Not right, Nats

2020-07-14 DaveMartinezMikeRizzo

Dave Martinez (left) and Mike Rizzo. The Nats’ GM hasn’t heard a peep about a contract extension or wholly new deal yet despite being in the final year of his current deal. The skipper hasn’t, either, despite having one more year on his current deal.

You built a World Series champion through trials, errors, and very occasional calls for your head on a plate while you stayed your course and kept your eye on the Promised Land. It wasn’t just any World Series champion but Washington’s first Show champion* since the Coolidge Administration.

But your contract expires after the season to follow, however truncated the coronavirus world tour makes it. Wouldn’t you think your bosses would want you to stick around so you can give it your best shot at sustaining that success?

Or, you managed that club from hell to the highest waters possible, despite the not-so-great bullpen you were handed to work with when last year began, keeping them from losing their marble (singular) despite a 19-31 season beginning. They bought your go-1-0-every-day philosophy. You gave them room to go 74-38 the rest of the season and perform feats of derring-do without nets and, sometimes, logic.

You also did it while earning barely more than the minimum major league player’s salary. Wouldn’t you think, too, that the same bosses would want you to stick around so you can give it your best shot at convincing your team their next theme song—Gerardo Parra, after all, has moved onward, taking the “Baby Shark” mojo with him—should be, “I Want to Take You Higher?”

Sure you would. Both of you would. But nobody in the Washington Nationals’ executive suite seems to have moved so much as a fingernail on it. Meaning, as USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale reminds us, that general manager Mike Rizzo is a lame duck in a truncated season and manager Dave Martinez is a year from the same quack.

And, if Rizzo’s a lame duck this year he may not be the one able to move on keeping Martinez above and beyond 2021, presuming the Nats’ success sustains. Which it should, whenever the game returns to something resembling normal, with the extending of Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer not exactly showing age just yet, a new young core and several reliable veterans.

This is the GM who took a big hit in 2018 when—in the middle of an already injury-compromised season that also included Bryce Harper’s walk year—he dumped two relief pitchers in circumstances described as dubious at best and disingenuous at worst.

When Shawn Kelley was brought in to pitch near the end of a blowout, looked toward Martinez for guidance about an umpire’s positioning, then spiked his glove after surrendering a home run, Rizzo took it as showing up the skipper even though Martinez didn’t see it that way. He didn’t give Kelley a chance, getting in the reliever’s face then releasing him to be snapped up by the Oakland Athletics.

When Rizzo suspected concurrently that Kelley’s fellow reliever Brandon Kintzler was the source of a Yahoo! Sports story calling the Nats clubhouse a big mess, he didn’t even bother to verify it—he sent Kintzler off to the Chicago Cubs. Both Kelley and Kintzler found themselves back in the races at their new addresses. Kintzler denied emphatically, with then-Yahoo! Sports writer Jeff Passan’s affirmation, that he was the source of the clubhouse mess story.

“If you’re not in,” Rizzo said emphatically, “you’re in the way.” In those moments it looked as though the GM himself could be charged under that statute.

Rizzo stood his ground for better or worse. So did Martinez, whose bullpen management was considered suspect but who was, in fairness, suffering a malady his predecessors had to suffer, too. For the longest time Rizzo was seen as the GM who could and did build solid starting rotations, solid position cores, and reasonable benches, but just couldn’t build bullpens with the same surety.

Martinez never lost his players when all was said and done, either. “They held onto Martinez,” writes Washington Post sportswriter Jesse Dougherty in Buzz Saw: The Improbable Story of How the Washington Nationals Won the World Series, “despite faint calls for his job, and he didn’t spend October [2018] watching the postseason. That would have been one kind of torture. He chose even worse.”

He went everywhere with an iPad that had each of the Nationals’ 162 games loaded onto it. He hunted in Wisconsin, fished outside Salt Lake City, lay in the hammock at his farm outside Nashville, and still carved out time, every day, to relive all the mistakes. There were his mistakes, mostly with the bullpen, such as leaving relievers in too long, or not striking the right balance between analytics and his gut. Then there were his players’ mistakes, such as taking the wrong plate approach, the wrong baserunning approach, or lapsing on defense . . .

He got to West Palm Beach [for spring training 2019] in early February and called for a staff meeting. That’s when he told the coaches about correcting the little things. Mistakes were met with yelling “Do it again!” into quiet mornings . . .

The calls for both Rizzo’s and Martinez’s heads ramped up at that 19-31 start last year. By the time they shoved the Milwaukee Brewers out of the wild card game, upended the Los Angeles Dodgers in the division series (something about a guy named Howie Kendrick detonating a grand slam at the expense of a manager who misread his bullpen even worse), and buried the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series, executions were no longer an option.

