MARTINEZ LEAVES SHADOWS FOR LEAD SEAT
BY TODD DYBAS | FEB. 25, 2018
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Nationals third base coach Bob Henley was not wasting his moment when centered in the Circle of Trust. His voice is usually filled with a clear southern twang. That he’s from “L.A”, lower Alabama, is among his stock jokes. Though there was no evidence of his accent when he yelled while surrounded by onlooking players.
He was an unbridled man who gesticulated and wailed in the center of the circle under the Florida sun. His face was lathered in sunscreen for safety, so much so he had near-ghost qualities while he recounted a baseball tale that was part Melville, part southern lore and other parts no one was too sure about.
The power of his story was clear. Several players stepped back to laugh. Applause followed at its end when the Circle of Trust, manager Davey Martinez’s new, daily, 9:30 a.m. staple at spring training, broke.
The circle is among the new elements under the Nationals’ fourth manager in seven seasons. Music during workouts is new. Throw-in Henley blowing an air horn from a lookout between the four workout fields when it’s time to start or change a drill as an addition. And, a lot of delegation. Martinez leaned on a bat outside of a pitcher-catcher relationship meeting last week. He didn’t speak. Matt Wieters did. Max Scherzer did. Martinez watched from the outer edge.
To get here, finally in charge of a team, Martinez had to change his tact. He had to find a way to shake a shadow. What he was doing before managerial job interviews was enough to provide him those conversations. What he said during them was not enough to land one. He was often relying on the pedigree of his mentor, Joe Maddon, to make the difference. Turns out, he was leaning too hard on the merits of his former boss when he, alone, would have been sufficient.
“After going through so many interviews, I felt really confident this time around,” Martinez told The Sports Capitol. “I talked more about what I can do to help the Nats win as opposed to what Joe and I had done over the years. I think that seemed to put me over the edge. Joe’s my mentor. We’ve done a lot of good things together, we’ve created a lot of good culture. When I look back, I did a lot of that stuff. I thought it was time that I’m trying to get the job, not Joe Maddon. So, I went this time and talked more about what I can do to help the Nats win. [Mike] Rizzo said, ‘Hey, you’re ready. It was good to hear that this was about you and not about what you and Joe do.’ That’s why he hired me.”
Now here, Martinez can make all the jovial changes he wants. But, he is aware of the managerial turnover at this organization. It brings them in and spits them out at a rate that has caused players to lose track of how many have occupied the corner office. He also knows the reason for that. Team ownership has reached the point where there is only one acceptable outcome: win the World Series. That stance makes Martinez’s maiden season pressure-filled and unique in a circle, square or diamond.
So much of this is based in Tampa. It’s where Maddon hired Martinez as bench coach, beginning their path toward untraditional management and, considering it was the Rays, untraditional results.
While there, Martinez would catch rides to Tropicana Field each day with third base coach Tom Foley. There is a simple reason for that: “I don’t like driving,” Martinez said.
They rolled down I-275 in Foley’s truck talking about baseball, life, whatever. Martinez liked it because was in the passenger seat and not alone. Foley thought the conversation was a fair trade for the transportation.
“It beats sitting in the car by yourself and listening to the same song over and over again,” Martinez said.
“He had a vehicle,” Foley said. “He was just too lazy to drive.”
Martinez’s future in Tampa seemed to have a natural path after the organization’s staff squeezed dollars out of ownership pennies. Maddon massaged 90 or more wins out of the Rays in five of his nine seasons. His second season was the reckoning: Tampa won 97 games and made it to the World Series. The Rays were last in payroll that season. Tampa Bay never rose above 21st in payroll during Maddon’s tenure. They spent little to win big.
Maddon left for the Chicago Cubs, discarding his past payroll problem, after the 2014 season. Martinez interviewed to replace him. He was not hired, beginning a series of interviews, including one in Washington, that would not land him a managerial job before the Nationals’ ownership countered Rizzo’s desire to retain Dusty Baker, and instead opened the position, then selected Martinez.
