When do you know?
When do you admit that you were wrong and move on? When do you fire the team president, the general manager, the coach or the manager?
When do you give up on your quarterback or decide you must add a top reliever, expenses to the wind, to fix your bullpen? When do you say, “We won’t make it this year,” then deal stalwarts for prospects at the trade deadline?
When do you give up on executives, managers, coaches or key players in whom you have placed enormous responsibility, faith and franchise reputation?
There is no tougher problem in pro sports, or one with which Washington fans have been so constantly familiar in every game for at least the past 50 years.
You can mess up in either direction. The Wizards just fired general manager Ernie Grunfeld — 16 years too late. Daniel Snyder once took advice from Vinny Cerrato — for a decade. Now it’s Bruce Allen who has Dan’s ear in perpetuity. Just can’t pull that trigger.
But the Capitals barely tried to keep coach Barry Trotz after he won their only Stanley Cup, and the Nats didn’t rehire Dusty Baker after he won 95 and 97 games. Those quick twitches don’t look so good now.
No one has yet written The Book, or even a rough draft, on the proper protocols for such decisions. Each case is fascinatingly and infuriatingly unique.
Right now, the Nats are the team at a crossroads.
The Nats have two main problems: their 16-25 record and their 82-80 record last season. Each informs the other. This spring, likely Hall of Famer Joey Votto, 35 and coming off a poor 2018, was quoted as saying that this was a big year for him because “if you have two bad years in a row, then that’s who you are.”
The Nats don’t want to let this season become an extension of the last one because, while wise baseball people are patient, they are not infinitely forbearing. As data piles up, you become your record, and decisions swing from optional to almost mandatory.
Facing a suddenly very alarming eight-game deficit to the Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East, the Nats might not even have a full season to reach their decisions. The true time frame is more likely July 31 — the trade deadline — which as of Tuesday was 69 games away.
With that date in mind, the Nats have three issues on which they need to decide.
First, their bullpen is inadequate. Every week that passes is a perilous waste. However, one top-flight reliever, to help build a bridge to closer Sean Doolittle, might suffice. Big problem, but with potentially a one-pitcher solution.
There is only one in-house cure, but that remedy could also prove toxic: Trevor Rosenthal. A fine general manager must be stubborn. His baseball judgment is his currency. If he doubts it too much, he is lost. But Nats GM Mike Rizzo better not be too stubborn about his signing of Rosenthal, coming off a missed season after elbow surgery. The hard reality is that Rosenthal hasn’t been a star reliever since 2015 — eons ago in the majors. There have been various mitigating circumstances to his stumbles since then, but time is just about up.
If Rosenthal, who is working out his problems with Class AA Harrisburg, can’t find his control — of the ball and his hyper nerves — over the next two or three weeks and become the setup man that the Nats need, the team needs to move on.
That may drive Rizzo nutty because Rosenthal, only 28, is touching 101 mph and has a quality slider. Rizzo’s scout’s eye tells him Rosenthal is just one mechanical tweak or psychological click away from being . . . well . . . Blake Treinen or Felipe Vazquez (nee Rivero), the past two high-octane relievers whom the Nats, in go-for-it mode, traded. Now both are all-stars elsewhere.
Tough problem. But that’s nothing compared with the difficulty of deciding when or if the Nats should fire Manager Dave Martinez. Rizzo backs him, likes him and believes in him. The team plays hard for him. The Nationals have had three resilient comeback wins in their past 15 games. But they don’t play consistently smart baseball for Martinez. And they don’t even do what he specifically asks.
All season, the manager has begged his players to stop trying to pull the ball for home runs and “use the middle of the field” or “move the ball” and just put it in play. This sounds almost childlike. But it is the essence of modern analytics applied to hitting, dumbed down in hopes the Nats will digest it.
Almost every player in the major leagues hits .300, or much better, when they just hit the ball into play — in other words, do anything other than strike out. This has been true for a century. Home runs are usually a byproduct of trying to hit the ball squarely with a loft-friendly stroke. You don’t try to hit them so much as they just happen.
When Chicago Manager Joe Maddon, Martinez’s mentor, said such things, the Cubs listened and won their first World Series in 108 years. Don’t waste your best solid contact on balls pulled foul. Use the middle of the field, where there is the most unguarded grass, regardless of how your foe shifts, and battle to avoid strikeouts like Anthony Rizzo. Is that so hard? When Martinez says it, crickets.
Normally, I think that firing managers and coaches is a mistake. Lean against the impulse. Change disrupts. You must start all over again. And what makes you think you’ll be any better at picking the next guy than you were at choosing the person you’re firing? Wasn’t the real mistake made by you, the chooser?
However, for this column, I reviewed every coach or manager who has been fired in D.C. in the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB during the past 50 years. How many of them haunted D.C. by being great in other cities for many years?
Out of more than 50 such coaches/managers, I can count on one hand the ones who had significant success elsewhere. Only one, K.C. Jones with the Boston Celtics, won a world title after leaving Washington.
More than 80 percent of the group constitute “not much loss.” Maybe D.C. is an anomaly. But it seems the majority of coaches that you seriously would consider firing are probably not destined to be great anyway.
As applied to Martinez, the problem with firing him is not that you’re losing the next important manager but that you almost certainly will disrupt this season for the worse. And the next manager? Probably, all in all, much like him.
The Nats’ final decision is the most foolish to consider: Rizzo. Few things in sports are harder to find than a team-builder. Anybody who has had success over an extended period is gold. There will be up-and-down seasons. Some decisions will stink. But the whole record is all you need to know.
Here is the list of teams that have more wins in the past eight years than Rizzo’s Nats: the Los Angeles Dodgers and the St. Louis Cardinals (by two wins). If you include 2011 (80-81), then one more team moves ahead of the Nats: the New York Yankees.
Flip the switch on a new reliever any time you want, and probably the sooner the better if Rosenthal doesn’t turn it around when he returns from Harrisburg.
Be careful with regard to Martinez. His team hasn’t had the landslide of injuries that have hit the resilient Yankees, but the Nats have had a ton. With a well-run franchise, never be in a hurry to blow up Plan A — and Martinez is at the center of it. Remember, it’s the entire Nats roster, when healthy, that you are giving a fair chance, not just the manager. In case of total collapse, break glass, fire manager and forget I wrote those words.
Finally, complain about Rizzo if you want, but don’t demand a replacement until you explain who the next GM will be and why he is going to do better than 131 games over .500 since the start of 2011. (And you can’t.)
Bad times can lead to twitchy fingers and make pulling the trigger on decisions seem satisfying. But too often you’re just aiming at your foot.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.