After spending a decade as a Major League bench coach and managerial interviews with seven other ballclubs over the course of six years, Dave Martinez was hired to manage the Washington Nationals in 2018. The team had averaged 93 wins over the previous four years, winning 95-plus in three of the four seasons, but in 2018 they won just 82, barely reaching an above-.500 record in the first season under Martinez’s tutelage.
Based on the managerial turnover, Martinez drew the ire of many Nats fans. After all, if the Nats were going to move on from the proven success of Dusty Baker, shouldn’t the next manager be even better?
While the frustration surrounding a disappointing season was entirely understandable, Martinez shouldn’t be given as much of the blame as he has. We’ll have a piece coming later in the offseason about some of the things that went wrong in his debut season, so for the folks out there who want to point out his flaws, don’t worry. Your time will come, and we’re not saying he should be absolved of all blame this year.
This post, however, will highlight some of the successes Martinez had this season, and why he may very well still have a bright future ahead of him in Washington.
There are a few key reasons why I maintained all season long that Dusty Baker wouldn’t have had much more success than Martinez in 2018. First off, the litany of injuries the Nats dealt with were pretty astounding, and while they didn’t have any one major obvious injury, the sheer volume added up to cost the team a lot of games from proven veterans.
Those injuries led to probably the single biggest bright spot from the 2018 season: the emergence of 19-year old wunderkind Juan Soto.
It’s difficult to evaluate what Martinez’s patterns will be going forward in regards to young players vs proven veterans, but Dusty Baker had a well-earned reputation for favoring high-floor vets over high-ceiling rookies. It’s a fine philosophy to have, but it likely would have kept Soto in the minor leagues in 2018, robbing Nats fans of maybe the most entertaining part of their summer.
Martinez showed trust in Soto early, recognizing his preternatural ability to get on base and show in-game power, and Soto ended up with the 4th-highest Wins Above Replacement on the teams, to go along with the highest wRC+. Allowing Soto to grow and prove himself in high-pressure situations was maybe Martinez’s shrewdest move all season long.
Now, instead of another highly-rated prospect who may or may not pan out, the Nats find themselves in the enviable position of being able to let Bryce Harper walk if he asks for too much money while knowing they have a capable replacement already on the roster. After one of the single greatest teenage seasons for a hitter in Major League history, the Nats now have one of the most valuable assets in the game in Soto.
Obviously, most of the credit for Soto’s incredible rookie season goes to Soto himself, but it’s partially thanks to Martinez as well that he got the opportunity.
The actual, strategic role of a baseball manager is relatively limited. Yes, setting the lineup each day matters to a degree, and National League managers of course have more moves to worry about over the course of the game. Still, in a game without the X’s and O’s of football, basketball, and hockey, the most obvious strategy managers employ is in bullpen manipulation.
The Nats had a bounceback season with their bullpen in 2018, and Martinez certainly played a role in that. It wasn’t the elite bullpen season of years past, but as a unit the bullpen shave nearly half a run off their collective ERA compared to 2017, and they moved up from 23rd in baseball to 15th.
In this current era of bullpening and shortened starts, a strong bullpen has literally never been more important, and at the very least, Martinez proved himself capable of running one. In fact, given how the team’s remarkable injury misfortune extended to Sean Doolittle and the bullpen as well, it makes the manager’s performance even more impressive.
Individually, you can see the success as well, most prominently with the aforementioned Doolittle, who had a career year with a 1.60 ERA and a 36.8 strikeout rate. There were disappointments too, as there are in every bullpen every season, but it was still a good year for the group compared to last season.
Ultimately, the role of the manager in baseball is pretty overrated. Coaching schemes matter in football, X’s and O’s are critical in basketball and hockey, and substitutions matter in soccer. With baseball, the most important hat the manager wears is really a glorified babysitter.
I don’t use that phrase to diminish either the manager or the players he oversees, but rather to really emphasize that a manager’s most important job is handling personalities, not strategy decisions. This can be especially crucial on a team with as many big names and stars as the Nationals have on the roster.
It’s obviously not an area in which fans can truly evaluate a manager, since 98% of these actions take place behind closed doors. One way we can gauge how a manager is handling the team off the field is in their comments about him. A lot of times, a player’s positive thoughts on their manager falls into the “well, what else is he going to say?” category, but they can still be informative, especially when the praise is unprompted.
Even players no longer with the team, who have no obvious incentive to defend Dave Martinez, have gone out of their way to endorse him for the job.
The tweet is a quote from Daniel Murphy on the day he’d been traded away to the Cubs. Murphy, a player who has made it to the World Series under a heralded manager, in addition to playing for Baker and Martinez, knows what it takes to succeed in the role, and he clarified without being asked that Martinez would succeed.
In April, then-Nationals starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez and Martinez got into a dust-up over Gonzalez being pulled from a start when he felt he had more left in the tank. Tempers flared, and clearly neither side was happy with the other.
The next day, the two “had an animated conversation” at Gonzalez’ locker, according to The Washington Post. Afterwards, the pitcher had some thoughts on Martinez.
“It’s beautiful that our skipper speaks to us. It makes a huge difference knowing what’s going on. That was a situation that if people keep to themselves, it’d be a different story. Communication. That’s all we want. Once we have communication, everything is nice and calm and everything plays out the way it should play out.”
Having learned under the master Joe Maddon, Martinez is already developing a reputation as a superb communicator, a highly valued skill in a winning clubhouse. Even the team’s biggest star, and impending free agent, has nothing but kind words for his skipper.
In the video, Harper says, “He’s one of the best managers I’ve ever played for. His door is open every single day. He’s got a heart that — I haven’t really played for a manager like this guy. I look forward to hopefully playing with him for the next 10, 12 years. He’s one of the best, so hopefully, we’ll see what happens.”
Harper has doubled down on those sentiments multiple times. After his epic Home Run Derby performance at Nats Park earlier this summer, he brought up Martinez again.
“I’ve got one of the best managers in all of baseball. I’m very happy to have him at our helm. He’s a guy I’d run through a fricking brick wall for, and I was trying to do that for him tonight.”
If a first-year manager can get his most famous player to run through a brick wall for him three months into the job, that’s a pretty good sign for the connections he makes and relationships he builds.
It’s entirely possible, if not likely, that the Nats made a mistake in letting go of Dusty Baker last offseason, but that doesn’t make Martinez a bad hire. Rather, his willingness to rely on unproven talent in this era of baseball, improvements at managing a bullpen, undeniable communication skills and abilities earning the trust of the players all point to a bright future in Washington with Martinez at the helm.
It wasn’t a perfect debut debut season, but he still managed to get a few things right.
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