“I have the utmost respect for Tampa Bay, and the people there,” Martinez said. “We did some pretty good things there and I worked with some pretty good players. I watched them mature in front of my eyes. I had good relationships with them, so, I have no ill feelings about them. I have no ill feelings about why they didn’t hire me. I just looked at, ‘Hey, you know what, it’s not the time right now. Keep doing what I do.’ I’ve always said I’m really good at what I do. Keep doing the interviews. Somebody will give me a job one day. If it doesn’t happen, it is what it is. But, I’ve always felt like I was ready to manage and hopefully I would get the opportunity to manage.”
Maddon brought Martinez to Chicago and increased his responsibilities. He was often charged with handling uncomfortable conversations. Not good cop, bad cop, but Martinez was intervening a step before the brewing issue percolated into the manager’s office.
Martinez is trying to find ailments, solutions and future problems in those talks. He prefers exchanges on the side to grandstanding in a group. In the offseason, he anticipated having three team meetings all season. The first came during the opening full-squad workout Feb. 21. That leaves two for the next eight months.
Conversation may be regaining its currency in the game. Maddon argued at the Winter Meetings that the information he was among the pioneers to use has become pervasive. One team may be better at it than another, but equal access to information has reached all 30 teams. That means dissemination of the information is a new skill for a manager.
“For me, it’s all about how you present the information to players and others,” Martinez said. “A lot of players, they like the information, but they want to know why you came up with that. So, you’ve got to have a reason. When I get information, I’ve got to know why that is, and explain it to me so that I can make sense of it and help explain it to the coaches and the players. To me, that’s the bottom line. When you can start doing that, and having these communications and open it up for dialogue, they buy-in and they start using it.”
Martinez makes the same presentation when talking about extracting information from players. Is something wrong at home? Is something wrong in the clubhouse? Is he sitting on an injury and not saying? If any of those things are true, he has to drag the word outs, have an exchange, get them to believe he is on their side. Doing that as principal instead of vice principal is a complication he plans to navigate with directness.
“I’m very hands on,” Martinez said. “And I never see myself not ever being available for the players. It’s not who I am. One thing I know about myself, regardless [if I am] the bench coach or the manager, I won’t change who I am. I build relationships with players and I want them to come to me whenever there is a situation. I want them to feel like, ‘Hey, you might not like what I am going to tell you right now, but if you think about it in maybe today, tomorrow, a week, whatever, you’ll appreciate that I was honest and I’ll have this conversation to help you and help the team.’”
His in-game responsibilities also grew in Chicago. Martinez would manage the game along with Maddon. They worked in a tactical way that appealed to Rizzo and the Lerner family. Rizzo mentioned “creative and “analytical” in his opening statement when Martinez was introduced.
He said those words again in secondary interviews. They worked with dual emphasis as jabs at the departed Baker and suggestions of why this guy, this time, will be different.
Martinez was running numbers a month after that puffed-up introduction. He wanted to know what the math said about Trea Turner bunting. His new hitting coach, Kevin Long, is inherently against hitting the ball on the ground because the numbers show a spike in failure rate when that occurs. Doing it on purpose, with touch, only seems to amplify Long’s argument. So, Martinez wanted to know how they should apply the idea to the blink-fast Turner.
“People always assume that because you can run really fast, you should bunt more,” Martinez said. “That’s the assumption, right? When you think about it, we ran the numbers with Turner. Let’s figure out why he should bunt. Turner’s a pretty good hitter. He’s going to hit 20-25 home runs. Do we really want him to go up there and think about bunting? Or do we want him to think about just staying in the middle of the field and hitting doubles and maybe more or less getting on base a little bit more? Those are the things that we need to be thinking about. Right now, we’re running these numbers and trying to figure out what’s the best for him, then, from there, what’s the best for the team. Should he bunt leading off an inning, depending on the game? Should he bunt late in games? Trying to see what’s the best for him and the club.
“I don’t even like pitchers bunting. Will we do it? Yeah, of course. Some of the pitchers, the guy can swing the bat. I’d rather see them swing the bat.”
The ideas are not mind-blowing. At least not in 2018. And, Martinez has already shown some traditional tendencies. He named Sean Doolittle the closer. He expects to use Brandon Kintzler and Ryan Madson in their seventh- and eighth-inning roles, respectively. Adam Eaton will lead off.
