The Fundamental Failing of Dave Martinez' Washington Nationals
When Washington fired Dusty Baker in 2017 after leading the Nationals to first-round playoff exits following back-to-back 95 and 97-win seasons respectively, optimism that new manager Dave Martinez might infuse within the team a jolt of 21st-century analytics-fueled firepower that could lead it finally to the World Series may have been over-zealous, but it was not crazy.
While excuses have been aplenty in Washington's era of Dave Martinez, how quickly the new manager transformed the Nationals from one of baseball's most reliable winners into a middling mess struggling to tread water has not gone unnoticed among fans. As of May 2019, a fan poll showed that just 12 percent of Nationals followers were still on the "Davey" bandwagon. As of the writing of this post, team leadership is among the 12 percent.
While many have pointed out in his defense the challenges faced by Martinez' two Washington teams - from injuries to a lackluster bullpen - as excuses for their woefully subpar performances, one has to wonder if Casey Stengel or Joe Torre never encountered such routine inconveniences over their championship tenures. To date I have found such excuses unconvincing for a team with one of the highest payrolls and highest preseason projected WARs in baseball in both of the Martinez years
The most positive spin I could put on Martinez' first year was the team's 90-72 "Pythagorean win total", which equates a team's ratio of runs scored and runs allowed into a probable win total relative to other teams. Compared to the team's 82-80 win-loss record, the Pythagorean total was more in line with the team's outputs during the Dusty Baker era in Washington. And while large deviations between Pythagorean records and win-loss records often highlight poor day-to-day game management by a team's manager, they can also be the product of bad luck. In such an instance, the Pythagorean total could help explain away a lackluster win total: the team may have lost some heartbreakers, but at least it was outscoring opponents at a clip that in most years would land them in the playoffs. That Martinez' team is once again in 2019 under-performing its Pythagorean total suggests that the 2018 numbers were more the result of poor managing than bad luck.
Much has been made of Martinez' persona as a "players' manager". Despite the team's persistently poor performance, the team's players seem to like Martinez. Through a litany of dopey traditions - from the ill-fated camels of 2018 to the cabbage in 2019, the cutesy namecalling ("Davey", "Rosey", "Goodie") to careless baserunning - Martinez has instilled in the clubhouse a little league feel. Whether that's good or bad is in the eye of the beholder.
Among those with the courage to blame Martinez as a common denominator in the Nationals' run of recent futility, rather than routine rashes of injuries and such, several qualities have been highlighted among his failings: over-analyzing easy decisions, mis-using his bullpen, needless juggling of the lineup, lack of focus on player fundamentals, missing gravitas from his leadership style, and a proclivity to throw players under the bus rather than accept the blame himself during postgame interviews after losses.
If Martinez is indeed fired, I'll offer one additional theory on his futility that has nary been written about: that despite his fixation on micro-analytics for how to manufacture runs, the foundational macro-theory that underlies his approach to the game is fundamentally wrong, and that a big reason the Nationals keep losing is not that Martinez is incompetent, but that the theory he is administering to perfection is a recipe for failure and not success.
To cite Martinez' failure is to acknowledge that he is one of the brightest minds in baseball at how to navigate matchups and re-position lineups in ways that can help a team manufacture lone runs. Nationals fans have become well-acquainted with the lengths Martinez will go to to achieve the baseball mantra "get 'em on, get 'em over, get 'em in" in isolated cases: from at the micro-level aggressively pushing for early-inning baserunners to risk eliminating themselves from the basepaths by attempting to steal bases and having players give away guaranteed outs by bunting to advance the runners ahead of them, to at the macro-level working with general manager Mike Rizzo to re-tool the team from a collection of power-hitters into a faster and more dynamic club of small-ball baserunners. If you had to score a single run in a tied Game 7 of the World Series, Martinez would be a good manager to help you do it.
Unfortunately for Martinez, "small ball" in the sense of legging it out and trading outs for bases to play for the "manufactured" run here and there, while popular among National League fans, is rarely a recipe for baseball success in either league over the course of an entire game or an entire season. As Tom Tango's run expectancy matrices demonstrate, trading outs for bases is almost always a losing formula in the long run, and in no configuration of baserunners or outs does it increase the number of runs a team is likely to score in an inning.
Martinez' teams have executed his theories, and the result is a team that actually performs well in advancing runners at heavy expense in outs to score lone runs early in games. In 2018, for instance, Martinez' teams overwhelmingly dominated the first two innings of games, scoring far more often in those innings than they had in 2017. But they did so at a cost: Rarely did Martinez' teams establish big leads, and his fixation on the small ball tactic of trading outs to advance lone baserunners generally prevented the team from accruing large run totals in innings in which they scored. For two years now the Nationals have scored in a disproportionate number of innings relative to their competition, but they have not scored large run totals in those innings.
Martinez' managing suggests be believes teams win by scoring lone runs in lots of innings, and he is willing to forego the opportunity for a big inning to realize lone runs. In reality, teams win overwhelmingly because they score lots of runs in only a few innings, taking advantage of those rare chances to do so rather than squandering them for single runs. In 2019, teams have scored runs in less than 30 percent of the innings that have been played, and the number is relatively consistent among winning teams and losing teams. The primary difference between winners and losers is not in the number of innings in which they score, but in their respective numbers of multi-run innings. Now, as always, scoring in bunches is essential to success and far more important than scoring the lone run. Playing for the single run comes invariably at the expense of the probability for a big inning and kills teams' chances to achieve bursting run totals. The result is epitomized by the Nationals' 50-run drop in scoring production from 2017 to 2018, including a 15-game swing in the team's performance in 1-run games.
The Nationals' 2019 season so far offers among the best examples of the reality that small ball is a bad formula. Despite a record of 19-27 as of the writing of this post, the Nationals have scored in approximately the same number of innings as their opponents. However their opponents have outscored them badly, mostly by virtue of having accrued 34% more 3+ run innings. Each time the Nationals sacrifice outs to score early runs, they diminish their capacity to realize big innings, widening that chasm. This lack of big innings is the primary factor that is killing the team's chances: close games put a strain on the team's pitching staff and corner the offense into high-pressure situations in which the team is often behind.
That Washington realizes bunches of runs far more seldom than its competition, and is thus losing far more than the roster suggests it should, is not because Martinez is bad at leading the team at executing his philosophy. Rather, this failure is the very manifestation of bad baseball theory, executed to perfection, at the core of Martinez' managing philosophy. It's the product of missing the forest from the trees in managerial tactics, which in so many other areas Martinez could justly also be accused of failing in his duties.
Until the Nationals get a manager who can see baseball from 30,000 feet, they will continue to under-perform relative to the talent on their roster.