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.