Archive for the ‘ Getting to Know ’ Category

Getting to Know Matt Williams

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by Noah Frank

When the Nationals arrived in Phoenix at the end of September for their final series of the 2013 season, already mathematically eliminated from postseason contention, the focus among the press corps had shifted. It was Davey Johnson’s final series as Nationals Manager, and both he and President of Baseball Operations and General Manager Mike Rizzo recapped the season while looking ahead to 2014.

President of Baseball Operations and General Manager Mike Rizzo, left, and new Manager Matt Williams shared a smile during Williams' introductory press conference.

President of Baseball Operations and General Manager Mike Rizzo, left, and new Manager Matt Williams shared a smile during Williams’ introductory press conference.

At the same time, in the other dugout, Diamondbacks Manager Kirk Gibson fielded questions about his third base coach, Matt Williams, who was one of the men rumored as a possible candidate for the Nationals’ impending vacancy.

“I think he’d be great,” Gibson said. “He was obviously a good player. We’ve worked closely together since I’ve been a manager. He’s got a good mind for it.”

Gibson has managed the Arizona Diamondbacks the past three-and-a-half seasons, leading them to the 2011 NL West title. Williams was at Gibson’s side throughout his tenure in the desert, moving from first base coach to third base coach upon Gibson’s ascension to the managerial role.

“We’re similar,” Gibson continued. “He’s a fierce competitor. He understands the game. We break it down. He’s a tireless worker and believes in heavy preparation. Never gives in.”

Gibson also noted Williams’ success as a manager in the Arizona Fall League, a training ground for managers as well as players. Williams led the Salt River Rafters to a 17-13 mark in 2012, strong enough for the East Division title. Those Nationals fans that pay attention to the AFL may remember that Washington prospects – including Brian Goodwin, Anthony Rendon and Matt Skole – played on that Salt River squad. That managing experience and first-hand knowledge of players within the organization, along with his shared history with Rizzo in Arizona, no doubt helped Williams’ candidacy.

*          *          * 

There is another side to Williams, though, one which I was able to witness in person as he spoke at a Minor League hot stove dinner hosted by the Fresno Grizzlies (the Giants’ Triple-A affiliate) in February of 2011. Williams was set to appear as the guest of honor, alongside fellow Giants legend Will Clark, following San Francisco’s first-ever World Series title. But Clark was held up by bad weather, and Williams instead shared the stage that night with Sergio Romo – then a young reliever who’d not yet ascended to the Giants’ closer role.

The two entertained the crowd throughout the evening, leading into the live auction, benefiting the Fresno Grizzlies Community Fund.

Following the press conference, Williams answered additional questions in the media huddle.

Following the press conference, Williams answered additional questions in the media huddle.

That auction culminated with a feverish bidding war over the grand prize: a weekend trip to see the Giants in Spring Training. When the auctioneer had reached a tipping point, and one bidder could go no further, Williams unexpectedly stood up and politely interrupted him, asking if he could speak for a moment. He asked the gentleman who had been outbid if he would still be willing to pay for the package at the price he had last offered. When assured that he was, Williams then turned to the dinner organizers to see if two such grand prizes could be procured. When it was determined that they could, Williams turned back to the two bidders to see if each would be agreeable purchasing their respective packages.

The maneuver paid off. Thanks to his ability to think on his feet, Williams helped secure double the donation for the Community Fund.

I relate this story not to suggest anything about Williams’ ability to think on his feet as the next manager of the Nationals. Rather, it underscores his presence of mind to help a good cause, revealing the human side of a man taking on a role where that can all too often be lost.

*          *          *

On the final day of this past Nationals season, after saying my goodbyes and offering well-wishes in the clubhouse following the game, I shuffled out to the elevators to the players’ parking lot at Chase Field. As I stepped through the metal doors, thoughts of another season of baseball the last thing on my mind, one other familiar person stood in front of me, ready to leave the park.

And so, we silently rode the elevator together – Williams and I – before departing on our own paths to Washington.

