Nationals Manager Davey Johnson is in the midst of one of his best seasons


Davey Johnson’s construction and use of his bench is just the latest element of a remarkable season (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist July 18, 2012

Davey Johnson is having a hellacious year, one of the best of his career. The evidence keeps piling up. We’ll get to the rest, but here’s the latest:

All year Johnson has crushed opposing managers with his domination of late-inning matchups. In an injury-blighted season when every extra run is invaluable, the Nationals have gotten the production of a Prince Fielder or Joe Mauer out of the players who have come off their bench.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

So far, the men Johnson tapped who weren’t in the starting lineup have hit a combined .294, gotten on base at a .404 rate and had an on-base plus slugging percentage of .883, which is far higher than any individual Nats player, including team leader Ian Desmond (.830). The players, who call themselves the Goon Squad, did the damage. But Johnson has been their mastermind.

When he took over the job a year ago, Johnson said he hated the bench he’d inherited, considered it ill-conceived and intended to change it completely in personnel and theory. His new bench, built for offense, not the speed and defense preferred previously, has yielded spectacular results.

When Johnson can specifically tailor the in-game at bats of players such as Chad Tracy, Roger Bernadina, Rick Ankiel, Steve Lombardozzi, Xavier Nady, Jhonatan Solano and others, they have produced at a level similar to Fielder, Mauer or all-stars such as Adam Jones and Carlos Beltran. To what degree is this because of Johnson’s insight into how to use each player?

Look at the vast gap in OPS of these Nats they start vs. games they enter as Johnson’s subs: Nady, .370 vs. 1.027; Bernadina, .633-1.012; Ankiel, .651-.921; Tracy, .659-1.090; and Mark DeRosa, .283-1.205.

In a typical example, consider the Nats’ bench in Tuesday’s double-comeback 5-4 win against the Mets. Johnson used three subs. They produced all three times: a single, two walks, a stolen base and two runs scored. In 193 plate appearances this season, Davey’s subs have reached base 78 times with 19 extra-base hits, including five homers, and produced 43 runs.

A team’s “bench” is not a static list of names. It is, in practice, everybody who is not in the starting lineup that day. When do you deploy them, how do you get them into the most favorable situations that allow them to succeed? How do you plan two or three innings ahead, sometimes using the mere threat of one player to help another man face a pitcher he can handle? Who do you pinch-hit and when? How good are you at double switches, analyzing or intuiting their impact two innings ahead?

In the Nats’ world, using your bench isn’t just basic lefty-vs.-righty stuff. Johnson knows the speed at which certain hitters become overpowered by a fastball or the quality of curveball that will or won’t trouble him. And that evaluation changes with the way Johnson perceives the batter to be hitting — today. Not simply over his whole career or against this particular pitcher. Who excels at leading off an inning in a pressure spot, such as DeRosa, and which hitters, such as Tracy (due to return soon from two months on the disabled list), believe they were meant to wipe the bases clean.

The Nats have also been winning the late-inning strategy battle when their bullpen door swings open. Johnson’s hand is in that, too, maximizing the value of his non-star players. Without 2011 closer Drew Storen, with free agent Brad Lidge cut and Henry Rodriguez often wild, the Nats still have a top-10 bullpen ERA because the Nats have gotten the most out of Craig Stammen (1.66 ERA),Ryan Mattheus (1.69) and Sean Burnett (1.82).

Johnson’s construction and use of his bench is just the latest element of a remarkable season. He has ignored having a dozen men on the disabled list at once. He has lobbied for Bryce Harper at 19 and been vindicated. He’s gotten a Rays pitcher suspended for eight games for cheating. The state of Florida has two major league teams. Johnson has called the manager of one “a weird wuss” and told the other to “get the [expletive] away from me.” He’s predicted his team would make the playoffs and then, last week, upped the ante by saying he’d be disappointed if the Nats weren’t NL East division champs.

Amid turmoil, like the endless talk about Stephen Strasburg’s innings limit, the Nats have seldom lost their focus or calm. On Tuesday, after getting to bed after a road trip at about 4:30 a.m., they still staged a comeback rally to tie when they were down to their last strike in the bottom of the ninth, then another to win in the 10th. Veterans in the clubhouse have set their tone. But Johnson, by tone of voice, humor, wisdom or the proper choice of emphasis, has helped change a season that could have felt like a ride on the Titanic into a summer that’s as smooth as a Caribbean cruise.

It seems curious that Johnson’s baseball legacy is still so unfinished. He has the second-highest winning percentage of any living manager with more than six seasons experience, behind only Earl Weaver. Of all the men who have managed 1,000 games since 1900, only six have a better record than Johnson. All are in the Hall of Fame. The average Johnson team in his 16 years has gone 91-71. And he’s done it while taking over five different clubs, all of them mediocre to miserable when he got there. Counting the Nats, four became big winners.

So, it’s hard to believe Johnson’s talents aren’t fully appreciated. But they aren’t. He was out of the majors for 11 years, partly because of a period of very bad health, partly by choice, but also because the phone didn’t ring. He was great at handling players. Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo says, “Davey is so good at handling players that most of them don’t know they’re being handled.” But who was going to handle Davey? Now, that no longer seems a problem.

Perhaps this last time around the track, with the Nationals, it will be the final performance that brings Johnson into clear focus. Beneath the grandfatherly appearance and the Texas twang, the harder you examine his latest work, the better his final baseball portrait looks.

For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/
boswell
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