WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Among various sheets of paper thumbtacked to the corkboard in Dave Martinez’s spring training office — Florida Kitchen Staff, Important Dates, Pitchers Work Groups — there’s one in the upper-left corner entitled Face Fear Like Bison.
The Washington Nationals’ manager came across its three-sentence message this offseason: “When a storm brews on the horizon, most animals run away from it. But bison instinctively run directly toward storms to minimize the amount of time they’re exposed to the elements. So face adversity head-on and power through whatever comes your way.”
That, Martinez explained in an interview, captures the way he plans to approach his second season as a major league skipper, which begins when the Nationals host the New York Mets on March 28.
“When I first saw it, I read it. I read it again. And I read it again. And I was like, ‘I get that.’ Sometimes you need to have a tough conversation or face a tough situation,” he said, punching his left palm with his right fist for emphasis, “and take it head on.”
In Year 1, Martinez’s team went 82-80 and missed the playoffs, a step back after two consecutive NL East titles under his predecessor, Dusty Baker.
Martinez isn’t going to pretend that didn’t happen. He can’t, of course.
“Injuries were a big part of it. I really feel that. But with that being said, we needed to get better,” Martinez said. “Better at baserunning. Better on defense. And our pitching, at times, needed to be better; the two-out homers needed to go away.”
So he began the process of trying to improve during Washington’s final series of last September, at the Colorado Rockies, when Martinez brought in players, one by one, for chats of 5-10 minutes apiece.
“Not only did I tell them what went right and what went wrong and what they needed to get better at — but it also was about me,” Martinez said. “I gave them the opportunity to talk about me. How do I need to get better? How can I help you get better?”
Closer Sean Doolittle said players appreciated the chance to offer feedback and “communicate to him how things could go more efficiently or run smoother.”
Changes have been evident in spring training.
Extra defensive drills, for example.
Emphasis on the sort of baserunning that resulted in Ryan Zimmerman’s run in the second inning of an exhibition game Monday: infield hit; going first-to-third on a single; scoring on a safety squeeze.
No visit from last year’s infamous “get over the hump” camels.
“He was open to hearing what could be done differently. That’s so important, I think. Things have run really smoothly in camp, definitely more so than last year,” Doolittle said. “A big part of that is taking in everything he learned — that we learned as a group, too — last year. We’re learning his way of doing things and what makes him tick. And he’s learning us.”
Another way Martinez did that was by staying in Washington over the winter and watching videos of games from 2018.
“Were there some things he would change that he did last year? That he learned from? Yes, 100 percent,” Zimmerman said.
Martinez would go through a particular reliever’s appearances, say, to try to pick up something that could be useful. Maybe it was whether the pitch selection was optimal — “Does he need to throw more cutters? Does he need to throw more sliders?” — or whether there was some bit of body language that served as a tell the player was tiring.
Martinez jotted down notes on paper, transferred them to a computer, then forwarded thoughts and questions to the club’s analytics staff in an effort to mesh what he’d seen with what the numbers seemed to say.
“What I’ve seen so far,” said second baseman Brian Dozier, one of eight free agents the Nationals signed during a busy offseason of roster churn, “is he does a really good job of combining old school with new school.”
Before agreeing to his one-year contract with Washington, Dozier was wooed by Martinez during a phone call. Truth is, Dozier said, their conversation wasn’t all that much about baseball or even the Nationals — much of it was about their mutual hobby of duck hunting.
That’s Martinez’s way. He said he considers communication and conversation to be his greatest skills as a skipper.
“The minute we get players, I start calling them up,” Martinez said. “I want to know them and what they’re all about. See what makes them tick. Build that relationship with them.”
That style was shaped by 16 years as a player in the majors.
Also by 10 years as a bench coach.
Nationals GM Mike Rizzo, who gave Martinez a three-year deal with an option for a fourth in October 2017, calls his manager “an extremely smart baseball man” who “handles the game extremely well.”
Rizzo pointed to injuries as a major factor in last season’s disappointment. Martinez did, too, but also set about finding ways to win more.
“It would be easy for him to kind of sit back and say, ‘Last year just wasn’t our year, for whatever reason.’ But I think he really internalized a lot of it and is handling it in a proactive way,” Doolittle said. “That has an effect on guys here. Like: We’re not going to wait. We can’t dig ourselves a hole in the division. We’ve got to go from Day 1 — and go right at that storm.”
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