When Rizzo’s midyear trade acquisition Daniel Hudson struck Michael Brantley out swinging to finish what a gutsy Scherzer started (pitching five innings on fumes and probably lucky to have only two runs pried out of him) and Kendrick overturned (that pole-ringing two-run homer turning a deficit into a lead the Nats never lost) in Game Seven of the World Series, the calls weren’t for executions but canonisations.

Lately Rizzo has been more than just the deft rebuilder. The Show’s contradictory COVID-19 issues of late got a verbal beatdown from Rizzo after Nats’ tests were still delayed 72 hours after July 3.

“We cannot have our players and staff work at risk,” Rizzo said. “Therefore, we have cancelled our team workout scheduled for this morning. We will not sacrifice the health and safety of our players, staff and their families. Without accurate and timely testing it is simply not safe for us to continue with Summer Camp. Major League Baseball needs to work quickly to resolve issues with their process and their lab. Otherwise, Summer Camp and the 2020 Season are at risk.”

He wasn’t alone. The A’s, the Houston Astros, the Los Angeles Angels, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and other teams found themselves canceling workouts or intra-squad games over testing delays. This is no bowl of Raisin Bran they’re dealing with.

Letting Rizzo be the face of the Nats when it comes to coronavirus safety protocols is one thing, Nightengale writes. Letting him sit as a lame duck otherwise isn’t acceptable. “It’s insane,” he continues, “but again this is the same ownership that fired manager Dusty Baker after winning back-to-back division titles. It’s the same owners that told Bud Black he was their new manager, only to offer him a one-year deal. The same owners who have perhaps the smallest and lowest-paid front office staffs in baseball.”

The same owners whose manager earns barely more than infield comer Carter Kieboom would have earned in a full 2020 season.

Nightengale notices something else, too. He notices that, during Rizzo’s tenure, not one Nat—other than longtime clubhouse leader Jayson Werth hit with a reckless driving charge (going 105 on the Beltway)—has made room for even the mildest scandal: “No PED suspensions. No domestic violence suspensions. No discrimination lawsuits.”

No extracurricular, off-field-based high-tech cheating, either. So far. The Astros and the Boston Red Sox may or may not be right that they weren’t the only ones operating illegal intelligence agencies during their World Series-winning seasons. The New York Yankees still have some splainin’ to do about that illicit dugout phone and possible other extracurricular Yankee panky. But nobody’s pointed any such finger toward the Nats just yet. They might be the only part of Washington you can still call scandal free. So far.

When ancient questionable tweets by shortstop star Trea Turner surfaced, Turner simply manned up, said he was young and stupid and not necessarily in that order, and that was that. No muss, no fuss, no attempt to duck, nothing more than a quick apology.

Loyalty is one thing, and Rizzo has that in abundance to his bosses and his players alike, so long as he doesn’t think those players are in the way. But what does it tell you that only two other teams won more games than the 2010s Nats while the Nats finished the decade with the keys to the Promised Land but you can find almost ten teams with better-paid front office people?

Rizzo and Martinez have earned new deals. For Martinez, it might make up for his not being named Manager of the Year over the Cardinals’s Mike Schildt as he should have been for 2019. Schildt lifting a slightly leaky boat isn’t even close to Martinez raising the Titanic.

“[T]his is a proud baseball franchise,” Nightengale writes, “and shouldn’t be run like a construction site, sitting back and making bids to get the cheapest cost.” Maybe some Nats players—who are as loyal to Rizzo and Martinez as those two bosses are to them—could drive the point home further by having their batting helmets re-shaped into construction site hard hats?

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Let us not forget: The Homestead Grays, playing their home games in Washington’s ancient Griffith Stadium, beat the Birmingham Black Barons in the final Negro Leagues World Series in 1948.

Fields of gold

2019-11-04 GoldGloveLet the award debates begin. The Gold Gloves have been awarded. And, the good news is that there wasn’t as much fool’s gold mined this year as in seasons past.

That won’t stop the debates, of course. Almost nothing in baseball ever really does, which keeps the fun going when the games are over.

I’m as much a lover of the highlight reel plays as anyone, just the way we love the acrobatics of Cirque du Soleil, but the real name of the game behind the plate or in the field is saving runs against your team.

The better news this year: there was only one Gold Glove winner who could really be called a legacy pick alone. If only we could get that kind of success when the All-Star Game teams are chosen.

Catchers—The National League winner: J.T. Realmuto (Phillies). The should-have-been National League winner: Austin Hedges (Padres). Why? Realmuto’s throwing arm looked only too obvious (as it should have), but Hedges saved more runs defensively—the margin is 22 for Hedges and 11 for Realmuto.

