williams broke into coaching – something he hadn’t thought much about prior to playing his final season in 2003.
“When you’re a player, you’re worried about playing,” Williams said. “But now I do take some memories from everybody that I played under, including Bob. He’s a very good manager. He is even-keel, he doesn’t panic, he understands his players, what they can and can’t do.”
Even-keel might not have been the best description for Williams when he broke into the majors with the Giants in 1987. Williams was shipped to Triple A several times in his first few seasons while struggling to hit, and then-Giants manager Roger Craig recalled this spring how, after strikeouts, Williams would sometimes direct his frustration at the plastic garbage cans in the dugout.
“You’d probably hear it all over the stadium,” Craig said. “One time he struck out and I said, ‘Matt, why don’t you swing like that at home plate?’ ”
Eventually, Williams cut down the strikeouts and flourished. He led the National League with 122 RBIs in 1990, and in 1994 was on pace to break Roger Maris’ single-season home run record before a players’ strike shortened the season – he finished with 43 in 112 games. For his career, Williams made five All-Star teams, won four Gold Glove awards and became a fan favorite in San Francisco before being traded to Cleveland in 1997.
“Matt was a great ballplayer, and you don’t see a lot of real good ballplayers become major-league managers, I don’t know why,” Craig said.
“I was a little bit surprised (by Williams’ hiring) because Matt never managed before,” Craig said. “But Matt will keep them loose, I know that. He’s a funny guy.”
Johnson, who guided the Nationals from 2011 to 2013, was known for his laid-back managing style. Williams was widely regarded as a fierce competitor during his playing days. But Gio Gonzalez, the former A’s left-hander who was traded to Washington in 2011, said as a manager Williams has tried to strike a balance.
“He’s been awesome,” Gonzalez said. “Players’ coach, keeps it loose, but when it’s time to get down to business, he’s ready to put guys in the right place and the right spots.”
Though he played only part of a season under Melvin, who operates under his own calm demeanor, Gonzalez said he “absolutely” sees similarities between the two managers. “I think they’re both competitive managers,” Gonzalez said. “They’ll go out and stick their nose out there for their players.”
At the same time, Gonzalez said, “They know that it’s the players’ team – they don’t get involved too much with the players’ stuff and what they do (in the clubhouse). But when it comes down to managing the team, they do an outstanding job.”
Just weeks into his tenure, Williams has already been involved in a couple of high-profile incidents. In April, he made headlines by benching star outfielder Bryce Harper for what Williams termed “lack of hustle” on a groundout. More recently, Williams was doing a phone interview with a local radio show when he was rear-ended by a vehicle involved in a police pursuit. He wasn’t injured – and narrated the experience on the air.
Reliever Jerry Blevins, who spent parts of seven seasons with the A’s before being traded to Washington, said Williams has been “easy to communicate with. But he also demands that respect, and he’s got a presence. So it’s been fun. He’s learning, and he understands that you never know 100 percent about the game. You’re always learning and adapting.”
Entering Saturday, the Nationals were 19-16 and a half-game out of first place in the N.L. East despite injuries to key players such as Harper and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. They were tied for second in the majors with 10 come-from-behind wins, thanks in part to their outscoring opponents by a majors-best 35 runs after the sixth inning.
“Matt to me is a guy you want to play your hardest for,” Gonzalez said. “You don’t want to lose for him. I think he knows we want to compete at the top of our ability, and he just tries to let us play the game and have fun with it. And I think that’s the type of manager you need by your side.”