It’s difficult to say anything about the world champion Washington Nationals that hasn’t already been said. But I have at least one unique take on the Nats: Their manager, Dave Martinez, is getting way too much praise.
Rumor has it that Martinez is a strong candidate for National League Manager of the Year. This would be an odd honor for a manager whose team barely made the Wild Card game despite being one of the four most talented in baseball.
Martinez justly gets credit for keeping his team motivated after a terrible start to the season. Players like him and play hard for him.
On the other hand, his in-game decisions are often poor, especially when it comes to the bullpen. In his two years in Washington, the Nats have won 175 regular season games. That’s not much of a return for a team this talented, and it reflects perhaps a dozen games that were lost due to poor bullpen-related decisions by Martinez.
Martinez’s inability to handle a bullpen became an open secret in 2018 after one or more bullpen members complained about him to reporters. Relievers Brandon Kintzler and Shawn Kelley were released by the team, apparently because they didn’t hide their exasperation with their manager.
The Nats, with their woeful 2019 bullpen, could have used them this year (Kintzler pitched to a 2.68 ERA and Kelly had 11 saves). However, cutting the two sent a message — “keep it in the clubhouse” — that stood the team in good stead when it got off to a 19-31 start this year. Credit for sending that message goes to general manager Mike Rizzo.
When the 2019 season began, the Nats bullpen (minus Kintzler and Kelley) was so bad that Tony La Russa would have struggled to look competent managing it. For Martinez, the task was hopeless.
Time after time, he made pitching decisions that were obviously wrong at the time he made them. Nor did the follies stop when the Nats brought in decent relievers (notably Fernando Rodney) and a good one (Daniel Hudson) to augment the bullpen.
Martinez’s handling of Rodney constituted malpractice. At age 42 Rodney was typically effective when he pitched on rest, but horrendous when he worked back-to-back games. Martinez never seemed to figure this out.
In frustration, I came up with three rules for handling the Nats bullpen:
1. Don’t use a 42 year-old reliever in back-to-back games when you have alternatives.
2. If you use a 30 year-old reliever (Hunter Strickland) in back-to-back games, don’t have him work two innings.
3. In September, don’t ask any reliever to work three games in a row when you have alternatives.
Martinez violated these rules on something like a weekly basis, to the Nats’ detriment.
His worst decision, though, involved starting pitchers. He selected Max Scherzer over Stephen Strasburg to start the Wild Card game.
Strasburg had been pitching lights out for more than a month, displaying the same command and stuff that would win him World Series MVP honors. Scherzer, coming back from injury, had been struggling. Based on his performances in September, he seemed almost guaranteed to give up a home run or two in the early innings.
Martinez went with Scherzer, and sure enough, Max gave up two home runs right away, as the Nats fell behind 3-0. Strasburg came on and, pitching brilliantly, kept the Nats within striking distance of Milwaukee. The Nats won the game with three runs in the bottom of the eighth inning against the best relief pitcher in the National League, Josh Hader.
But for this probability-defying comeback, Martinez might be wondering about keeping his job, not about winning manager of the year.
After the Wild Card game, Martinez’s pitching decisions were almost entirely sound. He did use Rodney in back-to-back games during the World Series, with consequences even worse than normal. However, this was in a game where the outcome was not in serious doubt. Otherwise, his decisions were beyond reproach.
But here’s the thing: Martinez had very few tough pitching decisions to make. By the time of the playoffs, it was clear to the manager (and everyone else) that he had only six pitchers he could use when the outcome of a game was in doubt. Because of days off and because his starting pitchers generally gave him five innings or more, Martinez could get away with using just six pitchers when the game was on the line.
So constrained, Martinez’s pitching decisions pretty much made themselves.
The near-universal line on Martinez is that impatient fans and journalists called for him to be fired when the Nats got off to a terrible start, but Mike Rizzo, realizing that injuries were to blame, stayed with Martinez and was rewarded with a World Series victory.
Injuries were a serious problem early in the season, and the Nats did play great once the team got healthy. However, in my opinion Martinez deserved to be fired in late May. At that time his record as Washington’s manager was 101-111. Injuries can’t explain this record away.
Nor, as I argued above, did Martinez’s decision making improve that much after May. If it doesn’t improve going forward, the team probably will under perform next season, as it has during Martinez’s two regular seasons here. Before too long, fans and journalists may again be clamoring, with justification, for a new manager.