Getting to Know: Micah Owings

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With Spring Training games beginning on Saturday, we’re taking the final few practice days of camp to take a closer look at some of the more interesting stories among this year’s Non-Roster Invitees. We wrap up our series with story of pitcher-turned-position-player Micah Owings.

The story of Rick Ankiel’s conversion from a former top prospect pitcher to a successful Major League outfielder is well known to fans of the Nationals. Ankiel played his past two seasons in a Washington uniform, patrolling center field with his cannon arm and showing flashes of the pop that led him to 25 home runs back in 2008. But the main reason that Ankiel’s transition was so notable was how rarely it has ever been accomplished. In Micah Owings, the Nationals have another player making the leap this season.

Owings enters his first camp as a full-time position player.

Owings enters his first camp as a full-time position player.

Owings showed promise on the mound, though he compiled a fairly average 32-33 record and 4.82 ERA over his six years. But the signs of his potential as a hitter have always been there. He still holds the Georgia state high school record for career home runs as a prepster, and carried that success at the plate with him into the professional ranks. Owings burst onto the Major League scene with a .333/.349/.683 line, blasting four home runs and seven doubles in just 64 plate appearances in his rookie campaign of 2007 to win the Silver Slugger Award.

In fact, despite generally receiving only a couple of plate appearances every five days, he owns a career .283 batting average and .503 slugging percentage, both marks higher than many Major League regulars. Now 30, Owings has decided to try to get the most out of what his body has left and make an honest run at converting to an everyday player.

“It was just to find out what kind of abilities I really have,” he explained of his decision to make the permanent switch. “I don’t want to look back 15-20 years from now and say ‘what if I would have tried it?’”

The idea for the change was in the works for a while before Owings finally pulled the trigger. But with a number of familiar faces from his Arizona days in Nationals camp – both on and off the field – the Nationals seemed like a perfect club to take the leap with.

Owings and the Nationals are staying open-minded about his defensive position.

Owings and the Nationals are staying open-minded about his defensive position.

“There are a lot of great guys, and they’ve been receptive,” said Owings of his new teammates easing his transition. “Even being in a different Spring Training zone. I’m used to being in Arizona for Spring Training. So totally being able to separate, being down here in Florida has been great. I’m really looking forward to it as camp develops.”

As for a position in the field, Owings is content to fit in wherever he can. Manager Davey Johnson has been impressed with what he’s seen so far, and obviously has no concerns about his new project’s arm strength. But at 6’5” and 220 pounds, don’t expect Owings to follow in Ankiel’s footsteps in center field any time soon.

“I don’t want to compare myself to him – he’s a great athlete,” said Owings of Ankiel, though he has tapped the trailblazer for his advice. “I was able to pick his brain last Spring Training, when I was kind of chewing on it. He shed some insight. I didn’t even have to say anything, he just said “Do it,” because he knew what I wanted to talk about.”

That reassurance, plus the confidence he will build with every game, every at-bat, every swing here in Spring Training has Owings optimistic about the process. He also looks forward to bringing a more mature approach to learning the other half of the game at the highest level.

“I’m just focusing in on the things I can control,” he said. “A lot of those things that we can’t control as players – umpires, calls, errors – those ate me up from a pitching standpoint early on. Hopefully I can remember that heading into this path.”

Owings won’t have to wait long for his first opportunity. He’s slated to DH, bat ninth, and play the full nine innings in Washington’s spring opener against the Mets Saturday afternoon.

Getting to Know: Ross Ohlendorf

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With Spring Training games beginning on Saturday, we’re taking the final few practice days of camp to bring you a closer look at some of the more interesting stories among this year’s Non-Roster Invitees. Today, we learn more about one of the most compelling personalities in the group, pitcher Ross Ohlendorf.

When it comes to the 6-foot-4, 240-pound pitcher with the power sinker, Ross Ohlendorf looks the part of the professional athlete. Born in Austin, Texas, he serves as a ranch-hand on his father’s farm in the offseason, where they raise longhorns. With huge hands and a bullish frame, he fits right into a throwing line of Nationals power pitchers, firing darts across an open expanse of outfield grass along the practice fields behind Space Coast Stadium.

