Sunday, October 14, 2012

Grading Davey Johnson

With their startling and rather pathetic demise in the baseball playoffs, the Washington Nationals are finding little sympathy in cyberspace.

People are still grousing about the Strasburg Decision, of course, but we’ll let that one lie for now. (Yes, Stephen Strasburg’s presence in the NLDS could’ve made a difference. The Nationals were a better team with him, and management blew its handling of his season. The fact they were still in it and were leading Game 5 vs. the reigning world champion Cardinals is testament to how good the team was without him, and at that they still might’ve won that series.)

But now I’m seeing folks criticize manager Davey Johnson in untoward ways, and I have to protest.

I followed the Nats religiously. For a team that was supposed to improve but probably not make the postseason, Johnson’s management was often nothing short of masterful. Dealing with young arms and young minds, and then with a series of injuries, Johnson made all the right moves to keep the team on track.

After moving into first place for good on May 22, the Nats stayed steady, this despite the fact that Jayson Werth was sidelined half the year with a broken wrist, Michael Morse missed 60 games with various injuries, Ryan Zimmerman’s chronic shoulder problem was acting up early, catcher Wilson Ramos was lost for the year to knee surgery after playing only 25 games, and shortstop Ian Desmond’s oblique problem cost him 30 games. 

In Zimmerman’s absence, Johnson got decent production out of veteran Chad Tracy. When Ramos went down, Johnson utilized AAA fill-ins who did just that—filled in—until finally in early August the Nats procured veteran Kurt Suzuki from the A’s. Great move.

When Desmond was MIA, Johnson entrusted shortstop to second baseman Danny Espinosa, who played  at a level where the infield really didn’t miss a beat defensively. That’s because young Steve Lombardozzi took over second base, and if he was not Espinosa’s defensive equal, then he was certainly good enough, and he hit .273 on the season.

(Espinosa, BTW, hit .247 and struck out a whopping 189 times, and if there was one regret about Johnson’s managing, it might have been allowing Lombardozzi to languish on the bench over the latter portion of the season. The 23-year-old, son of former major leaguer Steve Lombardozzi I, gets the bat on the ball, runs well, plays good D and flat-out should have had more playing time down the stretch.)

Johnson’s biggest challenge, though, was probably the outfield, with Morse and Werth laid up for significant chunks of the season. Some would call it fortuitous, then, since that evinced the call-up of rookie Bryce Harper, whose feats at the age of 19 are now the stuff of semi-legend.

Still, Johnson couldn’t have predicted Harper’s emergence, and the youngster definitely had consistency issues. Johnson moved him between center and right field defensively, utilized the versatile outfield skills of Roger Bernadina, and got Lombardozzi outfield playing time as well, in a deft bit of talent juggling that assured a minimized drop-off in results until Morse and Werth returned. (Rookie Tyler Moore also was brought up from AAA to play some outfield, and he batted .263 with 10 homers, offering the promise for bigger numbers in 2013.)

Meanwhile, Johnson got lucky with the pitching. Besides the Strasburg Decision, there were no major issues with the starting staff. Arms were young and healthy and stayed that way. The relievers were also in good shape, with the exception of 2011’s excellent closer Drew Storen, who underwent elbow surgery early in the 2012 season. After the failed experiment with Wildman Henry Rodriguez, setup man and 2011 All-Star Tyler Clippard had to morph into the closer, a role that he took on quite nicely, ringing up 32 saves. Storen returned later in August and resumed his major role with success—excluding the mixed results apparent in the NLDS.

Now, there were signs of general mediocrity or burnout or whatever you want to call it in the last quarter of the season. The Nats were 22-18 over the last 40 games. That’s okay, but it’s not exactly setting the league on fire. They were beating up on nonentities like the Mets and Cubs but still struggling with better teams like the Braves, who continued to nip at their heels in pursuit of the NL East title.

Still, Johnson got the team to the finish line, even without Strasburg. They had a division crown, the best record in the game, and home-field advantage in the playoffs. He had worked miracles around injuries, steadied the play of young newcomers and handled the pitching staff reasonably well. 

Considering the meltdown in the NLDS finale, it’s hard to see what Johnson might have done differently. His hitters finally hit, and his Cy Young candidate Gio Gonzalez gave him five useful if disappointing innings, and the team was ahead 6-3 after six.

Now, bringing in starter Edwin Jackson for relief in the 7th inning is still a bit of a head-scratcher. Guess Davey wasn’t trusting middle-relief man Ryan Mattheus, who’d been scuffed up a bit in Game 3. But Jackson is a maddeningly inconsistent pitcher, and his appearance in that situation looks like a reach. Mattheus was rested enough and more used to the relief regimen. Jackson gave up a run and made things scary in his one inning, so this move looks weak.

Clippard and Storen were then in their appropriate roles in the final innings, so there’s little to criticize there. Davey certainly couldn't do the pitching FOR them. 

Let’s face it, there’s only so much a baseball manager can do. On balance, Johnson pushed a lot of smart buttons in 2012 and his knack for adjusting when injuries threw him curves was impressive. The team just got hornswoggled by those darn ol’ Cardinals, whose ability to avoid elimination in recent years has become legend.

Time for a break. And 2013 is not far away. Let’s hope Davey is around for the next installment.  

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