Among the things the Washington Nationals, tortured as they are by playoff disappointment, have not tried is patience. For a variety of reasons, some out of the front office’s control, no coaching staff has survived a non-playoff season since 2011. Manager Dave Martinez’s coaching staff will be the first. An optimist might argue that Martinez’s coaching staff, therefore, is the first that will have the chance to correct its mistakes.
When Davey Johnson retired, Matt Williams inherited a World Series-caliber team that had recently disappointed, and he was a fresh face that guided them to the playoffs. When Williams’s team missed the playoffs in 2015, Dusty Baker replaced him as a refreshing presence that guided them to back-to-back playoff appearances. Baker was not given the chance to build on that success.
But after Martinez’s debut team missed the playoffs this year, he got an opportunity none of the others had. Martinez and his staff will be able to understand what went wrong, both on their part and their players', and build solutions. They cannot patch over failure with a fresh face. They have to dig in and try to fix it.
Martinez has been candid about what he thinks went wrong. He knows the little things — base running, the two-strike approach for pitchers and hitters, defense — let the Nationals down. At WinterFest this past weekend, he and his coaching staff said they plan to change that.
“I’m going to push the envelope a little bit more than I did this year, especially with fundamentals,” Martinez said. “ . . . The base running’s got to get better. Not making outs on the bases. Fundamentally sound. Turning double plays. Being more aggressive on defense. Whether we’ve got to shift more, shift less. We’re looking at all that stuff.”
Martinez began his coaching career as a spring training instructor for Joe Maddon with Tampa Bay. Asked about Martinez after he took over the Nationals, Maddon praised his ability to teach outfielders and base runners — in other words, his ability to coach. But when Martinez inherited a reigning division champion loaded with established stars and with a long history of regular season success, coaching didn’t seem likely to be his priority.
“That’s the thing. You get to a team that’s had success, it’s one of those things where, ‘I don’t want to mess it up, either,’ ” first base coach Tim Bogar said. “But we can’t forget that we need to coach, that we need to take care of everything so every day these guys are getting better. And they need to want to get better, too. We need to motivate them along with the actual teaching. I think that’s going to be the biggest thing for us, to keep them interested in the little things.”
Martinez and his staff have had meetings in which they discussed exactly what those little things are — and how to fix them.
His hitting coaches, Kevin Long and Joe Dillon, pointed to the need for smart, situational hitting — move runners over, bring them home. In 2018, the Nationals had the sixth-lowest strikeout rate in the majors but made the fifth-highest percentage of soft contact in two-strike situations. In other words, while the Nationals staved off strikeouts, they did not prioritize solid contact with two strikes — or did not have the kind of approach that leads to productive situational hitting.
“The one glaring thing for Kevin and I was the two-strike approach,” said Dillon, the Nationals' assistant hitting coach. “Obviously, we know it’s an epidemic in the game. Versus everybody else, we weren’t horrible. But definitely it’s a spot we can improve on, especially with the skill set of our players.”
Bogar, who works with the infielders, said he has been breaking down video of all of his players, trying to determine where they can gain little advantages. Third base coach Bob Henley, who works with the outfielders but has been the Nationals' field coordinator in the past, sees the same need for detailed defensive priorities.
Both men brought up the need to turn double plays. The Nationals completed 266 last season, the fourth-least in the majors. Interestingly, the three teams with fewer — the Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees — made the playoffs, a testament to their dominant arms. The pitching staffs for the Yankees, Dodgers and Red Sox ranked second, third and fourth in the majors in strikeouts. The Nationals finished 12th. Anecdotally, with Daniel Murphy limited at second base for much of the season and other uncommon lapses, Washington forced its pitchers to get extra outs far too often because of double plays not turned.
“Getting the first one but not the second one is a big deal. We need to get both,” Henley said. “Like my daddy used to say growing up, we need to get the meat before the gravy. Well, we need meat and gravy sometimes. When that groundball is hit, we need the meat and the gravy.”
Henley also pointed to the increased youth in the Nationals' outfield, particularly if Bryce Harper signs elsewhere. Given the relative inexperience of Juan Soto, Victor Robles and others, he wants to prioritize positioning his outfielders, not assuming they know what to do, and making sure they throw to the right base instead of trying to make the spectacular play. In doing so, the Nationals can keep more double plays in order, providing more opportunities for both meat and gravy.
Henley and Bogar talked about the same kind of communication when it comes to base running. With younger players who charged through the minors, like so many on this Nationals roster, the coaches realized they can’t take anything for granted — they can’t assume the players know what to do, as they might have in their earlier days with this team.
“This was something that became very apparent early on,” bench coach Chip Hale said. “ . . . We’re losing one-run games a lot, and it’s not necessarily a pitch he threw late in the game. It’s something we did early — we didn’t score extra runs, or we didn’t move a runner.”
All that talk is all well and good. Do the little things. Focus on the details. But how, with a team featuring many experienced veterans but a core of younger players, will Martinez and his staff actually implement those changes?
“I already told the guys at the end of last year,” Martinez said. “Spring training will be a lot different. We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’re getting younger, but we’ve got to learn how to play the game.”
Bogar said he already has planned to do more individual work with his infielders, to ask them to do more before group workouts. Henley said he plans to do more individual coaching of his base runners, now that he knows what they know and what they don’t.
“We’re going to run the bases. We’re going to do the little things. Guys want to hit. They want to hit, hit, hit, hit, hit. There are going to be days where they’re not going to bring their bats out,” Martinez said. “ . . . There’s going to be days where we just work on defense. There’s going to be days that we work on base running and just do the little things. Bunting. We need to get better at all that stuff. And the pitchers are going to be more involved with that, too. Bunting. Handling the bat. Running the bases. Because they can help.”
Martinez has leaders to help hold his players to those standards. Max Scherzer is a detail-obsessed training maniac, which sets a strong example for his fellow starters. Howie Kendrick will be back in the infield, alongside Ryan Zimmerman, whose plan for spring training is not yet clear. Adam Eaton is a hard-nosed, high-energy presence in the outfield, to the point that he rubbed teammates on previous teams the wrong way for trying “too hard” during lost seasons.
The key, for those leaders and the coaching staff, will be to back up these plans by establishing a level of accountability for those little things — a level of accountability unprecedented in this organization, which rose so fast on the back of elite talent. In an ever-improving National League East, after a disappointing season of too many close losses, the little things seem more important than ever. Now, in the cold of December, they seem like a priority. The key, of course, will be whether they remain so during the hot summer slog.