The middle of the lineup, the middle of games may be where he uses a different approach. Maddon said last season that handedness doesn’t matter when hitters are the level of Daniel Murphy and Bryce Harper. Theories like that could put lefties or righties back-to-back in the lineup. Martinez could use reverse-splits as a guide more often than past Washington managers. He could challenge Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts for the league lead in pitching changes.
There also may be hi-jinks on the road. Martinez was coy when asked what the team will be wearing aboard planes.
“Remains to be seen,” he said with a laugh.
At the least, he walks into this job with his mentor convinced of his ability.
“Davey is ready,” Maddon told reporters at the Winter Meetings. “He’s ready. He’s very good at what he does. He’s going to be a very good in-game manager. We talked a lot during the course of the games. He’s also a very good instructor. He’s a very good outfield instructor. He can help with the hitting.
“It’s just Davey’s time.”
Martinez will be Bryce Harper’s fourth manager in seven seasons. Ryan Zimmerman, who has been here from the beginning, will be playing for his seventh full-time manager since 2005. Anthony Rendon had lost count when mentioning his managers in spring training. Turnover has become shrug-worthy in the clubhouse.
Length of contract has been a complication. Jim Riggleman wanted an extension. So did Baker. One walked because he did not receive it. The other was strung along until the utmost end, then discarded. The Nationals had also been burned working the opposite way. They picked up Matt Williams’ option early. Then, they had to fire him and absorb it. Regardless, the top-step turnstile at Nationals Park has been cemented as a concern in the league. Martinez was aware.
“You don’t necessarily know what transpires,” Martinez said. “But when you’re trying to look in, what I know by getting the job is I know how passionate the Lerners are, Rizzo, the organization, about winning. I look back and they’ve had pretty good managers. All I want to do is build on what they’ve done. Granted they didn’t go far in the postseason, but they’ve won a lot of games. It’s there. The pieces are there. I just hope to get a little bit more out of each player to get us to the ultimate goal and that’s to win the championship.”
He satisfied both sides in separate meetings. Martinez met with Rizzo at swanky seafood restaurant Ocean Prime in Tampa. They talked baseball. Rizzo’s base remains in scouting. Martinez, 53, has been in Major League Baseball since his June debut in 1986. He was 21. There were years of travel, outs and moments to discuss.
“The thing that struck me as the most impressive thing about him, on one hand, he’s a 16-year veteran, grizzled and grinded his way through 16 years in the big leagues,” Rizzo said. “But, he’s such an articulate, intelligent, analytically-based thinker that it’s just like the best of both worlds. The creativity that has been shown in both of the organizations that he’s been to and the cultures that developed there, people in the know have told me he is largely responsible for both of those.”
Martinez flew to Washington to meet with the Lerners a few days after dining with Rizzo. He, the Lerner family, and the Cohens — Debra and Edward, who are among the principal ownership group — had dinner. Martinez characterized that discussion as more varied. Then, a phone call.
“They called me and said that they wanted me to manage the Nationals,” Martinez said. “Here I am.”
The same people sat at his opening press conference. Rizzo was alongside him in front of the crowd. The owners sat in the front row, observing, applauding, looming. They had already moved onto the same message, one Martinez rolled head-long into prior to “Davey Martinez” being slid in place of “Dusty Baker” outside the far office at the end of the hall in West Palm Beach, before mornings with the Circle of Trust, ahead of a pitch being thrown.
“The expectations are to play the last game of the World Series and win it, no doubt,” Martinez said. “Our focus is to stay in the moment, win the first game of 162, then move on. I want these guys to know we’re here to win. That’s the bottom line. But how do we do that? Stay in the moment and compete every day at the highest level. And to open the communication — I don’t want those guys to shy away from it. I don’t want them to hear about Game 5 anymore and not making this and that, because they’re good. That’s gone. Our job moving forward IS to get to the World Series and win. It needs to be addressed and they need to know [to] not be afraid of it. It’s there. And, if we do what we’re capable of doing, why not us? Why can’t it be us?”
With that, Martinez asked what everyone in the District has been wondering.
Photo of Martinez and Max Scherzer by Todd Dybas for The Sports Capitol
Photo of Martinez and Joe Maddon courtesy Jeff Briscoe, Flickr
Photo of Martinez and Rizzo courtesy Washington Nationals