The Washington Nationals are right in the thick of the playoff race, but the team’s manager might limit how far they can go.
Dave Martinez has his strengths as a Major League manager; there is no doubt about that. He’s kept the Washington Nationals together through an extremely turbulent start to the season and helped guide them to a 49-26 record since May 23. One of Martinez’s weaknesses, however, is something that should cause a little bit of panic.
The Nats finished 2018 with an 18-24 record in 1-run games and so far this year, they’re on a nearly identical pace, going 14-19 in 1-run games. For comparison, the Atlanta Braves are 22-13 in 1-run games, and the Los Angeles Dodgers are 21-16 in such games. Once the playoffs get underway, 1-run games will become more frequent and even more critical.
Sometimes, a fair way to assess how a manager is doing is to look at their record in close games. It’s a way of showing how they manage their bullpen and navigate their way through close contests. Sure, the players are ultimately responsible for wins and losses, but the manager also has to put his players in a position to succeed.
That brings us to last night against the Pittsburgh Pirates. With Stephen Strasburg cruising through 7 innings, throwing 94 pitches, Martinez decided to pull him.
After the game, Martinez said of Strasburg, “he was good…I mean 94 pitches…his last outing was over 100. But he was good. He had good stuff today, and he got us to the seventh. We had a well-rested bullpen.” Strasburg followed that up by saying, “Davey thought it was enough…”
Neither quote shows exactly why Strasburg was pulled after meticulously carving through the Pirates lineup through 7 innings while clinging to a 1-0 lead.
Strasburg deserved to go back out there for the 8th inning. If he gets through the 8th, then you have your choice of Daniel Hudson, Hunter Strickland, Fernando Rodney or Wander Suero for the 9th inning. The decision to pull Strasburg there was genuinely mind-boggling.
Once the decision was made to pull Strasburg, the only choice left to make was who would come into the game. The Pirates had Jacob Stallings (right-handed hitter), Melky Cabrera (switch hitter) and Adam Frazier (left-handed hitter) due up in the 8th. This might have been a nice spot for a lefty, but the Nationals only lefty is Matt Grace, who barely belongs on a Major League roster at this point.
Martinez decided to go with Suero because he “liked his slider against the left-handed hitters.” What Martinez neglected to check was that left-handed hitters are hitting .278 against Suero this season. Not exactly a fool-proof plan to go with Suero there.
The reliever in the Nationals bullpen with the best line against left-handed hitters is Hudson, who later came on to try to bail Suero out. Hudson is holding left-handed hitters to a .220/.301/.418 slash line this season. Hudson was the logical choice for the 8th inning last night if you wanted to play matchup ball.
That would have left Strickland, who was supposedly available after breaking his nose, and Rodney to close the game out. For the sake of discussion, let’s assume Strickland wasn’t available unless it was an emergency. That leaves Rodney, who’s had much success against this current Pirates group, holding them as a team to a .220/.289/.317 slash line through 41 at-bats.
This was just one game, but it shows Martinez’s thinking in how to navigate through a close game. Quite frankly, it’s alarming because it’s not the first time we’ve seen something like this. I’ve repeated that the biggest problem with winning a wild card berth and not a division title is that you have to depend on Martinez to make the right decisions in a one-game playoff. That’s not an ideal position for the Nationals.
No Major League manager is perfect, just like no Major League manager is without flaws. However, Martinez’s primary flaw can’t be covered up by the current Nationals roster. If he can’t improve his decision-making with the bullpen, that could be the team’s downfall.