Before each Washington Nationals game, Dave Martinez meets the media. He’s always the same. He’s in a genuinely good mood, like somebody invited him to a big league ballgame, and being just a big kid, he can’t imagine anything more fun to do with his day. The smile lines crinkle around his eyes when some playful thought crosses his mind. Just as some people look for things to annoy them or for enemies to use as motivation, Martinez simply looks for reasons to feel good.
The Nats’ manager joshes with reporters as naturally, but never pitching or promoting himself, as any manager you will find. Everybody is his equal, no better, no worse. He looks you in the eye but always to connect, not to intimidate or confront. In a job in which guile is almost always a necessary trait, innate or acquired, Martinez seems to have little.
Martinez never says or even implies that he’s a good in-game manager or that he has had some brilliant thought to help a player develop his talent. He was a player for 16 seasons — with 1,599 hits and $15.5 million in salary — so to him, the sport is all about the players. The manager’s job is to do his homework, study his men and their foes, so he can put his in spots where they have the best chance to do well. So he listens to his coaches, scouts, analytics experts and his general manager for their input.
Dave or Davey — he doesn’t care which, because, well, he doesn’t have a big enough ego to care — just likes people, whether they are athletes, media, staff or the next random person. He gets to know them and feels easy around them. He has a deep drive, which he acknowledges, but doesn’t underline. He gets up at 5 a.m. before almost every day of spring training. He doesn’t like it. He laughs about it or complains jokingly. But he does it. Just as he expects his players to push through the parts of their jobs that are hard or even against their natures.
The idea that Martinez would not be able to “manage people” seems bizarre. Who couldn’t work for him? You can talk to him honestly about your sore hamstring or your life. You could say, “I disagree with how you’re handling me” — as some Nats did last year — and he would listen, discuss it and maybe even admit a mistake (rare in managers) and change his method. Not often. But he would.
After 37 years in pro ball, including 10 years as a bench coach — the right-hand man of shrewd manager Joe Maddon as they went to the World Series with both the low-budget Tampa Bay Rays and the “cursed” Cubs — it is difficult to believe that any of the basic strategies or decisions of a ballgame would flummox him.
And yet, right now, if I were asked whether the Nats should fire Martinez, I would, unhappily and with a sincere desire to be proved wrong, say, “Probably.”
I would not say, flatly, “Yes,” no matter how much the impulse rises in me — and it does. If this guy ever gets to work with a young team that grows with him and melds with him as he learns to handle a pitching staff and a bullpen — which he seldom had to deal with before last season — he might be good.
The Martinez Problem — and it seems to increase exponentially with each week, not pausing for the usual time frames, but forcing decisions near Memorial Day rather than the more sensible Fourth of July or trade deadline — is specific to this Nationals team. What they need — someone who can build a decent bullpen out of scrap (feel free to erase the “s”) and someone who can put the fear of a wrathful deity into anyone who screws up fundamentals — isn’t what he has.
The Nats still can’t defend a safety squeeze bunt or remember that the cutoff man is not 20 feet tall or grasp that a base runner’s first responsibility is to avoid getting picked off. The Nats still regard turning double plays as optional; they need a manager who regards it as a prerequisite to remaining in the lineup tomorrow. Pitchers, including Max Scherzer (and Wander Suero), don’t seem to grasp that giving up a gopher ball on an 0-2 pitch is about the dumbest thing you can do.
Martinez addresses all these issues. But after 210 games, they haven’t changed. The Nats now have a clubhouse — without super-duper Bryce Harper — in which no one is above the law. So why all the recidivist scofflaws?
The biggest Martinez problem is, in a sense, not his fault. Some managers have been pitchers. More have been catchers, who deal with pitchers constantly. Or they are ex-middle infielders, thought to exist in a mind-meld with pitchers. Or, at least, they have been managers in the minors or winter ball or some darn place where they have to run a staff and a bullpen. It’s an experiential art, not a theoretical one.
Martinez scores a “zero” in that category. Until he hit D.C., he had done everything imaginable except be responsible for handling pitchers and deciding, in real time, what to do in the crucial, close late innings of games — which means about HALF of all games.
From Day 1, he has been just a step too far beyond his depth. Unfortunately, that has continued right up to fiasco in New York on Tuesday night, when he obsessed on rookie Tanner Rainey, perhaps dreaming that he had discovered his bullpen savior. Martinez, shredding every “book,” stuck with Rainey (nine career major league innings, 21.00 ERA) as he blew a save in the eighth, then took the loss in the ninth. Why pitch a rookie, who debuted with the Nationals on Monday, in back-to-back games? Why pitch him in multiple innings on the second day, including back-to-back walks as he reached 33 pitches? Why risk insulting Kyle Barraclough, who has been less inadequate than the average Nats reliever this year, by snubbing him throughout Rainey’s blown-save-and-loss outing — until it was one batter too late for Barraclough to remedy the damage and escape the last jam?
Unfortunately, the correct answer is that past veteran Nats managers too accomplished to panic, such as Frank Robinson, Davey Johnson and Dusty Baker — all manager of the year winners — never would have done any of it.
Last May, Nats relievers were concerned that Martinez was managing “like it’s September in May.” This year, it has been more of the same but with the added twist that it sure looks as if Martinez, whether he knows it or not, wants desperately to win every game — for the standings but also to preserve his job.
If the Nats decide to give Martinez more time, with a healthier lineup and a weak schedule helping his team get up to $200 million-payroll cruising speed by the All-Star Game, that might work.
But with the Nats nine games behind the Phillies, if the double whammy of lame fundamentals and a poor (and poorly managed) bullpen keeps dogging the Nats, then I will understand if the team loses patience and decides that someone — maybe anyone — would be a better match for this team than Dave Martinez. He’s a fine role model for many. Just not, it seems, a very good big league manager.
For weeks, I have reluctantly worked my way back from “Have Patience” to “Wait Till Midseason” to “It Will Get Better” as the roster gets healthy and relievers pitch like the backs of their semi-decent baseball cards. But every brutal loss changes the picture. When you’re just one more bad skid from a dozen-game deficit and a 90 percent chance of “wait till next year,” then it’s probably time to get Joe Girardi, Buck Showalter, Mike Scioscia or “other” on the horn.
Watching bad things happen to nice people is sad. But so is watching these Nats under Martinez.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.