While they were still trying to win games down the stretch last season, following the sell-off of expiring contracts (and a year-plus of Trea Turner) at the trade deadline, which kicked off a reboot of the organization, the most important task in the last two months of the 2021 was the evaluation of the talent already in the system and the players who came over in all those deals GM Mike Rizzo completed.
“The players that we acquired today at the trade deadline, and the last couple of drafts and trade deadline acquisitions we had, will be the core of this next championship-caliber club,” Rizzo told reporters once the trade deadline past last July. “And that’s our goal. So, our goal is to build one of the great organizations in baseball.”
Manager Davey Martinez talked after the final outing of the season by right-handed starter Josiah Gray, one of the highly-regarded prospects they acquired, about how he evaluated young pitchers, and what he and his staff were looking for when they watched their young players in the big leagues at that point.
“I evaluate the individual pitcher,” Martinez said after Gray faced off against a Boston Red Sox team which was fighting for a spot in the postseason, “and not the team that they’re facing. We’ll sit down and we’ll evaluate all the pitches that they throw. I’ll look at all the fastballs, we’ll look at all the sliders, all the changeups, and the hitters, we’ll look — as they face different hitters, which hitters they face, and then we’ll break everything down, and what we want to do is make sure that we understand what they’re trying to do and how we can make them better in that aspect, and also high-leverage situations.”
How they react in those high-leverage or stressful situations is a big thing that the one-time major league outfielder turned coach and eventually manager was trying to evaluate.
“I’ll look at a lot of stuff when the game is on the line and see how they react and then we can help them in that aspect as well,” Martinez explained.
“Does their breathing change? Do they start to slow things down, and their tempo gets really screwed up?
“What [are] their mechanics like in situations like that? Because that can tell you a lot about a pitcher.”
And what can you tell or what can you learn about a pitcher from watching how they react to those situations?
“A lot of it is just watching what they do and trying to correct that,” Martinez said. “If some guy starts breathing hard, we’ll give him something to say, ‘Hey, look, this is what needs to transpire. Step back off the mound, take a deep breath.’ Sometimes we tell them, ‘Hey, get your head down and when you’re ready to look up and you’re engaged to the catcher, it’s time to go. But we’ll do different things, different drills with them, and we’ll do that in Spring Training as well, and this way they’re prepared so when that does happen, they don’t lose that tempo, they don’t lose what they’re trying to do and what they’ve been doing. So, there’s a lot, there’s a lot that we’ll go over this winter. The good thing about it, I’ll have Zooms with our analytical people. I’ll have Zooms with [Pitching Coach Jim] Hickey. Hickey will already be keeping track of the pitchers and what they’re doing, and how they’re trying to stay in shape, so he’s on top of everything, and then we’ll go from there.”
Watching your own pitchers, watching how pitchers on other teams deal with high-leverage spots, and watching how your own catchers handle pitchers during these situations, was an important part of what the Nats’ skipper was evaluating down the stretch, as well as how he saw young catcher Keibert Ruiz handling the pitching staff as he too got comfortable with a new group of pitchers and a new organization after he was acquired along with Gray and he was called up for the final month of the season..
“A lot of guys — I’ve seen a lot of guys, and I’ve watched other pitchers that actually helped me from other teams as well,” the Nationals’ manager said.
“Sometimes the situations, high-leverage situation, sometimes they close their eyes, and they take a deep breath, and then when they open their eyes they get on the mound and they get ready to go. It’s just something that gets them back engaged and keeps them on that pitch, not trying to get ahead. A lot of times some of these young pitchers they’ll just think about getting an out, but how are you going to get an out? That’s the thing that we want to teach them. Of course we want an out but how are you going to do that, and get them back in the zone.
“And that’s another good thing that we want to teach the catchers, to look and learn when things start happening, to learn how you can go out there and slow the pitchers down and communicate.”
Once the season ended, he said, it’s all about taking what they saw from their players and coming up with plans for the winter to get them ready for Spring Training.
“We’ll sit down and we’ll look at all that stuff so that some time during the course of the winter we’ll start sending things out to pitchers on what to work on,” Martinez said.
“They spend a lot of the first month obviously getting back in shape, doing a lot of physical training, and then when they start getting ready to throw, we’ll start sending out information, and I’ll start talking to guys individually and making sure that when they come to Spring Training these are the things that we want them to brush [up] on and work on and that they’re ready to go.”