Davey Martinez turns Nats’ bullpen weakness into strength

washington nationalsThe Washington Nationals’ decision to go with rookie manager Davey Martinez after the Nats cheaped out on veteran skipper Dusty Baker following the 2017 season wasn’t entirely well-received.

And then, in year one at the helm, Martinez managed down to the low expectations, struggling to get the pieces of what looked at the start of 2018 to be a World Series contender to gel on the way to a middling 82-80 finish.

The 19-31 start to the 2019 season had plenty calling for his head, and if not his head, then also the head of Nats GM Mike Rizzo, but it was at this point that a key reason that Washington went to Martinez came to the fore.

Everybody who knew Martinez described him as a preternaturally positive presence in the clubhouse, and it was his scheme to sell his guys on how they just needed to stay in the fight and go 1-0 each day that got the needle moving toward an improbable postseason.

The part that came as a surprise in the postseason was Martinez emerging as an expert strategist.

This Nats team wasn’t as balanced as his 2018 group. Solid everyday lineup, good depth among the position players, top-notch starting rotation, but that bullpen, wow, historically bad.

You’re not supposed to even make the postseason with a bullpen ranked last in the league in ERA and opponent batting average.

Certainly you don’t get far into the postseason if you do get there.

So, Martinez came up with another scheme that had him managing to that 1-0, stay in the fight mantra.

If your weakness is your pen, mainly, your long and middle relief, then, what can you do in terms of a workaround?

Martinez went to his starters to build the long- and middle-relief bridge to the back end of his bullpen, co-closers Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson.

Patrick Corbin was used most frequently – five times out of the pen, including the three most crucial innings in Nats’ history in Game 7, a span that saw Washington turn a 2-0 deficit into a 6-2 lead.

Martinez also used his aces, Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer – Strasburg giving three innings of relief in the NL Wild Card Game, Scherzer pitching a 1-2-3 eighth in the deciding Game 5 of the NLDS.

Going this route limited the exposure of guys like Fernando Rodney (3.86 ERA in the 2019 postseason), Wander Suero (4.50 ERA) and Tanner Rainey (6.75 ERA).

It also reduced the workload for Doolittle (1.74 ERA) and Hudson (3.72 ERA), who each appeared in nine of Washington’s 17 postseason games, for a combined 20 innings.

Doolittle, you may remember, had to be shut down for a two-week stretch in August due to overuse.

The change in approach saw Martinez using his starters – Strasburg, Scherzer, Corbin and Anibal Sanchez – for 118 of the 153 innings the Nationals played in the 2019 postseason.

That 77.1 percent rate compares favorably to what you saw out of Houston, whose starters accounted for 64.6 percent of the Astros’ postseason innings.

By going this route, Martinez squeezed more innings out of his best pitchers – a novel idea, right? – and was able in the process to mask his team’s weakness, and the numbers bear out how much it worked.

Washington had a staff ERA of 3.47 in the 2019 postseason, eight-tenths of a run better than the 4.27 regular-season staff ERA, and the relievers – and for this measure, we will count the innings contributed by starters in relief roles as relief innings – pitched to a 4.44 ERA in the 2019 postseason, more than a run better than the league-worst 5.66 regular-season ERA.

For fun’s sake, it should be pointed out that Houston’s bullpen, ranked third in MLB in the regular season with a 3.75 ERA, was nearly a run worse in the postseason, pitching to a 4.71 ERA in the Astros’ 18-game run.

The Houston bullpen was supposed to be what gave the Astros the edge over the Nats in the World Series.

Martinez, strategist, turned a roster weakness into a strength with his approach, and that’s a key reason the Nats are world champions.

Story by Chris Graham


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