Nats put finishing touches on coaching staff
WASHINGTON -- Most of the Nationals' coaching staff will remain intact for the 2014 season, but two new faces will join Matt Williams, who was introduced as the club's fifth manager at a Nationals Park news conference on Friday afternoon.
Williams was happy to retain bench coach Randy Knorr -- who was also a prime candidate for the managerial opening -- as well as pitching coach Steve McCatty, hitting coach Rick Schu, first-base coach Tony Tarasco and third-base coach Trent Jewett. The new skipper's one request was to use an empty spot on the staff to add Mark Weidemaier as what he called a "defensive coordination advance coach."
Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo also revealed that Matt LeCroy will leave his post as manager of Double-A Harrisburg to take over as bullpen coach from Jim Lett.
In his remarks to the media, Williams expressed an openness to fresh ideas, and Weidemaier could be a nod in that direction. Major League Baseball started allowing teams to have seven coaches in uniform during games this past season, but the Nats didn't take advantage of the rule until now, with Weidemaier coming over from his post as a Major League advance scout and a special assistant to D-backs general manager Kevin Towers.
"I believe that's very important," Williams said of having someone focus on defensive positioning and alignment. "I believe that preparation is the most important part of this game."
Weidemaier has spent 33 seasons in professional baseball, including the past three with Arizona, where he prepared scouting reports on the D-backs' opponents and consulted with the baseball operations department on personnel decisions. Rizzo, who also comes from a scouting background, has known Weidemaier for more than 20 years, so when Williams brought up the idea of adding him, Rizzo was on board.
"His primary responsibility will be defensive alignments and taking all the advanced information from our advanced scout in the field and our two advanced video scouts with the team," Rizzo said. "He'll take that information and filter it and distribute it to the various coaches that need the information."
Rizzo acknowledged that seeing more and more teams having success with aggressive shifting and other advanced defensive tactics played into the decision. Weidemaier gives the Nationals a way to "find an edge and improve ourselves," he said.
Williams pointed to the success of the D-backs' defense last year, which ranked first in the National League in fielding percentage and first in the Majors in FanGraphs.com's advanced defensive value metric.
"They are fantastic athletes, but we helped them be in the right spot," Williams said of the D-backs. "We helped them be in position to make a defensive play, helped them save a run to win us a game, whatever it is."
The focus on defensive positioning fits in with the overall philosophy Williams expressed toward analytics, which is to "use all of it but in the right way." He wants the coaches to act as filters, taking in information and giving the players only what they need, without overburdening them.
"It's only extreme if you let it be extreme," Williams said of the debate between old-school and new-school ideas. "Old school is old school, and that's great. But if you don't get along with the times, you better just step aside, because this just is not going to work. You can't be so one way or the other that you're just blind to the other side, because there are advantages to looking at the other side. So I try to take a little bit of all of it."
Another source Williams will rely on frequently is Knorr, who quickly put aside his disappointment at not getting the job when Williams asked him to stay on as bench coach. Knorr also flew in for Friday's news conference at Williams' request, and he will visit Williams in Arizona so they can get to know each other and watch some of the team's prospects in the Arizona Fall League.
"It was a tough decision to come up today, because to me, this is his day and I didn't want to take anything away from that," Knorr said. "But he asked me to come up, and I'm his bench coach and I'll support him 100 percent."
Williams will depend on the knowledge held by Knorr, who is entering his third season as bench coach and has a long history working in the organization.
"He doesn't have to be here," Williams said. "In our conversations, he said he did, and I trust that and I love that fact. I am going to lean on him heavy."
Meanwhile, LeCroy will take over for Lett, who spent the past four seasons as the Nats' bullpen coach. LeCroy, a former big league catcher, has managed for five years in the organization, including the past two at Harrisburg. Last year, he guided a handful of players who went on to contribute at the Major League level, including Anthony Rendon and Taylor Jordan.
"I was shocked and excited at the same time," LeCroy said in a telephone interview. "I didn't really expect a promotion like that. It's been a great run with the Nationals -- they've given me so many opportunities as a player and a coach. I'm excited and willing to do whatever it takes to hopefully bring a championship to Washington."
Although he doesn't have experience as a bullpen coach, LeCroy said he will will be able to pick the brain of Knorr, who has spent time in that role, as well as use his own background as a catcher.
"Just knowing what's going on during the game and being prepared to answer the phone and get guys' minds right and ready to pitch," he said. "Knowing who's coming up and that we might need to get someone going, because you never know what's going to happen."