Why Davey Johnson Is So Unhappy
One thing about Bryce Harper’s steal of home a few days ago, it brought a smile to the face of his manager Davey Johnson. Johnson has otherwise found too little to smile about during the first month of the 2012 season, despite the overall good performance of his team. Davey was a hitter. That is the side of the game he watches more than anything and watching his Nationals at the plate has been nothing to smile about.
Under Johnson in the last half of 2011, the Nationals team batting average jumped by almost 25 points from what they hit under Riggleman. Davey was happy. The pitching?? That was for someone else to worry about. Individual players like Ian Desmond thrived under Davey Johnson and it seemed as if Davey was always welcoming his players back to the dugout with a hearty clap on the back and a big smile.
The smile is largely gone. It’s not the injuries to key players like Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Morse and Jayson Werth; it is the prodigious strikeouts and total clueless approach of too many of his players at the plate. Danny Espinosa is on pace to strike out 200 times if he is given the chance. The team batting average is .236. They are scoring only 3.4 runs per game and that was before Jayson Werth’s lusty .276 average was taken out of the batting order.
So where does Davey turn for help?
I would suggest two sources: Ted Williams and Yogi Berra. Williams was the manager of the 1969 Washington Senators who made a group of banjo hitters into a respectable force in the American League. He had a single message, “Get a good pitch to hit.” It is actually a rather difficult concept when a tiny sphere is coming at you at 95 mph and your brain has only milliseconds to decide whether to swing or not.
But Williams succeeded with hitters as diverse as Frank Howard and Eddie Brinkman. Howard took Ted’s message to heart and doubled the number of walks he drew, and almost hit .300 for the first time in his career. Eddie Brinkman, for whom success at the plate was hitting above the Mendoza Line, hit .268. Mike Epstein harnessed his huge potential and became a major league power hitter for the first time. They did it by not swinging at pitches that were outside the strike zone.
Watching the pitch selection of the 2012 Washington Nationals is a study in frustration. They swing at breaking stuff under their hands that they could not hit in fair territory with a tennis racket. And they flail with equal lack of success at the high fast ball away. But when the breaking ball is over the plate, they watch in stunned silence as if it were computer porn.
And the league has eyes. Danny Espinosa is pitched exactly the same way by everyone and he obliges the pitching fraternity with the politeness Eddie Haskell once used to woo June Cleaver.
Yogi Berra had the exact opposite approach at the plate. He swung at everything, but he could hit anything. He attributed his success to “keeping it simple.” Yogi told Nick Swisher during his worst year with the Yankees to “move up against a breaking ball pitcher, step into it from your back side” –from Driving Mr. Yogi. Swisher was amazed when he used those two small suggestions to turn around his career as a Yankee.
So who is in charge of these guys and their approach? Williams and Berra are not available and the task in Washington has fallen to Rick Eckstein. I am not qualified to judge Eckstein and his coaching techniques. But I will let Yogi do it. Berra’s belief with Swisher and others was that breaking down the swing and adjusting the mechanics of the swing was overly analytic. “Keep it simple,” said Yogi.
Watching Davey Johnson’s young players, one can only conclude that their coaching is in how to swing, not what to swing at. Jayson Werth is–or for the next few months, was–one of the most selective batters in the National League. He was notorious for letting first pitch strikes go by and working the count. He was a marked contrast with Michael Morse who was the most aggressive hitter in the Washington lineup and the most successful.
But Morse swung at strikes early in the count, rather than swinging at the first pitch he saw. One thing that I took away from Harvey Araton’s book about Yogi and Ron Guidry was the wealth of talent that is just hanging around the Yankee dugout and clubhouse. Excellence is a way of life and young players are exposed to the great names of the game. Whether through coaching insights as Yogi provided for Swisher, or just inspiring by their presence, the result is the same.
Rick Eckstein may be an excellent batting instructor, but Davey Johnson needs something more. The Pantheon of Washington baseball history is not filled with the likes of Berra and Guidry, but Frank Howard lives in the Virginia suburbs.
Frank might tell today’s Washington baseball heroes a very simple thing, something he once heard from the best hitter to every play the game. “Get a good pitch to hit, kid,” Ted would say if he could. And if Danny Espinosa and company would take to heart that very, simple concept–almost Yogi-like in its simplicity, then Davey Johnson would be smiling again.
And that would be a good thing, cause no one likes an unhappy Davey Johnson.