There isn’t much debate at this point. The Washington Nationals are the most disappointing team in baseball so far in 2019, possessing a lowly 20-31 record as May comes to a close.
Their record is better than just three teams, all of them seemingly in deep rebuilds while the Nationals are supposed to be competing. When you’re in the company of the Miami Marlins, Kansas City Royals and Baltimore Orioles, something has gone horribly wrong.
This was a team that was widely predicted to get back to the 90-win plateau by baseball experts around the business. The fact they look nowhere close to doing so raises red flags about the management of the team.
There have been many factors contributing to the Nats’ poor record. That includes injuries to key players, the bullpen seemingly unable to get outs, substandard defense in the field, and a consistently inconsistent offense.
But the one that stands out above all the rest, and is at least partially responsible for some of those previous issues, is the manager, Davey Martinez.
Coming off a disappointing 82-80 season in his first year at the helm, Martinez entered 2019 needing to prove that he had learned from his shortcomings.
In Spring Training, that appeared to be the case as he preached fundamentals and “The Little Things” all spring.
However, we’re almost a third of the way into the season and all of the same mistakes have reared their ugly heads. The poor baserunning and fielding is particularly disappointing.
Following Friday’s series opener against the Miami Marlins, the Nationals ranked third last in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved. Every single position on the diamond had a negative cumulative DRS as well. The only other team with that distinction is the Orioles.
“We do extra drills. We take ground balls every day,” Martinez said of the team’s defense earlier this month.
“Sometimes when a team is struggling, you try to do a lot more, and just play the game. Really. All you’ve got to do is play the game.”
“You’ve done it a million times, I mean that’s a double play ball 10 of 10 times, just play the game, don’t make it hard on yourself, just do the little things, keep it simple.”
The team’s baserunning has also been pretty haphazard too. After yesterday’s game, the Nats ranked 19th in FanGraphs’ Ultimate Baserunning Rating, a stat that measure a team’s baserunning after removing the effect of stolen bases. Another sub-par showing.
“There’s two constants for me, and that’s play good defense and good baserunning,” Martinez said at the start of May. “You want to be a good teammate, run the bases well, get to the next base for your teammates.”
It’s hardly a good sign if you make the effort to improve specific areas on the field and then it doesn’t translate to the regular season. That either comes down to poor execution in pushing the envelope, or the players have little respect for the man in charge.
Whenever the subject of Martinez’s job security comes up, the word “injuries” is bound to be mentioned. The Nats lost Trea Turner for around six weeks while also losing Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon for 10 days apiece earlier in the season.
That definitely has an effect on the team on both sides of the ball, but it also flags up another flaw with Martinez. Some of the better managers in the game are able to elevate the performance of utility and bench players when the starters are hurt. Martinez doesn’t.
Under previous management, we’ve seen players such as Wilmer Difo, Brian Goodwin, Steve Lombardozzi, Clint Robinson, and Stephen Drew step up the plate in the absence of starting position players with great success.
But under Martinez, the list is short. Howie Kendrick is the best example, becoming a force to be reckoned with in the batting order when playing. A check in Martinez’s column.
Aside from that, is there really another player that Martinez has helped to elevate their performance? Gerardo Parra and Adrian Sanchez have cases, but both of those have been in a very small sample size so far. Hardly a convincing case for the skipper.
All this is before we get to Martinez’s bullpen management. A surprisingly large number of baseball fans will say their manager is awful at bullpen management. While Martinez has the solid excuse of a lackluster bullpen, there’s reason to believe he should be doing better.
His usage patterns can sometimes boggle the mind. Some of it comes from necessity given the sub-par performances of several members in the relief corps. But Martinez has a habit of riding a relievers who show any glimmer of hope into the ground.
Take Tanner Rainey, who was promoted from Triple-A last week. In his Nats debut on Monday against the Mets, he fired a scoreless inning in a low-leverage spot. The next day, he was brought in with a one-run lead in the eight. Instant promotion, for some reason.
GM Mike Rizzo does deserve to take some of the blame for the bullpen construction and it was an issue many identified before the season started. But his strategy of identifying bargains rather than shopping at the top-end of the market has worked for him before.
Even the most pessimistic wouldn’t have foreseen a bullpen ERA north of seven this far into the season. Martinez’s usage of his bullpen arms came up last year in a Washington Post article that allegedly got Brandon Kintzler traded, but it seems to be happening again.
When we talked about raising the standards of bench players, the same could be applied to the bullpen. ERA is a volatile stat this early in the season, but the only reliever with a lower ERA than their career figure is Rainey, who has a 18.90 career ERA.
“We’ve got to find a guy in that seventh and eighth to get the ball to [closer Sean] Doolittle,” Martinez said following the series in New York. “That’s the bottom line. In my mind, in my heart, I know we have the guys to do it, they’ve just got to finish it.”
Maybe they do have the guys to do it, each pitcher’s track records speak for themselves. But Martinez hasn’t really been putting them in the best spots to do so.
Having said all of that, you’ll struggle to find anyone associated with the Nats who will say a bad word about Martinez as a person.
As Joe Maddon’s bench coach, he had a reputation as a coach players could talk to about anything and that’s carried over to Washington.
The players genuinely seem to like Martinez, going out playing until the fat lady signs pretty much every night. That shouldn’t be overlooked, as it can be difficult to find in a manager.
But there’s a huge difference between liking a manager and respecting them as a manager. It’s tough to tell without actually being inside the players’ minds whether they truly respect him or not, but when things he preaches don’t stick in players’ mind, it’s a problem.
Rizzo spoke to the media before Friday’s game against the Marlins after all the speculation about the future of the manager.
“We’re not making any decisions like I said with a third of the season gone,” Rizzo said.
“We’ve got a lot of season left. Davey is not happy with what’s going on. Nobody is happy with what’s going on, the fan base, the ownership, and myself.”
At this point, unless the Nats become possessed and find their way towards .500 before the end of June, it seems more like a matter of when, not if, Martinez will be let go.
A potential interim manager would likely come from within, given ownership’s tendency to devalue the position. So you’d likely be looking at either Chip Hale, Randy Knorr, Matt LeCroy, or even Bo Porter the rest of the way with a full evaluation in the offseason.
All of those would bring a fresh input into the squad and it’s hard to imagine them doing much worse than Martinez is doing this year. At least this would give the front office a live look at someone rather than operating with a lame duck the rest of the way.
It’s pretty clear the Nationals have a whole lot of problems to solve before even considering competing for a division crown. With that said, one of those problems is calling the shots on the field and it could be time to move on from Dave Martinez.