However, Ohlendorf’s story does not end there. Not even close.

Ohlendorf (throwing) taking PFP's with follow Nationals pitchers.

Ohlendorf (throwing) taking PFP’s with follow Nationals pitchers.

Athletes are sometimes thought of simply in terms of the game they play, but a quick look at Ohlendorf’s resume – his degree from Princeton (the same alma mater as the recently signed Chris Young) in Operations Research and Financial Engineering, along with internships in the office of finance at the University of Texas and another with the Department of Agriculture in D.C. – dispels that notion quickly. In fact, after being drafted following his junior year, he penned a 140-page senior thesis while playing his first season of minor league ball. The topic, given his major, had to be rooted in mathematics, statistics or finance. Ohlendorf knew just the thing.

“The (MLB) Draft was really relevant at the time, so that’s what I decided to focus on,” he explained. “A lot of people would talk about how much players were getting paid as a signing bonus and say they were getting paid too much or not paid enough, so I decided to do a study to try to estimate how it’s worked out for teams.”

He analyzed the top 100 picks over a five-year period, then analyzed the return on the initial investment over the next 12 years of the players’ careers. If that sounds like the kind of thing that would make him a prime candidate to follow in the footsteps of players-turned-executives like Billy Beane, perhaps so. But all that talk is a little premature for Ohlendorf. He’s still got plenty of baseball left in his arm.

Bullpen Coach Jim Lett looks on as Ohlendorf throws in the 'pen.

Bullpen Coach Jim Lett looks on as Ohlendorf throws in the ‘pen.

“I’m not sure yet,” he said, laughing, about the prospect of someday moving into the front office for a team. “It’s definitely something that would interest me, but I’m not really thinking that far ahead right now.”

Indeed. For now, Ohlendorf provides some of that starting pitching depth that EVP of Baseball Operations and General Manager Mike Rizzo has been talking about all offseason. Of course, Rizzo was the Director of Scouting for Arizona when the Diamondbacks first selected and signed Ohlendorf in the fourth round of the 2004 First-year Player Draft. If Ohlendorf’s familiarity with Rizzo – as well as former teammates like Tyler Clippard and Micah Owings – wasn’t enough to sell him on Washington, his throwing partner this offseason was fellow NRI Bill Bray.

“That really makes the transition easier,” said Ohlendorf of the familiarity across different levels of the Nationals organization, his sixth. “I’ve really, really enjoyed Spring Training so far. It’s well done, and people really like each other here. It’s such a great environment here.”

Ohlendorf’s internship experience, as well as his five seasons spent pitching in the National League, have also brought him to the Nation’s Capital a number of times. He even lived near Capitol Hill for his 10-week internship with the USDA, which was mornings only, so he could go through his baseball workouts in the afternoon.

“I really liked it,” he said of his stint in Washington. “And I’ve really liked it when I’ve gone to play against the Nationals, too. It’s one of my favorite cities.”

While the positive Spring Training environment and the prospect of pitching in Washington help, perhaps the real reason Ohlendorf projects so much positivity about camp this year is internal. With 108 Major League appearances (73 starts) under his belt, the 30-year-old is happy to be fully healthy and feels particularly good about his physical well-being going into the spring.

Ohlendorf throws live batting practice to Chad Tracy.

Ohlendorf throws live batting practice to Chad Tracy.

“I’m really excited about this season, it’s the best I’ve felt in a long time,” he explained. “I think part of the reason I feel so good, having stayed healthy last year, my arm feels even better this year. My workouts have changed a little bit each offseason and I feel like I’ve improved my diet this year, which I think has helped.”

The more he has focused on his workouts and his nutrition over the years, the less Ohlendorf has paid attention to his own personal numbers. And while discovering more about the statistical intricacies of the game he plays has been an intellectually stimulating project, as a player, Ohlendorf has learned not to overanalyze his own metrics and simply focus on what he can control.

