The one-year anniversary of the Washington Nationals started the season 19-31 took place just over a week ago. Revisiting this topic might seem unnecessary after the improbable run the Nationals went on in last season, but there’s some interesting revisionist history developing that might need to be reconsidered. Although it may have been premature to suggest that Dave Martinez absolutely deserved to be fired (which I did), the beginning of his tenure — not even just the 19–31 start to 2019 — wasn’t exactly spectacular.
The Skipper’s Rookie Season
In retrospect, 2018 wasn’t wildly dissimilar from 2019 — aside from the end result. Daniel Murphy was injured to start the season, and the Nationals dug themselves into an 11–16 hole on April 28 after a 10-inning loss to the Diamondbacks.
To their credit, the Nationals reeled off 22 wins in their next 28 games — partially enabled by the debut of Juan Soto, along with designating A.J. Cole for assignment in favor of Jeremy Hellickson — and led the NL East on May 30. In fact, Bryce Harper had hit 18 home runs by this stage of the season, although his batting average was certainly subpar.
They somewhat scuffled for awhile after that, but still won almost as many games as they lost before trading for (intended) setup man Kelvin Herrera from the Royals on June 18. He seemed like a piece that could right the ship, as Ryan Madson (4.38 ERA at the time) and Shawn Kelley (4.11) weren’t seeing nearly as much success as they had the season prior.
The Nationals wound up continuing to lose more games than they won from that point on, finishing the season 82–80 and missing the playoffs. There were some considerable flaws in their management’s thought process on a few fronts — including, but not limited to, the extreme buyer’s mentality they showed when they acquired Herrera over a month prior to the trade deadline.
Not all of the blame can be placed on Dave Martinez, but there are a few matters he could’ve handled more effectively.
First of all, benching Michael A. Taylor when Adam Eaton returned from an injury on June 9 was probably a mistake. Taylor was in the midst of an atypically dominant stretch at the plate, and he always has been the team’s best defensive outfielder — aside from maybe Victor Robles, who was injured and in AAA at the time. When he’s racking up hits, it’s tough to justify not playing “MAT” consistently, but that’s precisely what Martinez chose to do — very much in contrast to Dusty Baker, who loved Taylor and guided him to his most productive big league season in 2017.
Instead, Martinez converted Harper into a nearly full-time center fielder, which was not only a deviation from the norm, but also borderline indefensible in regards to Bryce himself — whose 2018 ratings in right field were near the bottom of the league amongst all players at any position. The method kept the top three hitters in the lineup, but that’s ultimately all it did.
Compounding the matter, Brian Goodwin — who was virtually as valuable as Taylor in 2017 — was forced into a fifth outfielder role following Soto’s promotion and Eaton’s reinsertion, and it drove him into a downward spiral. Out of minor league options, he was eventually designated for assignment, netting a (likely negligible) prospect in return. Unsurprisingly, since the trade, Goodwin’s production has returned to roughly its 2017 level.
If I’m being completely honest, I think Goodwin was, is, and likely always will be every bit as good (in slightly different ways) as Taylor — and better than Andrew Stevenson. The Nationals should have found a way to keep him, but Martinez stopped playing him, reducing his value to pennies on the dollar. One of two things needed to happen:
- Start Taylor in center field, send Soto back to the minor leagues, and use Goodwin as a true backup outfielder instead of a sporadically-used bench bat.
- Keep the formula as it was and send Taylor (who had a minor league option available) to AAA.
The Nationals had the opportunity to either save service time on Soto (potentially delaying his salary arbitration eligibility, if not allowing them to retain him for an extra year) and to keep Taylor’s bat hot — either in the majors or in AAA — but they refused to do either. That may have helped Soto (although it didn’t help the team financially in regards to Soto), but it certainly hurt Taylor and Goodwin — a center field tag team that helped Washington to 97 wins and a division title the year before.
In the long run, the decision hasn’t been detrimental, but even to this day, the Nationals’ outfield depth is a little strange — which is why they had to add Gerardo Parra last year. They also picked up Adam Eaton’s $9.5 mutual option this offseason essentially because they had to. They became cash-strapped after paying Stephen Strasburg, so they couldn’t buy a better player than Eaton, and they certainly couldn’t go into the 2020 season with the recent version of Taylor and Stevenson competing for the right field job. And that doesn’t even begin to mention the lack of outfield depth in the minor leagues — none of their top 12 prospects (per MLB.com) are outfielders, and none of the outfielders within the top 30 are particularly close to big-league ready.
I get it; the bullpen wasn’t good in 2018. But let’s use some common sense here. Did it really make sense to trade a potential third baseman of the future (Kelvin Gutierrez) for a reliever (Herrera) who was arguably in decline and soon to be a free agent? Sure, he had “rebounded” in 2018, but the year before, Herrera had a somewhat ugly 4.25 ERA, and the velocity on all of his pitches had dropped by anywhere from 2–10 miles per hour from their peaks.
