Matt Williams hit 378 home runs and won four Silver Slugger awards, but the former Giants, Indians, and Diamondbacks third baseman is most proud of his Gold Gloves. A stalwart at the hot corner for 17 big-league seasons, Williams currently serves as Arizona’s first-base coach.
David Laurila: How satisfied are you with your playing career?
Matt Williams: That’s a tough one to answer. I never thought that I would play so many years, but given the fact that I did play that many years, there are a lot of things I could have done better. So it’s kind of an interesting thought. On one hand, I never thought I’d play that long, but to be dissatisfied with a lot of things within my career—that’s probably human. But overall, it was my dream and I got to fulfill my dream, and I did it for a long time. I’m satisfied with that.
DL: Which of your accomplishments mean the most to you?
MW: The Gold Gloves that I was voted. That is the ultimate compliment, because the opposing coaches and managers vote on it, which for me is better than stats. It’s better than offensive numbers, or statistics, because you have the respect of your peers and the people you play against. Those are the most special awards for me.
DL: That said, do you see much value in defensive metrics?
MW: You know, I have a little different thought about this. The metrics, and all the numbers, and all the positioning and over-shifting, is all well and good. And the tendencies are great, and all of those things, but you have to feel the game at times, too. That’s a little bit of the approach that I take with our guys. If you have a feeling… if our shortstop, Stephen Drew, has a feeling on something, then I let him go with it, because he’s out on the field. He can see the pitches cross the zone; he can feel the game better than I can sitting in the dugout.
I think that a combination of all of those things is good, but to rely one way or the other is something we’re past the point of now. If we can combine a little bit of the numbers and the feel, and getting into the game, I think we’re all better off.
DL: Are there different styles of good defensive third basemen?
MW: Sure, and I think that each third baseman goes through different styles in his own career. When you’re young, it’s all about athleticism and quickness, because you’re 20, 21 years old and you’ve got good legs underneath you, and you’re flexible. As you get older, I think your brain plays a bigger part and positioning becomes a bigger part. You become smarter, because you know what your limitations are and you try to guard against those limitations. You try to take advantage of your strengths as much as possible. I think that each individual third baseman, or any position player for that matter, becomes smarter over time, although their skills diminish.
DL: How important is it to read the hitter at third base?
MW: It’s hard to do at third base. It’s hard to do on the corners, because you don’t have the liberty of knowing the sign all the time. You don’t have the liberty of seeing the ball all the way to the plate. The corner infielders have a bad angle to read, so it’s generally a step or two and a dive; that’s whether you’re playing third base or first base. There’s not a whole lot of time to read things, it’s more of a reactionary position.
DL: When the pitch is being delivered, can you read “breaking ball” and anticipate that it is more likely to be pulled in your direction?
MW: Not necessarily. It depends on the hitter; it depends on who is hot and who is not at that point. I mean, I know from experience, from hitting, that there were times where I was swinging the bat well and it didn’t matter. They’d throw me a breaking ball and I’d hit it to right-center. There were also times where I’d be struggling and I would roll over that breaking ball to the left side of the infield all the time. So it depends on how the guy is swinging the bat and it depends on how good the pitcher is that day. A lot of factors come into play, and especially at third base, it’s a reaction more than anything else.
DL: Are you reading the hitter’s hips or his swing path?
MW: What you read is bat angle. You can tell the difference between a bat angle that is going to pull the baseball and a bat angle that is going to hit the ball the other way, because you see the ball as it enters the zone, and you see the bat coming through the zone, and you can read that bat angle as he’s swinging. At that split second you’ll know whether the ball is going to come your way or not.
DL: Is it difficult to maintain complete focus on every pitch thrown in a given game?
MW: Well, that’s part of the game. Part of playing the game at this level is that you must be [focused]. I talk about it with our infielders all the time. The first pitch of a game is just as important as the last pitch, so to be ready for that many pitches over the course of a ballgame is difficult—to keep that concentration—but it is imperative. If you’re going to be a championship club, you must do that. That’s what we strive for every day.
DL: As a coach, can you usually tell if a player has that focus, or not?
MW: You can tell their preparation, so once the game starts and they’re out there… like I said before, I don’t see it like they see it when they play. All that we can control is the preparation that goes into it. We prepare as best we can; we make sure that they’re prepared to play that particular game so that we’re ready to go. We have scouting reports, we have tendencies, we have all of those things. We give them that information and then rely on their instincts, more than anything, to play the game given the information that was given to them. And often times today there is a lot of information—maybe too much—but they’re well-armed when they step between the lines.
DL: Are some players better served with less information than more?
MW: Everybody gets the same information. It’s up to them to pick and choose, and decipher, what is going to work for them. And often times with younger players, you just don’t know that. It’s a process of trying to figure all that out. But I don’t think there are any players on our team who I would limit the amount of information we give. It’s more a question of what information is given to them and what we want to concentrate on.