“I do think they have a lot of value,” Ohlendorf said of the figures that formed the basis of his thesis. “But I’ve kind of found, for me as a player, I don’t think it does me much good, and it can do me harm to worry too much about my stats.”

As Crash Davis lectured Nuke LaLoosh in Bull Durham, sometimes it’s better to not think, and just throw. However intricate and complex his intellectual pursuits are off the field, Ohlendorf is content taking that basic game plan into this season.

“Each game I try to pitch as deep into the game as I can and I try to get a win,” he said. “Just keep it simple.”

Getting to Know: Bill Bray

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With Spring Training games beginning on Saturday, we’re taking the final few practice days of camp to take a closer look at some of the more interesting stories among this year’s Non-Roster Invitees. We start things off by getting to know lefty reliever Bill Bray.

By this point, you’re probably tired of hearing the story of the first-round draft pick raised in Virginia Beach, out of college in Virginia, who moved quickly through the system, making his way into a Nationals uniform. That tale, the one usually ascribed to Ryan Zimmerman, has been told many times, as he has grown into the face of the Nationals franchise. But one year prior, another player matching the same description began a very different journey, one that has, after nearly a decade, landed him back in the same clubhouse here in Viera.

Bray returns to camp with the Nationals for the first time since 2006.

Bray returns to camp with the Nationals for the first time since 2006.

Bill Bray is a name likely familiar to Nationals fans who have been following the franchise since its relocation. After being selected 16th overall in the 2004 First-year Player Draft, the final one in Expos history, he made it to his Major League debut two days before his 23rd birthday in a road game at Milwaukee. The lefty threw a single pitch, upon which Corey Koskie, the runner at first, was gunned down trying to take second base, ending the eighth inning with Washington trailing, 3-2.

Zimmerman – who Bray faced in both high school and college – led off the top of the ninth with a single, and two batters later Brian Schneider took Derrick Turnbow deep for a two-run shot to give Washington the lead. Chad Cordero closed out the ninth, and Bray earned a win in his first Major League appearance, throwing just one pitch without retiring a batter.

The southpaw appeared in relief 19 times in the 2006 season before being flipped to the Reds in an eight-player deal that netted the Nationals Austin Kearns, Felipe Lopez and Ryan Wagner. Now he returns to a team that has grown during his absence to one of the strongest in the game.

“It’s a great feeling to be back in a Nationals uniform, and at the same time all these memories just come flooding back,” Bray said of walking into the home clubhouse in Viera for the first time in seven years. “It’s weird, almost like you’re seeing some ghosts walking around.”

A lot has changed in the seven years since Bray's last Nationals photo day.

A lot has changed in the seven years since Bray’s last Nationals photo day.

Bray was raised in the system with the likes of Ian Desmond and Roger Bernadina, but watched them blossom into everyday players from afar. Meanwhile, he has spent the past six years with Cincinnati, carving out a role for himself as a left-handed specialist, though his numbers against righties have been respectable as well.

“I don’t care if it’s a lefty or a righty up at the dish, I’m going to go at them the same way, I’m going to attack, and I’m going to get them out,” he explained, but also acknowledged the necessity of left-handed pitching for a team like the Nationals. “I think it’s a very important job, especially in the NL East with some of the lefties that we’re going to see and face.”

Bray is already embracing the role he hopes to carve out for himself over the next six weeks. He’s thrilled to have the chance to come back to Washington as well, the organization that signed him, and the one closest to his childhood home.

“Besides the baseball, we love D.C.,” Bray said of himself and his family. “Being from Virginia, my wife and I lived in D.C. for a couple years before we moved to Texas and we really enjoyed it.”

But ultimately, Bray’s driving force to return to Washington came from the knowledge that he had the chance to fill one of the lone remaining openings on a team with high aspirations this season.

“I know if I go out there and I’m healthy, I’m going to do my job,” Bray said, matter-of-factly. “That has always been the key for me is just staying on the field. I’m expecting to be healthy this year, I’m expecting to do my job, and I’m expecting to win the spot.”

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