December 21, 2014

Washington Nationals veteran skipper Davey Johnson “gets it”

While everyone else covering Davey Johnson’s press conference this morning before his Washington Nationals faced the New York Yankees in the last exhibition game of spring training wanted to know about the opening day catcher or the status of Henry Rodriguez and the last man in the Nats bullpen, I found two comments he made to be much more interesting than the mundanity of player personnel minutiae. Those comments speak to Johnson’s philosophy as a veteran manager and a 50-year “baseball guy.”

In discussing the maturation of young hitters Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa, Johnson discussed both players’ transitioning into the players he thought they could be by being the hitters they are, instead of trying to change them into something they aren’t. By focusing on attacking and punishing fastballs (where in the past they were instructed to look for pitches they could take the other way), they’ve grown more confident with their abilities, and with that confidence they’ve become more selective, which in Desmond’s case saw an increase in on-base percentage last season — and Johnson envisions the ame thing for Espinosa this upcoming season.

While neither player profiles as a “patient” hitter, an overall more selective approach will benefit both, and lead to more runners occupying space on the bases for the next guy to drive them in. Davey’s quote here was the key: “The more runners we get on the more runs we’re going to score.”

As I’ve pointed out on numerous occasions in the last couple of years, sabermatricians have figured out the key to winning baseball games, but the process gets lost in the romanticization of the game.Winning baseball is all about getting runners on base. Annually, the teams that get the highest number of total base runners led the league in wins. It doesn’t matter really how you get runners on, or really how you get them in. There’s a direct correlation of base runners to wins.

Over the past two seasons, the Nats have stressed developing and obtaining players that have good plate disicpline and strong on-base skills. Sometimes that equates to drawing a base on balls. Sometimes, like in Desmond’s case, it means seeing an extra pitch in his first at bat in order to see it coming — and punishing it — in a subsequent at bat. Again, the more runners a team puts on base, the more runs they score — and more games they win as a result.

The other thing Davey said was in regards to the pressure of performing with expectations. He said that “pressure is self-imposed.” It’s a very zen-like thing for a baseball manager to say, but he’s absolutely correct. We all face pressure every day in our lives, whether it’s at work, at home, on the roads during your commute, whatever. In that regard we’re no different from Major League Baseball players. How humans deal with that pressure from outside forces is usually described as stress. That stress is what’s self inflicted, and everyone deals with that stress in different ways.

For baseball players, that extra level of stress can determine whether that player is destined for the Hall of Fame or doomed to ride the buses in the bush leagues and have to find another avenue to support themselves before they’re in their mid-20s. Some players thrive on it, some wilt. Some feel it and it will affect their performance — positively or negatively — and some are impervious to it.

These type of intangibles are the things that sportswriters love. They can’t really be disproven, so they’re free to wax poetic with creative license because how would one go about disproving a “feeling”. There isn’t a statistic that measures how a player copes with stress. It’s an internal thing. Only the player knows.

Johnson understands this aspect of the human side of managing people. He could just as well be talking about managing a grocery store or a law firm. By expressing his ultimate confidence in his employees, and not just through public words but by his actions as well, Johnson transfers his confidence to them. Again, it’s not measurable, and these types of things are what still, and probably forever will, drive a stake between sportswriters and sabermetricians.

But the players feel it. Stephen Strasburg, in his press conference before his opening day start, spoke directly about the confidence level the players feel from their manager.

“It’s great having a manager that has 100 percent faith in all of his players. If you go out there and have a bad game he still thinks you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread. It doesn’t really matter what you do that day, you know you’re going to be in the lineup the next day. You’re going to have an opportunity to succeed.”

Davey Johnson has the Washington Nationals in a position to succeed, perhaps in a position to challenge for the ultimate test of success baseball has to offer. In his final season as a big league manager, the Nats are molded in his image. The confidence they carry onto the field is a direct reflection of the confidence Johnson carries himself with and instills in his players.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press and is a copy editor for the Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, WA. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

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