If you are what your record says you are, then the Washington Nationals are the second-worst team in the National League. The only team worse is the Miami Marlins, whose only series win all season long to date came at the expense of the Nats, back in April.
With four games left to play on a daunting road trip on which they are 1-5 so far, the Nats’ record stands at 14-22. They are fourth in the NL East, trailing the Philadelphia Phillies by seven games as they depart Milwaukee after being swept to take on the Los Angeles Dodgers for a Thursday-to-Sunday weekend set.
This was always going to be the toughest stretch of the season, even without some voodoo doctor twisting and jabbing and tweaking and prodding and snapping dolls of Juan Soto and Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon and Yan Gomes and Trea Turner. One could make the argument the Phillies, Brewers and Dodgers are the three best teams in the National League; they’re certainly three of the top five. To have to play them all at once, without an off day, consecutively, on the road, was already a tough task before an eight-hour tarmac delay.
But these are all excuses. The Nats were supposed to be good, and they are very clearly not that, and the time is coming quickly to choose who to blame for this discrepancy. Last week, former pitching coach Derek Lilliquist bore the first swing of the ax, due largely to an almost comically inept bullpen, despite its recent improvement. That bullpen still ranks last in the majors with a 6.41 ERA.
The lineup has been crippled by injuries, scoring three or fewer runs in 11 of the last 13 games. But this team was just 11-12 before that point. And there’s no reason to believe that, under current management, even if they do eventually get healthy again, they will be any better.
When the 2017 edition of this club was banged up, they managed to compete, to stay far more than just competitive, winning 97 games and running away with the division. No position player played in as many as 150 games for that club, with Bryce Harper (111 games) Trea Turner (98), and Jayson Werth (70) all missing significant time. That bullpen finished 23rd in MLB with a 4.41 ERA.
Of course, that was under Dusty Baker. With Baker at the helm, the Nats had a .500 or better record in every month over two years, winning at least 16 games in 10 of those 12 months, despite the roster turmoil. In seven months (and a week) under Davey Martinez so far, they’ve had a losing record five times, only once winning as many as 16 games. They’re 2-5 in May.
Baker was fired because he didn’t guide the team to a World Series title, an awfully high bar to clear. If that’s the expectation, it’s hard to imagine that Davey Martinez is long for this team.
Those championing the #FireDavey campaign on Twitter often point to his in-game decisions regarding the bullpen — when to make a move; who to bring in; whether to pinch-hit — of which seemingly every one has backfired in the early going. And certainly there have been decisions worth questioning, but a lot of them have simply not worked out.
Sometimes, you pull the “right” levers, the ones the stats and those paid to interpret them tell you will work out the best, and they still fail. Sometimes, that happens in a seemingly unstoppable flow, to where it doesn’t seem to matter what you choose to do, the result will not work out in your favor regardless. Sometimes, there are no good answers.
But Martinez’s primary issue isn’t his in-game bullpen management. It’s what he has to say when those levers fail him. It’s his inability to simply say, “we went with what the numbers told us and things didn’t work out,” instead of “he just wants to get the slider in, and he left it out over the plate.”
Got the matchup they wanted. Jennings just didn’t execute pic.twitter.com/pbjK1zaht5
— Dan Steinberg (@dcsportsbog) May 4, 2019
In this case Martinez was saying, quite clearly, “I did my job in assessing the matchup, my player just didn’t do his.”
A few managers and a seeming eternity ago, there was another Davey at the helm of the Nationals. He made his share of tactical mistakes as well, none more glaring than in the young franchise’s worst moment. But he had a clarity of perspective, and a mantra that he repeated frequently: Players win games, managers lose them. It’s not original, but it effectively performs the job of reinforcing one’s belief in one’s team, while also absorbing the blame when things go awry.
Let’s see how Martinez has approached other situations this year.
Doolittle on Renfroe’s homer on a changeup away that he was out in front of: “Shocked.”
Martinez on the pitch selection: “I didn’t understand that. His fastball was really crisp today. He was throwing 96. For me, it’s about keeping things simple.”
— Mark Zuckerman (@MarkZuckerman) April 27, 2019
You don’t have to read too closely between the lines to see the open criticism of one of the team’s veteran leaders and perhaps the only member of the bullpen who has kept every last wheel from falling off the wagon so far. Doolittle has given up exactly one other run this year, in a game he entered with a three-run lead and earned the save. He’s got a 1.15 ERA. Perhaps he shouldn’t be the object of your scorn.
But, then, that’s the problem. It’s not that Martinez singled Doolittle out under some guise of good leadership. It’s that seemingly whenever things go wrong, it’s someone else’s fault. When you’re in charge, you get more credit and more blame than you deserve, but that’s the job. You’re the one that has to face the media every day, day after day, a routine that can grate on even the skipper of a 100-win club. BUT THAT’S THE JOB.
Matt Williams didn’t get fired because he couldn’t properly manage a bullpen (he couldn’t). He got fired because he couldn’t properly manage a crisis, when his hotheaded rental closer decided to turn the game into a full contact sport against his own teammate in the middle of the dugout.
On Wednesday, before the series finale in Milwaukee, Nats GM Mike Rizzo reiterated his faith in his manager.
“I think Davey has great control of the clubhouse,” Rizzo said on The Sports Junkies. “I think the players play hard for him.”
That was shortly before they went out and bumbled their way to a 7-3 loss in which they trailed from the second batter on. Milwaukee’s four-run first inning never should have been. Adam Eaton, an experienced veteran, fully overran a lazy fly ball, turning it into a double. When Orlando Arcia singled to right with two outs and the bases loaded, Victor Robles double-clutched on his throw home, costing himself a chance at nabbing the trail runner and sailing the ball over catcher Gomes’ head, allowing the other two runners to advance.
This is Little League stuff. These are the mistakes good teams don’t make at any level, much less the majors. And it’s just a continuation of the greater trend this year.
I mean, really, look at this. What is this?
Cool inning pic.twitter.com/ZpToW35C7C
— Dan Steinberg (@dcsportsbog) May 7, 2019
That’s Brian Dozier, eight-year vet, at second base. That’s Kurt Suzuki, in his 13th Major League season, behind the plate. These are not rookie mistakes, and this is not a team playing hard. This was the day after the eight-hour tarmac delay. But that same sloppy play was back on full display two days later.
Down 6-0 in the 4th, Nats give Brewers an uncontested double-steal.
— Mark Zuckerman (@MarkZuckerman) May 8, 2019
Coming into the year, Martinez said the Nats were going to focus on the “little things,” namely the fundamentals of defense and baserunning. According to Baseball Reference’s Total Zone Fielding Runs Above Average, which combines a number of defensive metrics to yield a team score, the Nats are the worst defensive team in baseball. And despite ranking second in the NL with 22 steals, just one behind the Cardinals, they rank just 17th in MLB in Base Running Runs Above Average, per FanGraphs.
Whatever you think of Martinez’s tactical acumen, of his ability to make the right decisions based on the book, or on his own gut instincts, they pale in comparison to the most important part of his job. He’s been dealt a brutal hand in regards to injuries and situational luck this year. But while the circumstances have been tough, he’s given us no reason to believe that, even when healthy, this team would suddenly flip a switch and start to play harder for him, or produce better results.
Don’t call for Martinez’s head because this season is falling off the rails. Do it because it was never on them in the first place.
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