For Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, he has preached the virtues of analytics and touted them as a reason to hire a visionary manager in analytics when he chose Dave Martinez to take over for Dusty Baker for the 2018 season. Fans and apparently even the players were hoping for an upgrade in analytics for the Nats, but they rarely saw effective shifts or line-ups constructed from even basic analytics.
“I do believe in analytics,” Martinez said when he was hired. “…it helps me make decisions before the game, with lineups and with other things, how we’re going to do things. It’s a big part of the game. Why not use it? The information’s there. We should all use it.”
Sample sizes are generally never large for pitcher-hitter match-ups but on a daily basis you would see some head scratching line-ups from Martinez. One example was from a crucial Cubs/Nationals game where history and scouting revealed that Ryan Zimmerman just never saw right-hander Kyle Hendricks well while Mark Reynolds did. Dave Martinez, the former bench coach of the Cubs, had to know this, but in a game in early August, Martinez started Zim who was previously 0-15 against Hendricks while Reynolds was batting .800 with some walks. Zim went 0-3 against Hendricks in that August game and the Nats lost by one-run. Zimmerman was not the reason why the Nationals lost, but this was just one example of what we referred to as Martinez constantly playing the law of averages. Baseball does not always follow the law of averages as we have seen. This was a constant criticism of former-manager Dusty Baker and should have been an area of improvement when Martinez took over.
“We’ve just got to get better, fundamentally better,” manager Davey Martinez said after the loss to the Cubs. “That’s the key. We can’t make those little mistakes. Because when you’re playing a team that’s good, it’s gonna cost you. And it did today.”
Also in that August loss to the Cubs, the first reliever who Martinez went to was Sammy Solis. In the first batter he faced he gave up a 2-run single. Tell us where you heard that story before. That’s right, game 3 of the 2017 NLDS. Just like in the NLDS, what analytics led Martinez to go straight to Solis with 2-outs and the bases loaded?
“[Davey] is very, very analytically based and [came from] winning organizations,” Rizzo said about Martinez.
While we heard and were convinced that Martinez would bring to the team what Baker did not, we saw the same type of disregard for stats and analytics including shifts and giving preferential treatment to veteran players when stats called for line-up changes. There was clearly unrest in the clubhouse and particularly the bullpen when Brandon Kintzler was traded and Shawn Kelley was DFA’d. There was finger pointing from pitcher Stephen Strasburg to his middle infielders on a questionable shift, and there seemed to be constant whispers that the team was not committed at times to shifts. Now former-Nats’ reliever Ryan Madson let loose on what did not work at his time with the Nationals.
“I felt like my stuff was always good in Washington, so that wasn’t really the problem,” Ryan Madson said. “I just didn’t think I was throwing the right pitches at the right time. The Dodgers showed me what would work in what counts, how I should change what I was doing, really getting into the analytics of it, and that made me a lot more confident. It was a shift to what I was doing with my pitches that really helped me take a step mentally. That’s how I was able to turn it around.”
Maybe that is sour grapes from Madson whose “stuff” was not always good, but it calls into serious question what the Nationals are doing with analytics. Madson’s season had ups and downs including a season-changing moment in April when he pitched 3-games in a row from April 16-18, and he was left in that third game giving up a mind-blowing 6-runs before he was pulled. That debacle seemed to hurt Madson who just never seemed the same again, and it also created a divide of whether or not Madson should have pitched while also creating a chasm between the bullpen pitchers and manager Dave Martinez and pitching coach Derek Lilliquist.
“Yah, like I said before the game I had conversations with these guys,” Martinez said after that tough loss. “Guys told me they were available. We used them accordingly. That’s how it works.”
Clearly, that is a problem. You must know your players and their limitations. Ryan Madson is now 38-years-old and after the game when he gave up the walk-off grand slam to David Bote, it was Madson who revealed that he had been dealing with back pain that sent shooting pain down his leg, and dmade it hard to finish pitches and maintain accuracy.
A further blow to the Nationals analytics was seen in some end of the season statistics that ranked the Nationals infield shifts as the 7th worst in the Majors, and now Fangraphs has taken that even further in total shift effects for the entire infield and outfield ranking the Nationals 3rd from the bottom. Fangraphs ranked the Nationals as 6th from the bottom in the Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) stat, however for the Nationals it is a negative value meaning the defense did not save runs rather they gave them up to a total of -55. We already knew that Bryce Harper was the biggest culprit in that stat ranking as the second worst in the Majors with a -26 during 2018. Harper was a +4 DRS in 2017 showing what many observed that Harper was not putting in the same effort defensively in 2018.
Saying you embrace analytics sounds like a political campaign slogan, and the statistics and the “eye test” call into question whether or not that is a fail. While the Nationals appear to be returning in 2019 with the same coaching staff, you have to wonder if Mike Rizzo’s analytics department and the use of those analytics will change.