The concentration for Mark Reynolds, at third, may be different than… Stephen Drew may use something else within all that information to help him to become a better player. It depends on position, often times.
DL: It is important for a middle-infield combination to have good chemistry? What about a shortstop and third baseman?
MW: Sure. Everybody has their DNA as a player—their fingerprints—and you have to know that guy who is playing along side of you, what makes him tick and what he does best. In the middle of the infield, that’s especially turning a double play. There are a lot of great athletes now who are extremely fast, so to turn a double play is often times difficult because of how well guys run. You have to make sure that you know exactly what that shortstop, or second baseman, is going to do on a ground ball hit to them.
DL: Is there a fear factor playing at “the hot corner”?
MW: I started playing professionally as a shortstop and the transition I had moving from short to third was easier than moving from third to short, certainly. But there were times where it felt uncomfortable standing 90 feet away, or playing in on a guy where you have to get the out at the plate and he’s a pull hitter who hits the ball between 115 and 120 mph down to third base. But that’s why they give you that glove. It’s why they provide you protection to defend yourself at times, and often times it is defense. But as long as it goes in the glove, you’re fine.
DL: Which hitters struck the most fear into you?
MW: I had a couple of situations in my career. We were at Candlestick Park one day playing the Padres and the bases were loaded with nobody out, late in the game, and Jack Clark was at the plate. I had to play in, because we had to cut the run down at the plate, and that was uncomfortable.
The other guy who probably hit the hardest ball at me, in my whole career, was Ron Gant. He could run, so I had to play in to guard against the bunt and he hit me a bullet one night that skipped off the grass and hit me in my shin, and I thought it broke my leg. I never got leather on it—all it got was bone.
DL: Does the ball from a left-handed hitter come at a third baseman differently than a ball from a right-handed hitter?
MW: The ball that comes from a left-handed hitter is an inside-out swing, generally not hit as hard, and it has a funny spin on it as opposed to a right-handed hitter. It’s got kind of an inside out, right-to-left spin, a counter-clockwise spin, which is difficult to catch, often times.
The toughest ball from a right-handed batter is the ball that he rolls over and creates that topspin. Generally, on a topspin ball, the second hop is more of a difficult hop, because it bounces higher. You have to account for that, and sometimes it’s about just getting in front of it and knocking it down and seeing if you can make a play.
DL: Are swinging bunts more difficult to handle than conventional bunts?
MW: They’re harder to field, because they usually have more spin. It’s a violent swing, where he’s trying to hit the ball hard, so it usually has more spin. Those are do-or-die plays, because you either make it or you don’t. Generally, you’re charging as fast as you can charge and he’s out of the box going as hard as he can toward first base. It’s a bang-bang play over there more times than not and if you glove it you glove it, and if you don’t you don’t. It’s one of those deals where you can’t try to defend it; you just have to come and get it when it happens.
DL: Do you think that third basemen, specifically good defensive third basemen, are underrated?
MW: I do. I think that when you look at traditional baseball you say, “Where are your best defenders generally located?” and they’re generally in the middle of the field. Your catcher, your second baseman, your shortstop and your center fielder are usually your best defenders. The guys on the corners are looked to more for offense, but in today’s game, everybody is looked to for offense.
I think that the biggest misconception that we have in today’s game is that offensive numbers are great, but if you really break it down, and you really look at it, the teams that win consistently and get to the playoffs year in and year out, and to the World Series for that matter, play exceptional defense. That’s what it is all about.
DL: Why do you think there are so few third basemen in the Hall of Fame?
MW: I don’t know, but I think that it’s a difficult position. I think it’s a position that probably lends itself to shorter careers. You’re diving constantly; it’s demanding on you. Third basemen are usually guys who are larger and more powerful than the middle guys, and that probably lends to shorter careers as well. The smaller guys that have lots of energy, that are agile, tend to last a little longer than the bigger guys that are relied on for power. Does that equate to numbers? I don’t know. That’s the only thing that I can think of.
I would imagine that every player who plays this game initially doesn’t play to get to the Hall of Fame. They play it because they love to play it. And that’s what it’s all about. If you have some longevity and you have the ability, and you take advantage of that ability and work hard, well, then you’ve got a chance. But it’s not the initial thought as guys start to play this game as youngsters and finally make it to professional baseball.
DL: Are you disappointed to have received almost no support from Hall of Fame voters?
MW: No. Like I said, I never thought about the Hall of Fame. I played because I loved to play and if I could still play, I’d still be playing. It’s the most difficult game in the world and the adage I like to use is that in this game, perfection is unobtainable, but the pursuit of perfection is imperative. You fail a lot, but the times that you succeed make it all worth it.