By Mike Bates
Davey Johnson's swan song was supposed to go much better than this. Blessed with as good a lineup as any in the National League, incredible front-line starting pitchers, and a deep bullpen, a lot of people (myself included) figured the Nationals were a shoe-in for 95 wins. The year was supposed to end in October, with a trophy, a fitting cap to one of the brightest managerial careers in baseball history. But what was supposed to be a storybook end to a tremendous career has turned into an injury-filled, offensively bereft, under-.500 slog.
Johnson will not be replaced during the season, but that also means he is going to have to deal with another round of Blame Davey, the popular game that seems to be played whenever Johnson's magic stops working. It will be a shame to have it end this way. There's also cause for concern that this disappointment, combined with the imminent inductions of Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa and Joe Torre, will overshadow what has been a Hall of Fame-worthy managerial career.
That may provoke some eye rolling -- but Davey Johnson has been a hell of a manager, and despite a relatively short career and low victory total by Hall of Fame standards, he actually stacks up well both historically and against his contemporaries.
It's hard to figure out just what the criteria for a manager getting into the Hall of Fame should be. Connie Mack is in, despite having a career record 217 games below .500, which is the third-most games below .500 for any manager in baseball history. Bucky Harris also finished with a losing record, and Wilbert Robinson retired at 1399-1398, hardly a glowing mark. Nor is longevity really any kind of guarantee. Gene Mauch helmed his teams for 26 seasons, and probably will never get in. Ditto for Jimmy Dykes, who managed 21 years. There's no clear victory total required for entrance, either, given that the Veteran's Committee elected Billy Southworth in 2008 with barely over 1,000 victories. Meanwhile, like Johnson, Miller Huggins, Earl Weaver, and Al Lopez each managed for all or part of 17 years, and they're in. Postseason appearances? Al Lopez and Robinson each only made it twice, and lost in the World Series both times. Meanwhile, guys like Casey Stengel and Joe McCarthy, for all their World Series titles, didn't have to make it through the playoffs to win a championship.
With these shifting, amorphous standards, it really just comes down to the size of the crater these managers left on the game. And despite a low total of victories (he has 1342 as of this writing, and will rank 28th all-time in career wins by the end of the season), Davey Johnson's crater is huge in the late 20th century. He's had five seasons (out of 14 full campaigns) with 98 or more wins, across three different franchises; six postseason appearances; and two Manager of the Year awards more than a decade apart. The players' strike in 1994 cost him a shot at his seventh postseason berth and sixth division title, as the Reds finished the aborted campaign in the driver's seat in the NL Central, and who can say how those playoffs would have ended?
The Veteran's Committee has elected nine managers since 1990. Five of those -- Earl Weaver, Tommy Lasorda, Sparky Anderson, Dick Williams, and Whitey Herzog -- are modern managers from the playoff era. Johnson already has more career wins than Herzog, but will finish at least 100 wins short of Earl Weaver, who has the next-lowest total of that group. But his six postseason appearances would tie him with Williams, Weaver and Herzog, and put him just one behind Lasorda and Sparky. Plus, his one World Series win in 1986 leaves him no worse off than Weaver or Herzog.
But what really separates Johnson from his modern contemporaries is his consistent success in the regular season. Johnson's teams never finished lower than third in any season when he was at the helm the whole way, and only finished below .500 once before this year. His .559 winning percentage (to date) is the tenth-best mark of any manager with more than 2000 games under his belt. Every eligible manager who did better in the regular season is already in the Hall, and Johnson has a better mark than his contemporaries Herzog and Lasorda, as well as Stengel, Williams, Miller Huggins, Leo Durocher, Bill McKechnie, Bucky Harris, and of course, Mack and Robinson. It's even better than Cox, Torre, and LaRussa, who managed far longer and arguably with more aplomb.
Of course, Johnson can't take all the credit for his success on the field. Frank Cashen was a tremendously effective general manager in New York, and so was Pat Gillick in Baltimore. And Johnson undoubtedly worked with some of the most talented players in the game. Still, it's hard to ignore how quickly the teams he helmed tended to improve. In 1983, the Mets won just 68 games. With Davey in 1984, they jumped to 90 wins, then to 98, then finally to 108 in 1986. In 1993, he took over an underachieving Reds team, and led it to first-place finishes in the NL Central in each of the next two years. The 1995 Orioles were two games under .500, but Johnson led them to the ALCS the next year. And of course the Nationals in 2012 had their first winning season in the nation's capitol, and the franchise's first since 2003. Only his tenure with the Dodgers proved lackluster, and yet he left the club after an 86-win season in 2000. Success seemed to follow him wherever he went -- and to follow him out of town whenever he left.
Finally, while he doesn't get as much recognition as Earl Weaver, Sandy Alderson, and Billy Beane, Johnson should get some extra credit for being a pioneer of the data revolution in Major League Baseball. When Davey took over the Mets from interim-manager Frank Howard in October 1983, the former second baseman was immediately lauded by the impossible-to-please legend of sports writing, Dick Young, as "no-nonsense." In Joseph Durso's New York Times profile from that November 21, he calls Davey "direct, bold, and self-assured, something like Joe Torre." But while his attitude was surely important, Durso points out:
"The most dramatically different thing about Johnson is his approach: He has a degree in mathematics, and he intends to apply the principles of computer mathematics to solving the problems of the Mets… 'Can you apply mathematical formulas to human performance? I think you can, because playing baseball is 90 percent mental. My philosophy of managing is to use a player in situations where he has the optimum chance to shine. The computer will help me decide what his optimum chance is. You could let the computer pick the optimum lineup. It's a tool. I want to feed the history of every player in the National League into the computer. I want to know how Rusty Staub has hit against Steve Carlton every time in his career… I want to know the odds.'"
Given that many managers today barely can turn on their computers, Johnson's interest in lineup optimization and on-base percentage represented a significant leap forward (that Johnson actually made in the 1970s, when he gave Earl Weaver a computer-generated lineup suggestion that Weaver allegedly threw in the trash) that the rest of the league has only caught up with in the last few seasons. In fact, Johnson's hiring in Queens came just a year after Alderson was tapped to run the A's, and was just as effective at creating a perennial contender.
Maybe, finally, the rest of baseball has finally caught up to Davey Johnson this year, or maybe he just got dealt a bad hand. Either way, he's going out as he usually does, with everyone mad at him and ready to exile him by catapult if he doesn't go willingly. That's okay. At 71, he's earned a quasi-retirement in a cushy front-office job that will take advantage of both his data-driven tendencies and his on-field experience. But because of this year's disappointment, because of the huge layoff he took from 2001-2010, and because so many of the late 20th and early 21st century accolades will be reserved for Cox, LaRussa, and Torre, Johnson probably will never get the Hall of Fame support that the two-time Manager of the Year deserves. That'll be on us, for not recognizing his mark on the game when we've been staring at it since 1984.
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Mike Bates writes for SBNation and NotGraphs, and is one of the minds behind The Platoon Advantage. His work has also been featured on ESPN.com, Baseball Prospectus, and Getting Blanked.