Hedges also has another advantage: neither he nor Realmuto had particularly great pitching staffs to handle, but Padres pitchers throwing to Hedges had a collective 4.10 ERA and Phillies pitchers throwing to Realmuto had a 4.61. I get Realmuto’s throwing arm making him look more obvious, but Hedges was better.

Yadier Molina, you say? He was one of the NL’s three Glove finalists, but he simply wasn’t as good as Hedges and Realmuto behind the plate this year. His career-long work behind the plate will probably make him a Hall of Famer in due course.

And he still handles pitching staffs well enough, even allowing that the Cardinals had a better staff than the Padres and the Phillies this year: the Cardinals had a 3.82 team ERA with Molina behind the plate but also with Jack Flaherty coming into his own in the second half.

But in 2019 Molina was worth only two defensive runs saved and he threw out only 27 percent of those trying to steal on him—13 below his career average and one below the league average for his career. Age begins getting all of us sooner or later.

The American League winner: Roberto Perez (Indians). The should-have-been American League winner: Perez. No contest. Perez was worth the second-most defensive runs saved (29) ever since the statistic became accepted in 2003. (Molina had 30 in 2013.) He also saved his pitchers 11 runs with his pitch-framing skill and saved them a nice volume of wild pitches, leading the league with seven pitch-blocking runs saved.

First base—The National League winner: Anthony Rizzo (Cubs). The should-have-been winner: Christian Walker (Diamondbacks). Why? Forget that Walker had a tough job of replacing Paul Goldschmidt. Nobody in the National League was better this season when it came to getting balls most first basemen don’t reach, especially ranging to his right.

Walker was also worth nine runs saved in the field to Rizzo’s three. He also had 99 assists to Rizzo’s 87. Rizzo had a solid season but Walker was far enough better at the pad. With only two Gold Gloves coming into 2019 it’s not really fair to call Rizzo a legacy choice this time. (See Alex Gordon in due course.)

The American League winner: Matt Olson (Athletics). The should-have-been winner: Olson. He’s very much on his own plane, especially the manner in which he handled offline throws knowing the Oakland Coliseum has foul territory comparable to Central Park. Nobody in the league was better at saving throwing errors and runs at first base.

Second base—The National League winner: Kolten Wong (Cardinals). The should-have-been winner: Wong. No contest. He didn’t just lead the league in defensive runs saved at his position, there was no second baseman in the league less likely to crumple or misstep playing in the shifts than Wong. If Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski had a contemporary equal for virtuosity at second base, it was Wong this season.

The American League winner: Yolmer Sanchez (White Sox). The should-have-been winner: Tossup. Sanchez played more games at second base than D.J. LeMahieu (Yankees) but saved only one more run in the field. Sanchez probably nailed the Glove because he played 149 games at second base to LeMahieu’s 75 at the position. Either would have been a respectable Glove winner.

The third finalist for the Glove, Jose Altuve, was probably hurt in the field as well as at the plate by his early-season health issues: he was worth -2 defensive runs saved in 2019.

Shortstop—The National League winner: Nick Ahmed (Diamondbacks). The should-have-been winner: Tossup. There was barely a hair’s difference between Ahmed and Trevor Story (Rockies) in 2019, but Ahmed was just a little better at ranging to his right to get balls and make assists on difficult-to-impossible throws going that way.

They’ll both have tough competition in 2020, though, now that Javier Baez (Cubs) looks to be entrenched as a full-time shortstop.

The American League winner: Francisco Lindor (Indians). The should-have-been winner: Andrelton Simmons (Angels). He may only have played 102 games in the field in 2019 but he was far enough ahead of the league pack when it came to saving runs that it should have been no contest.

My guess: the Gold Glove voters noted Simmons reaching the minimum innings required at just about the last minute, and they also saw that while Lindor is an excellent fielding shortstop he also out-hit Simmons on the season. Right or wrong, there probably remain those voters who presume a solid bat equals a Gold Glove.

Third base—The National League winner: Nolen Arenado (Rockies). The should-have-been winner: Arenado. Taken cumulatively, it could have been a tossup between Arenado and Josh Donaldson (Braves); taken from there to difficult plays, Arenado takes it by a finger. He was simply that much better at the toughest plays.

Note: Arenado now has the fourth-most Gold Gloves of any third baseman ever, behind Scott Rolen; and, his seven straight are behind only Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt (ten) and Brooks Robinson (sixteen) for consecutive Gloves among third basemen.

The American League winner: Matt Chapman (Athletics). The should-have-been winner: Chapman. If Schmidt and Robinson have a contemporary equal for highlight-reel plays it’s Chapman. If you’re looking for the third baseman who’s going to save you the most runs at the hot corner, it’s Chapman. Still.

Left field—The National League winner: David Peralta (Diamondbacks). The should-have-been winner: Peralta. He tied for the Show lead among left fielders with ten defensive runs saved, and only Robbie Grossman of the Twins was his equal for running balls to the deepest regions on his side of the outfield and catching them.

