Davey Johnson Making History With the 2012 Season
In January I posted a column on MASN asserting what I thought was a historical parallel between the current moment and its centenary in 1912. January marked the 100th anniversary of Clark Griffith’s first year as manager of the Washington Nationals. This season has been a truly remarkable one, but it can be appreciated fully only from the perspective of baseball history.
Griffith was legendary as a figure in Washington baseball because he brought the first and only winning tradition to the city. His run started in 1912, when he took a last place ball club and re-fashioned it into a contender in a scant season. Beginning in spring training of 1912, Griff remade the lineup with the spare parts he found available. That team finished second in the American League in 1912 and contended throughout the coming years until he remade that team into the 1924 World Series champions.
Davey Johnson has not needed to transform the lineup of the 2012 Washington Nationals. He took exactly what he had–with the notable addition of Gio Gonzalez–and made it better. Not only did he make it better, he crafted from a team that finished under .500 in 2011–third in the NL East–the best team in baseball, at least for the regular season.
In a Washington Post interview as the second half of the season got underway, Johnson offered up his ideas of managing, saying that one of the biggest changes he made to the team was the hitting philosophy that he sought to shift in a major way. It was not so much Clark Griffith, but ’69 Senators manager, Ted Williams, that he evoked.
Davey said that too many of the Nationals hitters had been taught to look for the pitch outside and take it the other way. Players like Ian Desmond that had real power potential were wasting it trying to be Eddie Brinkman. Brinkman was the good-field, no-hit shortstop whose Mendoza Line batting average climbed to respectability under the tutelage of Ted Williams.
Johnson said that he was more from the Earl Weaver school that emphasized the power of the three-run homer. The difference has been quite impressive. Davey Johnson has taken Ian Desmond and made him from a strikeout slap hitter into the best shortstop in the National League based on the 25 home runs and his .519 slugging percentage.
It used to be said of Williams when he won a Manager of the Year Award in 1969, that he raised the average of every player on the team that season. Much the same claim can be made for the Nationals under Davey.
In 2011, the composite slash line for the Washington Nationals was .242/.309/.383, abysmal numbers that were well below league average in every instance. The team managed to score only 3.88 runs per game. Contrast that with this year’s numbers: .262/.323/.427. All of those numbers are above league average and the slugging percentage is third best in the league. It fuels an average runs per game of 4.55 that is fourth overall.
The easiest and most glamorous statistic–the one Earl Weaver would swoon for–is the 186 home runs, second only to the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League.
Of course the story line for the Nationals all season long has been the pitching. But it is actually the run differential that has made Washington the best team in baseball. By allowing only 3.61 runs per game–best in either league–the Nationals have an average differential of almost a run per game. Few teams can even come close to that statistic.
Mike Rizzo deserves the credit for putting together the team, for bringing Gio Gonzalez on board over the winter and Kurt Suzuki at the trading deadline. Those two additions are genius at work. But Davey Johnson is the one who has taken the disparate pieces and made them into a team.
The Nationals are the youngest team in the NL. So much of Davey’s job has been to get the youthful core of the team to believe in itself and that is where he has achieved his more telling results. Ian Desmond may be the most impressive success story, but Danny Espinosa is also showing marked improvement over his 2011 rookie season under Davey’s approach.
“Get a good pitch to hit,” was Ted Williams mantra. He used it to fine tune Frank Howard’s game and Davey Johnson has used it to add important points to Espinosa’s bottom line. The finest glove man in the league, Danny has added fifteen points to his batting average. all of it coming in the second half when he has hit .273/.343/.439 slash line.
The youth on the team is of course exemplified by Bryce Harper. He has worked through a second half slump and is on fire again. He looks like a lock to win the Rookie of the Year based on the last few weeks.
There are other young players like Steve Lombardozzi and Tyler Moore who have played important roles off the bench. One of the most important jobs of the manager is to keep everyone happy regardless their role. Lombardozzi in his rookie season has gotten 376 at bats and is hitting .276.
There is Roger “the Shark” Bernadina whose batting average is almost fifty points higher than in 2011 although he has fewer at bats than in 2011. Tyler Moore another rookie has nine home runs–several of them coming a key junctures during important games–and is batting .264.
It is a well-oiled machine and one that could do extremely well in the playoffs for all of the sturm and drang about Strasburg. But regardless whether they win the National League title or the World Series itself, it will be a success when all is said and done.
The 1933 Washington Nationals won 99 games and the ’25 team won 96. With seven games left in the 2012 season and 94 wins already in the books, there is still a chance for this team to set or tie the record for excellence by a Washington baseball club.
If they do, much of the credit will redound to Davey Johnson. Much has been written about his intellectual gifts, his grit, and his skills on the diamond. But like Clark Griffith he took on a challenge by coming to DC to manage one of the worst teams in both leagues. Like the Old Fox before him, he has accomplished something no one thought possible back in the spring.
For that turnaround he deserves Manager of the Year, a new contract for next season, our humble thanks and respect. Something tells me he will have it all.