Davey Johnson opens Nationals season with high expectations


Manager Davey Johnson of the Washington Nationals watches his team take batting practice before the start of the Nationals opening day game against the Miami Marlins at Nationals Park on April 1, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Rob Carr/GETTY IMAGES)
Jena McGregor
Columnist April 1, 2013

Davey Johnson has been around the bases, so to speak. The Washington Nationals manager has led five different teams. He’s won six division titles and been awarded Manager of the Year two different years. He has a .563 career winning percentage that is one of the highest among active managers in baseball.

And so you have to think he knows what he’s doing when he breaks every rule in the book about setting expectations.

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section. View Archive

For most leaders, the conventional wisdom goes like this: Set expectations low. Reach for small wins first. Focus on the game at hand, rather than one far in the future.

Not Davey Johnson. He’s already made “World Series or bust” the slogan for the 2013 season. He’s said it will be his fault if that doesn’t happen. It’s his last season as manager, he’s leading the first team in nearly 20 years to have two top overall draft picks, and yet he relishes the challenge of the high expectations ahead of him.

Is his approach smart or stupid? Some note the curse of all that pressure. It’s more fun to be the team that surprises everyone than the one that tries to live up to last year’s success. Others say Johnson’s embrace of high expectations is just what his players need: A manager who believes in big ambitions and publicly expresses his confidence in what they can achieve.

But here’s the thing: Johnson’s willingness to talk up his team’s chances works for two reasons. First, the Nationals are deserving favorites. They have few weaknesses as a team, no major injuries coming out of spring training and, of course, some of the best talent in baseball. Were he to engage in the “we’re just going to play our best baseball and see what happens” rhetoric, it would come off as inauthentic — or worse, unaware of the talented roster at his disposal. Johnson knows that if a manager can’t win it all with this team, it’s hard to say who can.

Second, all the big talk works because, well, he’s old, and his players are young. Johnson is a respected veteran with years of experience to his name, and if he thinks the World Series is in the Nats’ sights, there’s probably good reason. The same words out of a less battle-scarred manager would sound more like arrogance than ambition. Meanwhile, a young team that hasn’t been jaded by years of failure is more easily motivated by a coach’s confidence in their chances. They have yet to learn what they can’t do, so why not focus on what they can?

When the season is over, there could be a lot of fun to be had with Johnson’s “World Series or bust” slogan. Who knows how this team will perform under pressure, and whether Johnson’s unconventional approach to managing expectations will work. But for now, it’s April and the start of baseball season. The Nats have a manager who knows the difference between confidence and chutzpah, between believing in a team and being blinded by bravado. That may just the thing to get them to October.

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