The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dave Martinez’s job title never changed, but his mission did

Dave Martinez coaches up Nationals position players during spring training workouts. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
6 min

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The job Dave Martinez took in the fall of 2017 was clear: Win a World Series. The job he is staring at in the spring of 2023 is … well, we’ll say, different. How can you downshift — mentally, professionally, pridefully?

“Honestly, to me, two things that really come out of every day,” Martinez said the other day, a calming candle burning on his office desk. “I always tell myself, ‘Hey, you got to stick to the process.’ No doubt. It’s teaching now, and I love to teach.

“The second one is patience. You got to have a lot of patience.”

Does he?

“Yeah,” and he sighed. “To a certain extent.”

In 2018, Martinez went 82-80 in his first year managing the Washington Nationals — and was deemed a failure. Should he go 82-80 in the year that’s ahead, he would be a magician. He won the World Series in 2019. He lost 107 games last summer. He is the same person with the same title he had when he was hired — and a completely different task before him.

How do you evaluate the job he does?

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“For me, it’s seeing what’s transpiring,” Martinez said. “People who have been here, who’ve been watching, they’ll come up to me and say, ‘Davey, what you’re doing, the positive feedback, the fundamentals, how you go about your day — we love it.’ That, to me, is important.”

But it’s also not enough. For this season to be a success, the Nationals who open the season March 30 at Nationals Park against Atlanta can’t be the same Nationals who close the season Oct. 1 in Atlanta. They have to get better. Not in record — though that would help. But in fundamentals. In more fully developed skill sets. In meaningful experience. In flat-out productivity. In ways both subtle and obvious.

“The only way to grow sometimes is by making mistakes, by going through tough times,” said Tim Bogar, Martinez’s bench coach who also works alongside Gary DiSarcina in coaching the Nats’ infielders. “We all grow from our trials, in my opinion. So that’s part of it. They’re going to have successes and they’ll grow from those as well.

“But the bottom line is: It’s really hard to say they’re not succeeding if we have one less run than the other team sometimes. Sometimes.”

Remember 2019, the 19-31 start and Martinez’s pledge to go 1-0 every day? It articulated a mentality and became a mantra worthy of being printed on T-shirts.

But what happens if you know — realistically — that you’re going to go 0-1 more days than you will go 1-0? Perhaps many more?

“There are hundreds of opportunities to go 1-0 every day,” Bogar said.

“It’s a win when MacKenzie Gore or Josiah Gray is getting 21 outs in a game,” Martinez said. “It’s a win where CJ Abrams gave himself up to get a guy over. It’s a win when someone says: ‘Hey, I’m not feeling good at the plate. This guy’s pretty tough; I can bunt for a hit.’ To me, that’s a win. And then they start to multiply.”

There’s the standard, then. During last year’s last-place slog that cratered with the trade of Juan Soto to San Diego, the Nationals played about a month of absolutely farcical baseball. They threw away pickoff attempts. They had two runners thrown out at third — on the same play. Their best defensive play of one week — or maybe a month — was center fielder Victor Robles’s diving stop of an errant throw to second.

The Nats eventually cleaned it up. Now, with the talented Abrams at shortstop and Luis García over at second — among other changes — they should be in better position to play clean baseball. That’s what can be judged just by flipping on the TV or filing through the turnstiles. There will, though, be elements of Martinez’s job that we cannot see.

“We evaluate him by how the plan is being implemented,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “We talk two, three times every day about what we’re trying to accomplish this week, this month, this year. I think you have to measure how he’s doing by the day-to-day interactions you have. And that might not all be on the field. It might be on the plane. It might be at a dinner.”

In a spring game this month against Miami in Jupiter, Abrams booted an easy double play ball in the first and muffed another that went for one out instead of two later on. But he also made a brilliant diving stop of a liner and, more impressively, was running on a pitch when the hitter dribbled a grounder to the left side — and easily rounded second to slide into third.

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“There’s not a lot of guys in the league who do that, and he did it with ease,” Bogar said of Abrams’s scoot from first to third. “Now, those two routine balls that he didn’t execute, that’s a teaching point which we addressed the next day. …

“You can’t just beat them up over the little things. That’s going to affect their confidence.”

Martinez isn’t into beating them up. But just because the expectations in the standings aren’t what they were in Washington for the better part of a decade doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a standard. Does Abrams learn from that teaching? Does García? Does catcher Keibert Ruiz?

“If the question is: How’s Dave Martinez doing?” Rizzo said. “He’s doing terrific. He’s doing everything we want him to do.”

But what Martinez wants to do is, ultimately, not this. He wantsto win.

“I tell myself, ‘Hey, I want to win here — here,” he said as he hit his desk for emphasis. He was almost tearing up. “I could maybe go somewhere else and win, given the opportunity. I want to win here. This means more to me here. It’d be full circle.”

Oh, for a year when a manager could go 82-80 — and be disappointed. Oh, for a season when going 1-0 today was possible 95 times instead of 70. That was once Dave Martinez’s world. That world has changed. The evaluation of him and his staff isn’t in the standings. And if the players who take the field are better by the end of the year than they were at the start, maybe the job Martinez faces next spring will more closely resemble the job that brought him to Washington.