“We should make the playoffs this year. If we don’t, they can fire me,” he said, to boost his team’s confidence and put any onus on himself.
If a clean-cut look helps Ryan Zimmerman feel most comfortable and confident, that’s great. If Werth shows up with a mane and a foot-long beard, a dude’s got to be himself to produce. Drew Storen is half way to the wild animal look but “I’m not as ‘lionized’ as Werth,” he says.
At one level, Johnson plans strategic changes for the Nats. The little-ball style of ex-manager Jim Riggleman is dead, part of an ancient argument between the Cardinals and Orioles schools of thought on offense.
“With a 2-0, 3-1 count, we’re not going to try to draw a walk and steal second,” says Johnson tartly. “I’d just as soon they hit it off the fence and start out at second base.”
While theory of the game is great, and minute study of proper technique is a Johnson obsession, the manager’s central insight may be that talent wins in baseball far more often than tactics. Because he actually was a second-tier star player in his prime, he appreciates it. A team’s group psychology, its competitive disposition, may matter more than any hit-and-run if it helps promote each player’s ability to find a calm-but-focused place where peak performance can be achieved.
Johnson often praises his old manager Earl Weaver for his innovations or “competitive spirit.” But, like many who played for Weaver, he understands how hard it is for managers, especially who never played well, to release control, abandon their superstitions and trust their players.
“When Earl came up to Baltimore [from managing in AA], he fell into a gold mine,” said Johnson. “He’d be nervous and pacing. [Jim] Palmer used to tell him, ‘Just shut up, smoke another cigarette and let us play.’”
That’s close to Johnson’s own view of his role. Create a relaxed and playful, but studious and ultra-confident atmosphere in which players like Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Jordan Zimmermann, Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos can discover and fulfill their gifts.
Each day in Florida, the Nationals hear Johnson’s calming voice. “We don’t need any opening day snapdragons out there today,” he tells his pitchers, discouraging sharp curveballs to avoid injury.
“There are only three spots open on this [25-man] team,” he says. “A lot of guys don’t have to prove a lot to me. They’re not going to lose their job to somebody hitting .500 versus AAA pitching.” So, just improve, don’t fret.
Three of the four teams Johnson has managed have responded to this approach by developing individual confidence and a collective identity that allowed them to blow past almost every expectation — except their manager’s — and to do it quickly. Maybe those days are far in the past.
Or maybe not.
For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/