The Nationals did need to upgrade the bullpen, but that wasn’t the way to do it.
A large chunk of what they needed was for the guys they acquired in 2017 to simply return to their 2017 levels. Part of the reason why they dipped was because Martinez became over-reliant on them — in terms of volume, but also ineffective roles.
Martinez didn’t seem to fully understand how to use a left-handed specialist. Matt Grace and Tim Collins were actually good in that role, but they were so good that they “graduated” into more multi-purpose duties — ultimately facing more righties than lefties over the course of the season. By allowing that to happen, Martinez was then forced to use “righties who can get lefties out” — the bane of my existence, because it almost never works.
Kelley, Madson, Brandon Kintzler and Justin Miller — the heart of the bullpen, save for Sean Doolittle — all had substantially worse results against righties than lefties in 2018. Yet when an important situation arrived in the late innings — regardless of who was due up to hit — they were almost always the relievers called upon to get the key outs. That’s a recipe for disaster, and disaster is what frequently ensued as a result.
It’s not much of a coincidence that two of those four relievers were traded away in firestorm fashion later that season. Kelley threw his glove after giving up a ninth-inning home run, and Kintzler was accused of spreading negative rumors about the clubhouse culture to reporter Jeff Passan — whether he said anything or not, the substance of the rumor was accurate and apparent.
Quick aside: It was also extra strange that Kintzler took so much flack, because he was given credit for helping Tanner Roark rediscover his sinker. Unless the Nationals were also trying to trade Roark at the deadline, dealing one of them and not the other seemed questionable.
Frankly, I’m still not sure that Martinez has gotten much better at bullpen usage. He wore out Doolittle, Wander Suero and Fernando Rodney last season, ultimately only being saved by the emergence of Tanner Rainey and Daniel Hudson — as well as the ability to use his starters as relievers in the postseason.
The pitching coach had very close ties to Martinez, and there were relatively unspoken issues (at the time) on his end that carried over from 2018 into 2019. When Lilliquist was fired in early May, it certainly felt like the clock was ticking on the manager.
If nothing else, Lilliquist was directly appointed by Martinez, so the manager justly shouldered part of the blame. With every game that the tide didn’t turn in a positive manner after Lilliquist’s dismissal, Martinez became increasingly responsible for the team’s shortcomings, no matter what your stance may have been on the injury-related status of the roster.
In hindsight, many of the pitching staff’s troubles were tied to Lilliquist, but it was hard to know or assume that at the time. After all, how impactful can a pitching coach truly be?
It turns out that Paul Menhart (Lilliquist’s replacement) dropped the team’s ERA by nearly three-fourths of a run — which doesn’t sound like a lot, but that’s over 100 runs per 162 games, and +100 is a playoff-caliber run differential. Personalities across the staff also began to come alive once Lilliquist left.
Some of the difference may have had to do with acquiring better pitchers closer to the trade deadline (although Doolittle was less productive later in the year), and some of it is likely a result of Dave Martinez growing as a manager, but the chemistry still underwent a noticeable shift.
Things Worked Out
Players getting healthy certainly helped, and some of the trades and other minor acquisitions Mike Rizzo made as the season progressed also went a long way, but Dave Martinez also improved as a manager. His “go 1-0 today” mentality probably won’t work for another entire season — although maybe it could in a shortened season — but he’s discovered a formula that works, and there are aspects of that formula that can be extracted and reused in the future.
Perhaps even more importantly, Martinez became himself again. He’s generally a fun-loving guy with a side of assertiveness; not a tense, nervous wreck like he had been for the initial portion of his time with the Nationals. The whole point of Washington hiring him was for him to be their version of Joe Maddon — the manager he’d been an understudy to for a decade.
It’s not completely ideal that it took Martinez over a year to figure out how to be a manager, but there was always going to be a learning curve. The only question was how long the organization was willing to wait, especially considering the fracturing relationships inside the clubhouse. Like it or not, things came close to imploding, but Martinez got the Nationals out of it, and he deserves credit for that. Still, he also deserves part of the blame for letting it get to that low point.
Adversity has a certain “make or break” quality to it. Either you succumb to the pressure or you put your best foot forward and see where it takes you. External factors are always part of the equation, but a lot can be learned in difficult times, and by making it out on top, you acquire wisdom and confidence that likely wouldn’t have formed otherwise.
I won’t go so far as to say Martinez has immunity going forward or even that he’s a top-tier manager, but his job should certainly be safe. That wasn’t true last May, though, especially given the uncertainty of who was to blame for underperformance and tension. Whether Martinez was ultimately at fault towards the larger issues, he has inarguably grown as a manager since around this time last year.