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Opportunity convinces Davey Martinez to throw aside an old baseball trope

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Opportunity convinces Davey Martinez to throw aside an old baseball trope

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Remember that time a manager had to use his “emergency” catcher? No? Well, that’s because it rarely happens. 

Maybe once in a lifetime. Maybe never. It long operated as the unverifiable excuse for not putting the backup catcher into a game, always enabling that pervasive detriment to change, “What if?”

What if the replacement is hurt? Then the manager is stuck with the so-called emergency catcher. That could be hairy.

Except it’s a longshot. Very long. Nationals manager Davey Martinez sat down during the offseason and thought it through. Checked the numbers. Realized this concern is poppycock. 

“Last year, I thought about it at the end when [Matt] Wieters wasn't able to really catch and he was on the bench, I said, you know what, he's going to hit,” Martinez said Saturday. “If it's a good spot for him, let him hit. I thought all winter, you have two catchers and one guy's playing and you don't want the other guy to play, you might as well just play with 24 guys, really. So why not use them with the right opportunity?”

Aiding this epiphany is two viable options at catcher: Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki. In a Pedro Severino-Spencer Kieboom offensive situation, the options are not quite as enticing. Martinez also argued last season he preferred one catcher throughout the game because that person had a feel for what was happening. By that, as much as anything, he meant what was working for a pitcher on a given night against specific hitters. 

It’s easy to wipe away that argument, too. Suzuki will rarely be working with the starting pitcher if he pinch-hits in the eighth inning straight for Gomes or takes his place in a double-switch. He would instead be matched with a bullpen piece. Sequencing becomes more clear, pitching strength more obvious, the entire package more straight forward. A beneficial feel to again wade through the order for the same pitcher won’t exist if Trevor Rosenthal jogs to the mound in the eighth and Suzuki is suddenly behind the plate. 

Gomes is significantly better against left-handed pitching. Suzuki’s splits are close to even. Paired, they give Martinez options both to start and later in the game. The days he rests, Gomes will count as a matchup bat against left-handed relief. Howie Kendrick will also be another option there.

What’s unclear is how the catchers will split time. Gomes appears slated for more starts. Suzuki could well be paired with Anibal Sanchez a season after catching his year of rejuvenation in Atlanta. Each says they don’t care how the time is distributed. Such a claim is often made in the sun-induced pleasure of spring training. Suzuki’s date of birth, Oct. 4, 1983, makes it sound more like fact in this instance. 

“I don’t even care,” Suzuki said. “At this point in my career, picking a team that has a chance to win a World Series is very important to me and like I told [Mike Rizzo] and Davey from Day 1, whatever you need me to do I'll be ready. Whether it's 50 games, 60, whatever. However many games you want me to catch. If I can help the team win every time I’m out there, that's great. I just want to win at this point in my career. I know the clock’s ticking a little bit. I’m not getting younger. That World Series is getting to be pretty important right now.” 

It’s easy for Gomes to agree. He’s in line for 100 starts. Perhaps more.

“That’s just something that if we make that a deal, this team is not going to go forward,” Gomes said. “I just think we need to both be ready whenever our names get called. That’s two guys that have done it with some good pitching staffs and it’s only going to benefit [everyone]. But if we put the playing time thing ahead of [things], it’s not going to be beneficial for the team. And the guy has done it for a long time, man. You have to respect that, especially from a catching standpoint, so you just kind of get to talk to him even more and we already have a little bit of a relationship. He’s an awesome guy and I’m just looking forward to a great season together.”

Washington finished 14th in National League catcher OPS last season. This time, Martinez has two above-average offensive options and new thinking. Gone is a hole and an old trope. In are Gomes and Suzuki. Emergencies are not a concern.

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Anthony Rendon just 15 hits away from a feat not accomplished in D.C. in more than 50 years

Anthony Rendon just 15 hits away from a feat not accomplished in D.C. in more than 50 years

Anthony Rendon is competing against himself for the National League batting title.

His toughest competition? A sidelined Christian Yelich. 

Yelich remains second in batting average, four points behind Rendon, and rooting on his surging Brewers teammates while unable to play. A foul ball broke Yelich’s kneecap seven days ago. His numbers remain gaudy: 44 home runs, 30 stolen bases, an 1.100 OPS and, most important to Rendon, a .329 batting average.

None of those numbers will change, yet they will chase Rendon. He could slide back from his current .333 average and dip below Yelich. 

The Nationals have 13 games to play. Rendon averages 3.8 at-bats per game, which means he has around 50 at-bats to go. In order to become the first Washington player since Mickey Vernon in 1953 to win the batting title, Rendon needs 15 more hits. He would then finish at .330.

Vernon debuted as a 21-year-old in 1939. He hit .257 that year. Vernon missed his age-26 and age-27 seasons because of military service (1944 and 1945) before returning to lead the league in hitting with a .353 average, the best of his career, in 1946. He also doubled 51 times on the way to a top-5 MVP finish. His second batting title arrived in 1953 when Vernon hit .337. That’s the season Rendon is looking to put his name next to.

Vernon’s .337 was a comparatively down number for a batting champion, but would hold up well in this era. Of the 117 American League-leading batting averages since 1901, only 28 had a lower average than his .337 (Washington was in the AL then). Flip to the modern National League. Vernon would have at least tied for or led eight of the last nine seasons.

No National League player has hit .350 since Chipper Jones hit .364 in 2008, when he played just 128 games and narrowly made it into the qualifying threshold. Jones went 2-for-3 during the season’s final week that year, rarely playing for a Braves team out of contention. Albert Pujols finished second at .357.

The same trend exists in the American League. Two hitters -- Joe Mauer (.365 in 2009) and Josh Hamilton (.359 in 2010) -- exceeded .350 in the last decade. In the previous 10 years, it happened five times, plus Manny Ramirez hit .349 (yes, it was that era). So, instead, take the AL in the 1980s: six times the batting champion his .350 or better. Not so anymore. Even with this new ball.

Rendon doesn’t need to hit that threshold. He just needs his 15 hits, a stagnant Yelich not to flip ahead of him and Ketel Marte, now a distant third at .326, to hold his place. Then, he is next to Vernon.

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Nationals' wild-card lead becomes tenuous

Nationals' wild-card lead becomes tenuous

Another loss, another tightening of the wild-card race.

A recent blitz by Chicago and Milwaukee has vaulted each right behind the Nationals. The Cubs are just a half-game back of Washington for the right to host the Wild-Card Game. Milwaukee is only 1 ½ games behind the Nationals and a game behind Chicago. 

Philadelphia and New York are each 5 ½ games behind Washington. Those seasons are fading -- as is Washington's.

A week ago, the Nationals led the Cubs by 2 ½ games and Milwaukee by 4 ½. Two weeks ago, Washington led the Cubs by 3 ½ and Milwaukee by 7 ½.

Fivethirtyeight.com puts the Nationals' chances of making the postseason at 87 percent, a six percent decline from Monday morning.

Coming up Tuesday:

Philadelphia at Atlanta, 7:20 p.m., Velasquez (6-7, 4.95 ERA) vs. Keuchel (8-5, 3.35)

San Diego at Milwaukee, 7:40 p.m., Paddack (9-7, 3.38) vs. Woodruff (11-3, 3.75)

Washington at St. Louis, 7:45 p.m., Corbin (12-7, 3.20) vs. Mikolas (9-13, 4.28)

Cincinnati at Chicago, 8:05 p.m., Gray (10-7, 2.80) vs. Darvish (6-6, 3.70)

New York at Colorado, 8:40 p.m., Stroman (8-13, 3.35) vs. Melville (2-2, 5.16

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