The American League winner: Alex Gordon (Royals). The should-have-been winner: Tossup between Grossman and Michael Brantley (Astros). Peralta, Brantley, and the Yankees’ pleasant surprise Mike Tauchman each had ten defensive runs saved—the best in Show in left field. The voters didn’t look deep enough to make Brantley a finalist, alas; and Tauchman didn’t play enough innings to rate for the Glove.

Gordon had one defensive run saved in 2019. He may still be a solid man in left field, but this looks like a legacy pick: Gordon had six Gold Gloves on his mantel coming into 2019.

Center field—The National League winner: Lorenzo Cain (Brewers). The should-have-been winner: Victor Robles (Nationals). Both were consistent throughout the season but Robles finished first in the league with 22 defensive runs saved and twelve assists while Cain robbed five home runs (tying the record he shares with Carlos Gomez and Josh Reddick).

I’m guessing the Gold Glove voters also had in mind that Cain should have won a Glove or three in the past and thought it was time to give him what was overdue in some ways. But Robles was better. Cain isn’t exactly a legacy pick, but you can call him a makeup pick. It could have been worse.

The American League winner: Kevin Kiermaier (Rays). The should-have-been winner: Kiermaier. He’s been thinned a little by the injury bug but he still saved the most defensive runs of any American League center field Glove finalist in 2019. (Thirteen.) But Byron Buxton (Twins) was shaved worse by the injury bug; if he’d played just 21 more innings, he might have beaten Kiermaier.

Right field—The National League winner: Cody Bellinger (Dodgers). The should-have-been winner: Bellinger. He edged out the league’s two other Glove finalists, Bryce Harper (Phillies) and Jason Heyward (Cubs) in defensive runs saved; his throwing arm improved enough that runners advanced on base hits to right less against Bellinger than the other two.

The American League winner: Mookie Betts (Red Sox). The should-have-been winner: A healthier Aaron Judge (Yankees). Judge was one of the Yankees who made the team’s yearbook the New England Journal of Medicine and that kept him out of the 2019 Glove running, but he still had more defensive runs saved than Betts.

But Betts without Judge was still ahead of the American League right field pack. And in case you were wondering, the right fielder who had the single biggest improvement in the majors in defensive runs saved in 2019 was . . . Harper. (2018: -29. 2019: +9.) It wasn’t even close.

Pitchers—The National League winner: Zack Greinke (then with the Diamondbacks). The American League winner: Mike Leake (Mariners). The should-have-been winner: Greinke in both leagues.

He was that good fielding his position, both before and after his trade to the Astros. He was as good as having an extra second baseman or shortstop on the field. He led pitchers in the entire Show for starting double plays coming off the mound. Pitchers not named Greinke started five tops; Greinke started twelve.

Greinke got only half his due winning the National League award. Leake was a solid defender off the mound this year and has a career-long reputation as one of his league’s best-fielding pitchers. Leake’s other AL competition came up short of qualifying by seventeen innings: Marcus Stroman, traded to the Mets before the new single-season trade deadline.

But since Leake has never won a Gold Glove before, I can’t exactly call his winning it this year a legacy pick. Greinke had five Gold Gloves entering this year, and he certainly earned his Glove this year.

The defensive index of the Society for American Baseball Research (fair disclosure: I’m a member and have had work published by them in the recent past) was used in Gold Glove voting for the first time this year, applied to 25 percent of the vote with Show managers and coaches doing the rest.

According to that SABR index, the absolute best Gold Glove qualifiers in the leagues with the leather and arms were:

NL—C: Realmuto. 1B: Christian Walker. 2B: Wong. 3B: Arenado: SS: Ahmed. LF: Peralta. CF: Robles. RF: Bellinger. P: Max Fried. Note that three SDI champions (Walker, Robles, Fried) didn’t win Gold Gloves.

AL—C: Perez. 1B: Olson. 2B: Sanchez. 3B: Chapman. SS: Simmons. LF: Grossman. CF: Kiermaier. RF: Betts. P: Tie between Leake and Lucas Giolito. Note that three SDI champions here (Simmons, Grossman, Giolito) didn’t win Gold Gloves, either.

Let the debates begin. Or continue, depending. And you can take a little more active part in it: fans get to vote for the Platinum Glove winner, which Rawlings began in 2011. The bad news: you can only vote for someone in each league who actually won one of this year’s Gold Gloves. You can’t vote for the guy who should have won the Gold Glove but didn’t.

That said, my own Platinum Glove picks would be Roberto Perez and Nick Ahmed. Perez led all American League Gold Glove eligibles with a 17.0 SDI rating and Ahmed led the National League Gold Glove eligibles with a 15.7. That looks like platinum work to me.