- The Washington Times - Monday, March 30, 2015

VIERA, Fla. — On a dew-swept morning in between the sounds of hopefuls in a batting cage and a functional four-wall building in the Washington Nationals’ minor league complex, Spin Williams stuck a paper Gatorade cup filled with steaming coffee into a holder. He settled into his seat. The white golf cart was deemed a sufficient location for a chat.

“This is my office,” he said with a smile.

Williams, 59, has been chased by the echoes of baseball almost all his life. That morning was no different. As minor leaguers worked in cages behind him and the sun dragged itself up the horizon, the Nationals’ senior advisor for player development talked strikes and leg kicks and organizational philosophy. In many ways, his lengthy title just means he will be what he has always been since entering coaching in 1981 after his pitching career stalled — a Mr. Fix-it, of sorts.

“I think I’m just going to be kind of a troubleshooter and do things Mike [Rizzo, the general manager] and Doug [Harris, assistant general manager] want me to do from a standpoint of taking peeks at people,” Williams said. “Helping the staff out in the minor leagues. Just being an extra set of eyes for the organization.”

The Nationals have become an organization lauded for pitching depth which, in turn, means Williams should receive a layer of that shine. Every pitcher that comes through the organization has some facet of interaction with Williams. Whether it’s keeping top prospects like Stephen Strasburg on track, expediting the delivery time of Drew Storen to the plate or convincing Craig Stammen of a different approach, Williams’ role is as varied as pitcher deliveries.

“I’d describe Spin as a guy who wants players to succeed more than anybody in the whole organization,” Stammen said.

Funny thing about the name “Spin.” A natural, but incorrect, assumption would be that baseball produced this nickname so easily applied to a pitcher from the Midwest. But, Spin is actually Donald Williams Jr. Everyone called his dad Don, so that was out. They didn’t want to pin Junior on him, either. During the late 1950s, a series of shorts broadcast on The Mickey Mouse Club on ABC told the story of Spin Evans, a lanky, poor, athletic kid, and Marty Markham, an orphan who joined him at The Triple R Ranch via limousine. At the order of his brother and sister in the early 1960s, Donald would be known as Spin, henceforth causing “about everybody” to think his moniker was earned from days on the diamond.

In between sips of coffee, Williams explained what he believes is a separating factor for the Nationals: Unity. He repeated the word, at times using “family” to supplant it during similar points, and said the situation in Washington is unlike others he had been in the last three decades as a coach.

Much of that time was spent with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Once Williams concluded he was not going to make it to the majors as a left-handed pitcher, he began an extended coaching journey in Greenwood, South Carolina in 1981. He moved through the Pirates’ system like a player. Williams made it to Triple-A Buffalo in 1992 after stops in southern towns and far-off winter leagues. Pirates manager Jim Leyland — a longtime friend and appreciator of trudging paths — eventually brought Williams onto the Pittsburgh staff in 1994. He was the Pirates’ bullpen coach before ascending to pitching coach. Williams joined the Nationals in 2006 as their player development and scouting, pitching advisor.

Williams works from a baseline set by the organization’s program of pitching to contact. The Nationals want pitchers to cut their volume of throws and stay on the edges of the strike zone. They are prepared to change a pitcher’s arm angle or arm action, to add a pitch or remove one. They are not adverse to swift change.

“We’re pretty aggressive from that standpoint,” Williams said. “At the end of the day, we’re trying to make major leaguers. You got to have success, but if you’re having success in A ball and we feel like that’s not going to work at the major league level, we don’t allow that to happen.

“I think that’s one thing, we set the foundation in the minor leagues, but we’re trying to create big leaguers and that’s our job and I think we don’t leave any stone unturned, so to speak, of giving an opportunity to each player to get to that level. Some players don’t have the talent to get to that level, but our job is to get every ounce of talent out of those players that we can.”

Uber-prospects like Strasburg and 20-year-old Lucas Giolito, the first-round pick in the 2012 draft, receive extra looks from the staff when they enter the system. But, there is management of each pitcher in the manner Williams alluded to. One of his marquee examples of pushing the Nationals’ philosophy into the mind of a player is Stammen.

Stammen was a 12th-round pick out of the University of Dayton in 2005. His stuff, the Nationals felt, was very good. Good enough that at the single-A level, Stammen could get by though often pitching from behind. The Nationals pushed him to be on the plate more in Williams’ first year in the organization.

“He didn’t buy into our system early,” Williams said.

They stayed after Stammen. Mechanical changes were suggested. Stammen felt they were ineffective. “Physically, they just didn’t fit me,” Stammen said. Though, other adjustments, and his natural stuff, helped him rise to Triple A and pop into the majors before returning to the minors. There, he hit an impasse.

“There was one time in Triple A where he was like, ‘You’ll never make it back to the big leagues if you keep pitching like this,’” Stammen said. “And then we had a long bullpen session that next day, and I was like, ‘All right. Let’s make some changes.’”

Stammen’s uptick was delayed. He said the changes took time to influence his results. He struggled as a starter in the big leagues when he arrived in 2009, just four years after being drafted. Success struck when he was converted to being a reliever. Since 2011, Stammen has a 2.85 ERA out of the bullpen. Last season, his strikeout-to-walk ratio was a career-best 4-to-1.

“We kept talking to him, kept talking to him, and kept trying to sell him on our system about pitching to contact and things,” Williams said. “I think he’s one of the guys that I think back when that was one of my first years of coordinating and now look, he’s got several years in the big leagues.

“I’m not taking credit for it, but I’m just saying it was neat to see him after taking part and doing what we asked him to do he sped through the system and ended up in the big leagues and now has several years under his belt.”

Williams help adjust Storen’s leg kick because the reliever was too slow to the plate. Aaron Barrett needed mental and physical help. When he had the “yips,” Williams helped him through that mind game. With that resolved, they focused on Barrett driving more with his right leg and not pulling off when finishing his delivery. Everyone is a project. It’s just the degrees of construction that vary.

“I think he’s made a huge impact, obviously,” Barrett said. “You look around the clubhouse and see how many guys have come through the minor-league system while he’s been our pitching coordinator, and I think it’s a testament of him and a lot of things that he incorporates with us, as far as the mental and physical side of baseball.”

Pride bolsters Williams’ words about players. He does not have children, so the success of people he works with in the organization delivers gratification. It’s not just mound success, either. Smiles come after watching a young player do well in an interview or when interacting with fans.

“I think it’s fun to watch these kids grow up, turn into men,” Williams said.

When there is downtime, Williams is back on his acreage in Iowa with his wife, Mindy. Five or six years ago, they acquired a beehive, which did well on their property. A second one was added. The bees have turned into a major hobby, usurping Williams’ desire for fishing and bird watching. He and his wife “do the honeybee thing,” harvesting and growing sweetness. It’s an offseason way of tending and developing for a payoff.

For Williams, there always was baseball from high school to Winona State to the Pirates’ minor league system. He’s thankful the Nationals have extended that career. As far as he can tell, there always will be baseball for him.

“Baseball has been my life for 37 years and it will probably be my life until they put me in the ground,” Williams said.

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