Washington Nationals: Coaching staff needs to flip the script early this year
By Blake Finney
After a poor season in 2018, the Washington Nationals coaching staff rightly drew criticism. Now heading into 2019, they need to flip the script early.
The Washington Nationals were one of the most disappointing teams in all of baseball last season. Though there were several factors, the coaching staff drew plenty of criticism, and now it’s up to them to get the team back on track in 2019.
This time last year, manager Dave Martinez and his brand new coaching staff were a couple of days away from overseeing their first drills. The team had just won back-to-back division titles under Dusty Baker and was an overwhelming favorite for a third NL East title in a row.
What followed was an incredibly relaxed Spring Training with Martinez seemingly not wanting to mess with a winning team too much. We saw camels, hole-in-one tournaments and walk-off practice as West Palm Beach turned into Gimmick Central.
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Now, while none of those directly contributed to the team’s struggles, the lackadaisical atmosphere spilled over into the season. The team was poor defensively, ranking 25th in baseball in Defensive Runs Saved, while also being poor on the bases, ranking 22nd in FanGraphs’ Ultimate Base Running statistic, which judges a team’s baserunning on non-stolen base plays.
It’s incredibly cliche, but the Nationals’ struggles in one-run games come down to those fundamentals and led to an 18-24 record in such games. Martinez knows this more than anyone, and to his credit, he has seemingly already got a plan that’s completely different to last year in place for this year’s Spring Training. He spoke to Chelsea Janes of The Washington Post in December about this and said the following:
"“I’m going to push the envelope a little bit more than I did this year, especially with fundamentals… The base running’s got to get better. Not making outs on the bases. Fundamentally sound. Turning double plays. Being more aggressive on defense. Whether we’ve got to shift more, shift less. We’re looking at all that stuff.”"
It’s one thing to say that they’re going to make sure they work on the “little things,” it’s going to be another to actually put it into practice. But it’s not just down to Martinez, the whole coaching staff needs to be on the same page this spring to send the same message, something that didn’t seem to be there last season.
We previously looked at the poor communication between the coaches and how it negatively affected the results on the field. Hopefully, with a year of experience together and a clearer direction this spring, compared to trying to maintain a status quo last year, that will improve, though it’s no guarantee.
For example, bench coach Chip Hale needs to actually be there to support Martinez, as at times last year, he looked to fade into the background a bit. Kevin Long may need to adjust to the team’s new approach by preaching contact in the right situations to help move runners. And Derek Lilliquist needs to have a better feel for his pitching staff to assist Martinez in his decision making.
Perhaps the main points of emphasis will come down to first base coach Tim Bogar and third base coach Bob Henley. They’re going to be the coaches in charge of the fielding and baserunning, where the Nationals simply have to get better. And again, they need to make sure they start early during Spring Training, hammering home the team’s new philosophy.
But, when all is said and done, the buck stops with the skipper. Martinez got the benefit of the doubt after 2018, perhaps in part due to having the trust of his players, which is something you can’t teach a manager to have. Now, if he sets the tone he wants early in West Palm Beach, the team has a chance to rebound in 2019.
The Washington Nationals can’t afford another poor season in 2019 after they failed to live up sky-high expectations last season. If they slump yet again, it could cost several coaches their jobs before the 2019 season is finished.