It is back to work for Mike Rizzo and his front office and analytics staff. There are less than six days remaining before the calendar turns to the year 2020. You have to wonder if Rizzo or anyone in his braintrust had any revelations over the holidays. There is sometimes that “aha” moment. Is it time to turn the page and pivot in another direction? We all know where the hold-up is in the roster construction, and his name is Josh Donaldson who is Rizzo’s number one target at the moment at third base. It feels like we we could be at an impasse, but it is for Mr. Rizzo to decide if that is the case and whether it is time to go in another direction. Will he give his orders to “The Pentagon” to work on some other analytics? They are a key to the Sabermetrics and the math of WAR (Wins Above Replacement) which keeps Rizzo’s analytics department on their toes as they get him to a lineup and roster that will work towards his offseason goals of 90 wins in his roster construction.
If you thought manager Dave Martinez was going to be complacent, you were wrong. He has once again stayed the winter in Washington, D.C., and there is no hibernating. He is also out and about and was spotted at Children’s Hospital this week as well as the team store.
“[Davey Martinez is] bringing that love of analytics and the implementation of those statistics with his thought process,” Mike Rizzo said. “[Tim Bogar], same thing. … He and Davey are both very intelligent and have the ability to take a lot of information and disperse it to the players in a way they can understand it.”
Two years ago, I wrote this about Martinez: “While Nationals’ manager Davey Martinez embraces the analytics, he understands that he must put his players in their best situations to maximize their values. Martinez plans to work very closely with the front office to consider all of the analytics data he receives.” What you did not see much of in the regular season from Martinez was his more subtle use of the analytics, but in the postseason you saw a change in how he handled his pitching staff. Martinez grasped the concept that his predecessors had not in almost every move in a postseason game is high leverage. He used Stephen Strasburg in the Wild Card game and Patrick Corbin over several games in the postseason as a bridge to the only two relievers he trusted in Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson. It worked and could be a blueprint for any other team that was paying attention.
“I got a little bit of old school [in me],” Dave Martinez said, “But a lot of new school. This game is still played on a diamond, on dirt, on grass, with a bat, with a baseball, with a glove. These guys have done it since they were little. I do believe in that. But 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.”
We certainly saw a lot of old-school in Martinez in trusting his starting pitchers throughout the postseason. Stephen Strasburg went 8 1/3 innings in that Game 6 of the World Series which was certainly a throwback type of performance. But the World Series could have ended miserably for the Nats if not for Jonathan Tosches. Who? He is the Nationals’ 37-year-old coordinator of advanced scouting with a masters degree in sports management from the University of Massachusetts Amherst according to his LinkedIn profile. Tosches was perched in front of a video monitor in Game 6 of the World Series and noticed Stras was tipping his pitches, and he got the word to pitching coach Paul Menhart who made the needed corrections after the second inning, and the results were brilliance from Strasburg. He went 7 1/3 innings of scoreless baseball after a nearly disastrous first inning in that World Series Game 6 with his team facing elimination against Justin Verlander and the Houston Astros. Stras squandered a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning giving up a double, wild pitch, sacrifice fly and a home run and the Nats trailed 2-1 after the inning.
“I saw it plain as day,” Menhart said after the tip from Tosches. “I knew every pitch he was throwing. He got through the [second] inning clean, but it was obvious. He’s not the most approachable guy when he’s pitching. He doesn’t like you to say much to him about tipping or anything else. The only thing he might do is ask about how we’re going to attack a certain guy. But, dang! This is Game 6 of the World Series! So I said, ‘[####] it. Let’s do this.’ ”
Even though you are tipping pitches or the other team is stealing signs does not mean they will crush every pitch because Strasburg is so nasty out there. The ability for Rizzo’s staff to communicate and feel empowered to speak up was a key. Tosches might have saved the Nats season at that point. There were so many unsung stars behind the scenes like the Nationals medical staff led by Dr. Harvey Sharman. Consider how Howie Kendrick had a magical season less than a year after an achilles injury (miracle), Trea played with 8 1/2 fingers, and Victor Robles pulled his hammy in the postseason yet he didn’t end up on the IL, and Max Scherzer could not dress himself due to neck and back pain and was scratched from his Game 5 start, but three days later started Game 7 of the World Series.
Somewhere and somehow every member of the Washington Nationals organization came here for a reason, and the decisions could have been solidified by someone who you did not even know. The team is an evolving group with almost a shared DNA and mostly from the name on the front of their uniforms. It never stays the same from year to year. That just isn’t in the cards. You can’t force it. Sometimes it just has to happen naturally. We can mourn the loss of a player to free agency or embrace the change. Those who vowed never to watch another Nats game after Bryce Harper departed sure missed a heck of a World Series win.
Acquisitions are also made in-season, and never has Rizzo made acquisitions with so much impact as he made during the 2019 season, and he did not have to trade future stars like Jesus Luzardo or Blake Treinen or Felipe Rivero like he did for Dusty Baker‘s bullpen. How’s about that move to add Menhart in the change on Martinez’s coaching staff.
When the San Francisco Giants DFA’d Gerardo Parra, he became a free agent and available to go to any team he wanted to. There was a relationship that Parra had with Davey Martinez through their agency at Octagon that solidified that move. After Parra came, Fernando Rodney arrived in similar fashion then Asdrubal Cabrera. chose the Nats over rival NL East clubs. All three players had choices to go elsewhere and all chose the Nats, and all three had key moments for this team and turning the culture around. The key trade that Rizzo pulled off was for Daniel Hudson, and that cost him Kyle Johnston who was not a top-10 prospect. He also traded Elvis Alvarado, Aaron Fletcher, and Taylor Guilbeau to the Seattle Mariners for Roenis Elias and Hunter Strickland. If you polled the fanbase, they were upset at Rizzo and the Lerner ownership group for not getting Felipe Vazquez (formerly known as Felipe Rivero), Will Smith, Kirby Yates, or Shane Greene who went to the rival Braves.
We will see what Mike Rizzo and his staff does, and for now, it is back to work.