And it was hard to blame him. The Nationals were coming off an 82-80 season in 2018. They had not been fundamentally sound. It showed in the way they ran the bases, the way they hit with runners in scoring position and the way their pitchers approached batters with two strikes. It showed on film, in clip after frustrating clip, and Martinez told his coaches to harp — and harp and harp — on the little things. Then he told them to harp some more.
But the third-year manager has not used those words this spring. It even seems as if they have been replaced.
“This year, I talk about getting another edge,” Martinez said. “And for me, it’s run prevention. Really focused on run prevention.”
A general goal is to keep the other team from scoring. Run prevention is the general way to do that. But if this is Martinez’s new catchphrase and something he will say a lot in the coming weeks, there are layers to unpack. The obvious one is that run prevention, as a concept, is how the Nationals plan to compensate for the loss of Anthony Rendon. The undertones show the difference a title can make.
In February 2019, Martinez was focused on cleaning everything up. In February 2020, having won that title, the Nationals can pinpoint a specific area and drill it.
The best way to prevent runs is having Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez in your rotation and adding Will Harris to a reworked bullpen. Harris led all qualified American League relievers in ERA last season, and now he joins Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson as a high-leverage option. The Nationals also hope that Tanner Rainey and Wander Suero take big steps and Hunter Strickland and Roenis Elías revert to their normal selves. They’re banking on a much deeper staff and having a bullpen that complements their starters.
Yet the idea of run prevention doesn’t begin and end there. Martinez already has pointed to defensive positioning and managing the base paths as important nuances. The staff met about positioning at the end of last week, and that effort will be led, as always, by bench coach Tim Bogar. The Nationals ranked 27th among 30 teams in defensive shifts last season, yet Bogar often has pushed back on the way Baseball Savant — a Major League Baseball-powered statistics engine — tallies those up.
A defensive shift is only counted if a club has three infielders on one side of second base. Bogar contends that the Nationals shift on every pitch, moving fielders based on counts and matchups, and the plan is to get even more detailed. Managing the base paths is what needs the most refining.
“Sometimes it’s as simple as just holding the baseball a little bit longer,” Martinez explained. “Maybe it’s quick-pitching or just mixing things up, not doing the same thing over and over again. We’re going to work on these things this spring. I could sit here and nitpick about things — our pitchers are really good — but I do want to get better at it.”
When Martinez reviewed last season and plotted the club’s next steps, he felt the Nationals were way too easy to run on. Teams had a 78 percent success rate when trying to steal against them. That ranked seventh worst in the majors, was five points above league average and does include a lot of factors. Both pitchers and catchers are responsible when a runner swipes 90 feet. The situation and speed of that runner matter, too.
Martinez aims to address this from all angles in spring. He has mentioned it to pitchers and hit them with some simple logic: Holding a runner on first base keeps a potential double play intact. Holding the ball on the mound and avoiding a predictable rhythm can go a long way. That may be most important with Sánchez, who is prone to repeating his windup like a metronome. Last season, his first managing Sánchez, Martinez would sit in the dugout and count the seconds between each pitch.
“One thousand, one … one thousand, two … home,” Martinez recalled Friday. “One thousand one … one thousand, two … home.”
Now Martinez wants Sánchez to vary that pace. Opponents attempted 15 steals against him in 2019 and were safe in each instance. Opponents attempted nine steals against Scherzer and were caught only once. This was compounded by catcher Kurt Suzuki, who allowed 45 steals in 50 tries last year. He caught all but two of Sánchez’s 30 starts, most of Scherzer’s from mid-May on, and, at age 36, missed time in September with inflammation in his throwing elbow.
Strasburg, caught by a mix of Suzuki and Yan Gomes, allowed 14 of 16 base runners to steal safely. Corbin, a lefty, and Gomes, a plus defensive catcher, proved to be the lone deterrent. Gomes caught all of Corbin’s starts, 11 runners tried to steal against them, and just five were successful.
The rest have a lot to improve on before the season opens in late March. Only Martinez’s newest vision will depend on it.
“It’s never a point where they feel content with everyone just because they’ve been in the league for so long,” Suzuki said of the rotation. “They are always trying to get better, and, I think, as a team we’re all trying to get better.”