WASHINGTON - How much of a difference – be it good or bad – do pitching and hitting coaches make among veteran and young players alike at the major league level?
The Washington Nationals are about to find out and the onus for a major shakeup is going to fall squarely on the shoulders of manager Dave Martinez.
“Good pitchers make great pitching coaches,” Paul Menhart, 51, told Federal Baseball from his home in Georgia on Monday night. “And that’s a fact.”
He should know.
Just seven months into his job as pitching coach, Menhart rode the right arms of Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer and the left arm of Patrick Corbin to win the World Series over the Houston Astros a year ago.
Strasburg was the World Series MVP, Scherzer gutted his way through a Game 7 start, and Corbin was able to switch between starting and the bullpen in the playoffs last October to bring a title to the nation’s capital.
But Menhart, who began coaching in the minors with Washington in 2006, is out of a job after a 2020 season in which the Nationals posted a combined ERA of 5.09 and finished with a mark of 26-34 overall in this abbreviated and perhaps unfairly judged season.
Martinez informed Menhart in a telephone call on October 3 that his contract would not be extended.
“I have definitely had the opportunity to process it. The sting is definitely still there,” Menhart told Federal Baseball ten days later. “I completely understand the move.”
Among the pitchers that contacted Menhart after he was dismissed were Strasburg and Aaron Barrett, whose time with the Nationals appears to be over.
“He is like a son to me,” Menhart said of Barrett, who made a stirring comeback to the majors in 2019. “He is just a great human being.”
It was Menhart who helped Strasburg stop tipping his pitches against the Astros in the World Series. Menhart said Monday that Strasburg will do anything he can to help the pitching coach find his next gig.
“He had some very, very nice things to say,” said Menhart, who pitched for three major league teams.
“We didn’t have an opportunity to go through the season since he had to leave the premises” after going on the Injured List.
Menhart is not alone on the coaching carousel.
This past weekend, published reports revealed that hitting coach Kevin Long and third-base coach Chip Hale, who was the bench coach in 2018-19, would also not return to the coaching staff in 2021.
How much did that news surprise Menhart?
“To put it bluntly, nothing was going to surprise me” after the first phone call he received from Martinez, said Menhart, who has been in touch with Hale and Long the past few days. “To say it was surprising it is not the case. I can not say enough about those two guys. They are true professionals. They are good at what they do.”
“I don’t anticipate them being without another opportunity. They are baseball rats and that is a good thing. They love the game and they love the ballpark; they love working with big-league players. I don’t feel they are going to have a difficult time getting another job. They are so well known and have been doing it for a long time.”
We should have seen this coming.
Menhart was only offered a one-year contract after helping to win the World Series while Hale moved from bench coach to third-base coach this past year as Tim Bogar became the bench coach next to Martinez.
“I understand that Davey, with his extension came the opportunity to kind of revamp his staff and get guys that he wanted,” Hale, a former Arizona manager, told The Washington Post on Monday.
As much as change, especially among a staff that won a World Series, may be hard for fans to fathom, Martinez has earned the right to pick his own coaches.
In fact, he should have been allowed to do that when he was hired before the 2018 season.
“The only individuals he was allowed to name to his staff were Tim Bogar and Henry Blanco,” Menhart said. “What has happened since makes total sense.”
But stability among managers and coaches has never been a strength of the Lerner ownership group – perhaps until now that Martinez and general manager Mike Rizzo have new contracts.
How that translates to success on the field will have to wait until next year.
Strasburg and Scherzer will now have their fifth coaching during their tenure in Washington – unless for some reason Mike Maddux, who was with the Cardinals this year, returns to the Nationals in 2021.
Outfielder Juan Soto and infielders Luis Garcia and Carter Kieboom will now work with someone other than Long for the first time at the Major League level.
Menhart began with the Nationals as the pitching coach for Single-A Savannah of the South Atlantic League in 2006.
Two of his pitchers that year were Craig Stammen and John Lannan – and both eventually made the majors with Washington. They were his first two minor leaguers to make the majors during his time with the Nationals.
Stammen told Federal Baseball recently that pitching coaches make a huge difference in the majors. “They may discover one pitch or sequence that can get a batter out,” he said.
Stammen feels Menhart will find another gig.
“It can’t happen soon enough, to be honest with you,” Menhart said Monday.
While he would like to stay in the minors, the St. Louis native who grew up in Connecticut is open to returning to player development. “I am fine in any capacity. I still have a love for getting guys (to the majors). It is such a high,” he said.
Meanwhile, soon we will find out if the gamble to break up a World Series staff pays off for Martinez and the Nationals.