Relievers are the canaries of major league rosters, the first players tossed into the mine, the first to get a sense of a manager’s strategic know-how and feel its effects. Washington Nationals relievers and those who watched their use closely in the season’s first half are chirping about rookie Manager Dave Martinez.
The Nationals on Friday against visiting Atlanta begin their second half at .500, in third place in a division they have won running away two years straight. They have largely the same roster as 2016 and 2017, but with a better bullpen. The major differences? An improbable slew of injuries and an inexperienced manager. The injuries might explain this whole season, though no one wants to hear such an excuse. The manager has borne and will bear the brunt of the scrutiny, particularly if things do not turn around.
Martinez’s ability to handle a pitching staff emerged as the primary concern in the Nationals clubhouse in the first part of this season, according to on- and off-the-record conversations with players and those familiar with this team’s inner workings.
The biggest concern is workload — a problem that relievers believe, and have said publicly, sent Brandon Kintzler and Ryan Madson to the disabled list and caused Sammy Solis’s performance to suffer enough that he ended up at Class AAA Syracuse. At one point in May, the Nationals had five relievers — Kintzler, Madson, Solis, Sean Doolittle and Matt Grace — on pace for career highs in appearances. Those numbers have evened out, in part because of those disabled-list stints. Kintzler and Solis lead the team with 40 appearances through 96 team games, but more than 60 relievers around the majors have appeared more often .
Martinez’s reasoning for his heavy reliance on what was once a big three, then became a big four when the Nationals acquired Kelvin Herrera on June 18, was that his team had played more close games than anyone else in the majors. He needed to use those guys because his team’s leads were not big enough to be handed to anyone else, and indeed, that was true. Before the rotation collapsed in late June, the Nationals had the smallest average run difference per game of any team in baseball: 1.90 runs. At that point, the league median was 2.27, according to BaseballMusings.com.
Nationals relievers don’t have a problem with the heavy usage itself as much as with the lack of communication that led to it. Baseball protocol calls for relievers to always tell their manager they’re good to go, then for the coaching staff to intervene on their behalf.
“A lot of times when Davey asks, you just tell him, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m good,’ ” Madson said. “He’s got a lot of stuff to worry about. It’s typical for bullpen guys not to be as honest with the manager. That’s just the dynamic there.”
Their more honest messages, as conveyed to pitching coach Derek Lilliquist and other members of the coaching staff, were getting lost in translation. So even in non-desperate situations, pitchers who were feeling overworked — most often Kintzler, Madson and Solis — did not get the rest they probably needed. Martinez recognized an issue and took steps to rectify it.
“Over the last maybe month or so, maybe since we got Herrera, he’s gone around to the relievers and been a lot more proactive with that communication,” Doolittle said. “I think that’s helped.”
“He’s saying with that, ‘Please let me know; give me information,’ ” Madson said. “ . . . I would never talk to a normal manager about that. He’s closing that gap.”
A more complicated concern is the question of trust, as manifested in the way Martinez warms up relievers. When a starter runs into trouble or a reliever gets in a jam, Martinez will often warm up reinforcements, just in case. This makes sense, having someone ready to bail out a struggling pitcher.
But what players notice is that those relievers who warm up often do not start the next inning. For example, if Justin Miller warms up in case a starter cannot get out of the sixth, he does not start the seventh. Another reliever warms up to pitch the seventh, and Miller never appears. Relievers count warming up — or “getting hot” — as a day of work, because it taxes their arm just as much as in-game pitching. They would rather see Miller start that next inning, even if it is not usually his.
Martinez not allowing pitchers to start those next innings is interpreted in the bullpen as a sign that he does not trust them. Therein lies the disconnect between relievers, trained to expect the best of themselves in every situation, and a manager, who must decide who’s best is better. One cannot blame him for going with his best relievers in big spots.
“With a veteran group, I think we all expect to come into a team and say we’ve all been there; we just want things to go boom, boom, boom and be a piece of cake. But we also all know it’s not like that,” Shawn Kelley said. “ . . . It’s funny: I think you could probably go anywhere and complain about the manager as a reliever. I don’t know if any manager has ever had seven relievers say, ‘He was perfect.’ ”
And Martinez cannot manage his bullpen in a vacuum. He must also account for a veteran rotation. Among the broader critiques of Martinez is his tendency to let starters hit for themselves just to face a few more batters. At times, of course, he has had to deal with a short bench that limited his pinch-hitting capabilities. Very little has gone to plan this year.
But to a man, relievers said they would prefer to start an inning rather than come in during a jam. At one point this season, Max Scherzer felt like he had a few batters left, but maybe not a whole inning. Kintzler was warming. Martinez called down to the bullpen to ask Kintzler whether he’d rather have a full inning. Kintzler said he would. Scherzer told Martinez he would come out of the game. Scherzer is unusual in his awareness about his relievers’ needs.
“There were times early where Davey had a learning curve as far as bullpen decisions and stuff like that, but who wouldn’t?” Kelley said. “ . . . We’ve got veteran guys. We’ve tried to communicate and help him. Davey is really good at communication. He wants us to come in there and be open.”
Most of these conversations about Martinez begin the same way, with lines that include, “He’s a really good guy” or “He really cares about us and getting it right” or “He’s stayed positive and upbeat every day” — sentiments that reflect the general clubhouse consensus.
Bryce Harper praises him at every turn. Asked about him last week, Trea Turner and Ryan Zimmerman pointed to his positivity, which as Turner put it, prevents “more stress on us than is needed.”
Everyone seems to appreciate Martinez the person. Some players have questions about Martinez the manager. But if he wasn’t liked as a person, it would leave little room for optimism. Rookie managers can, in theory, address the other concerns in time.
“I think what I like about him the most is he’s open to suggestions from us, speaking from the bullpen [perspective]. That’s stayed consistent,” Madson said. “What’s been good is he’s been consistent about being open to running the bullpen a certain way — better, different — just open to suggestions from us. That’s not [the case] everywhere.”
Rigidity — the unwillingness to change or analyze one’s failures — has doomed many managers. One could argue rigidity was what led to Matt Williams’s demise in Washington, exemplified by the “he’s our closer” refrain he repeated in turbulent times. Recently fired St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny was said to be unwilling to work with front-office suggestions or alter his approach. Kansas City Royals Manager Ned Yost used to be ridiculed for “Yosting,” his tendency toward questionable decisions — a point Martinez has not even approached. Yost hasn’t overhauled himself, according to reports out of Kansas City over the years. But he was known as a perpetually positive figure, which bought him time until his decisions started to work and, eventually, worked well enough for the Royals to win the World Series.
Precedent suggests few managers begin their careers with the Midas touch. The ones who last — or, at least, improve — are willing to acknowledge the need for evolution, and they buy themselves time to do so by being positive behind the scenes.
Martinez has remained positive and shown himself willing to change. With his offense long since unable to string together hits consistently, Martinez made a somewhat surprising choice in the Nationals’ series finale at the New York Mets last weekend. With no outs and runners on first and second base in the seventh inning, Martinez asked Matt Wieters to sacrifice those runners to second and third, giving Wilmer Difo and a hitter in the pitcher’s spot a chance to add insurance runs with one swing, rather than cross his fingers and hope Wieters would provide the blow.
“I’m thinking that’s the way we’re going to have to start playing,” Martinez said. “ . . . If one guy can’t drive a guy in, the next guy has to drive him in, and I want to instill that going into the second half.”
Should Martinez continue to be open to suggestions, he has a veteran clubhouse full of players willing to provide it. Some players are chirping, but Martinez hasn’t shut them out, and both sides hope that will lead to better things in the season’s second half.