We can now say “last year” or “last season” when we refer to the Nats’ World Series 2019 season since the calendar turned to 2020. General manager Mike Rizzo has less than ten days to ink players to get them to the Washington Nationals annual offseason Winterfest fan event. This is not your typical offseason for Rizzo. He enters this new decade with only one full-time infielder in Trea Turner and Howie Kendrick who could play in 350 plate appearances (526 if you think Fangraphs knows something or 401 on Baseball Reference’s projections), but seriously, Rizzo has to figure out where Carter Kieboom will play and who else he could add to this year’s roster. Don’t worry — it will happen. But let’s talk about last year now.
“We really added to what I think and Davey thinks makes a championship organization tick,” Rizzo said 11 months ago. “Pitching. Defense. Athleticism. Speed. I think we improved in all four of those aspects. It’s a big part of our identity as far as trying to develop a championship caliber club.”
There is now a “Nationals Way” which you don’t get to coin until you actually win a World Series. Mike Rizzo has told you before how he has envisioned his teams built on starting pitching, defense, athleticism, and speed. Rizzo had his manager who knew how to manage those guys because Dave Martinez was that type of player when he was in the Major Leagues using his speed and athleticism to make things happen. He would never sniff the postseason until the final year of his long career in 2001, and it was the last time the Braves would win a postseason series if you like that for irony. The Braves were old. Maddux and Glavine were both 35, and Smoltz was 34. Years earlier, the Braves won with those tenets that Rizzo held near and dear, and the Nats were molded by Stan Kasten who was the front office guru with those great Braves teams and was the Nationals team President when the Lerner family bought the team in mid-2006. But this 2019 team was built in Rizzo’s eyes and from the Lerner’s wallet with the most expensive starting rotation in baseball history, and that starting rotation would also become key bullpen pieces in the 2019 postsseaon.
“When the off-season is done and Spring Training starts, we want to think that we have a 90-win type of team on paper,” Rizzo said last offseason. “Games aren’t played on paper. I get that. I heard that, and I agree with it. My job is to create a roster analytically, and in the eye of the scouts and with the coaching staff has a chance to win 90-games.”
When the Nats bagged Patrick Corbin in the richest pitching free agent deal last year at $140 million, they solidified that four-headed monster after adding Anibal Sanchez. With Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Corbin, and Sanchez, the Nats could compete with any team with that premise that great pitching beats great hitting. Yep.
If you believe the kryptonite for the Nationals in past postseasons was bad bullpens, you were right. There was Drew Storen in Game 5 of 2012, and Game 2 of 2014, and devastating losses in the bullpen in 2016 and 2017 where front of the bullpen arms were used when your best arms were saved for the latter innings only to find there was no hold or save to be had at that point. In Game 1 of the World Series, Daniel Hudson entered with one out in the 7th inning and some would say that is when the save was made. Martinez had the worst bullpen in Nats history, and none of Rizzo’s offseason bullpen acquisitions worked with Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough. At one point, the Nats bullpen had double-digit ERAs and with the promotion of Tanner Rainey from the minors and acquiring the 42-year-old wonder, Fernando Rodney, and trades for Daniel Hudson, Hunter Strickland, and Roenis Elias. Like prior years where Rizzo would trade top prospects and players like he did in the Mark Melancon trade ( Taylor Hearn and Felipe Vazquez) for Dusty Baker‘s 2016 bullpen or the trade (Jesus Luzardo, Sheldon Neuse and Blake Treinen) to get Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson for Baker’s 2017 bullpen, the Nats would not give up one top-10 prospect in a trade to improve Martinez’s team to make a Nats 2019 run even more improbable. The Nats 2019 bullpen finished worst in the Majors with a 5.66 ERA while throwing the fewest innings at 500 2/3 innings.
What Davey Martinez did was neutralize the bad bullpen and only used Daniel Hudson, Sean Doolittle, Patrick Corbin, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg in Hi Lev spots throughout the postseason. It worked like a charm overall for the Nats, and Scherzer got a “hold” in the NLDS, Strasburg the win in the Wild Card, and Corbin the win in Game 7 of the World Series — all in relief. Strasburg and Corbin were pitched for multiple innings in the bullpen which bridged Martinez from his starters to his dual closers of Doolittle and/or Hudson.
In the 2019 postseason, the bullpen became a strength in the twelve wins, and those who questioned whether or not Martinez could rely on starters as relievers and just the two bullpen arms of Doolittle and Hudson were proved wrong. It worked, and worked to perfection. Those five pitchers combined for 27.0 innings pitched in relief in the postseason during the twelve wins and a combined 1.00 ERA. For Corbin, Strasburg, and Strasburg, they would have a 0.00 combined ERA in those 12 wins in the postseason out of the bullpen, and Hudson had a 1.13 in the wins and Doolittle a 1.93 in the wins. The Nats won a record five elimination games and the three winner-take-all games in the Wild Card, NLDS, and the World Series.
This was a difference in the “Braves Way” and the “Nationals Way” when you win a World Series as efficiently as the Nats did in that decade. Most would say that the 2019 Nats were not even the most talented team that Rizzo assembled, but they were managed the best. The “Where’s My Ring” will become “Here’s Your Ring” as reality is built when you play the games and actually win them not count the wins with the team you believe you have on paper.