Hall of Fame case for Davey Johnson

Craig Calcaterra
NBC Sports

On Monday, December 9, the Today’s Game committee of the Baseball Hall of Fame, which covers the years 1988-2018 — will vote on candidates for the 2019 induction class. Between now and then we will take a look at the ten candidates, one-by-one, to assess their Hall worthiness.

And yes, we did this two years ago, the last time the Today’s Game ballot was up for a vote, with most of the same candidates appearing. As such, a lot of this will be repeat material, some of it verbatim. Our view of this, however, is that if the Hall of Fame can keep recycling the same ballot, we can recycle our analysis of it to the extent it hasn’t changed. 

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Next up: Davey Johnson

The case for his induction:

As we note each year when the Manager of the Year Awards are announced, it’s hard to properly assess managers. A team’s performance is so heavily dependent on talent and health that it’s often difficult to determine what role a manager truly plays in its success. Bruce Bochy won three World Series titles in five seasons but the Giants disappointed in the second half of 2016. Did he suddenly forget how to manage? Of course not. Stuff happens.

Over time, however, it’s a bit easier. No, you can’t simply go on the number of titles a guy won, but patterns certainly emerge and a manager’s influence begins to reveal itself over decades. And there is a definite pattern for Davey Johnson: he, quite simply, won everywhere he went. Teams which hired hims saw marked improvement soon after he came on board and, for some reason, declined right after he left. Funny that.

Johnson managed for 17 seasons and won 1,372 games, posting a .562 winning percentage. He was twice named Manager of the Year. He won the 1986 World Series with the Mets, led his clubs to first place finishes in his division six times and second place finishes eight times, making the playoffs in six seasons overall. He would’ve likely won another division title and made another playoff appearance but for the strike-shortened 1994 season.

Johnson was on the scene as the Mets ascended to greatness and they descended into trash not long after he left. He did his best under a combustible owner in Cincinnati, managed to maintain the success Lou Piniella had there and the team got worse after he left. The Orioles were a sub-.500 team before he arrived, he took them to the playoffs twice, he left and they spent more than a decade in the wilderness. The Nationals made the playoffs for the first time after he took over. Only the Dodgers did not see dramatic improvement under Johnson, but nor did they really decline.

Johnson was also an innovator when it came to analytics. He was a big proponent of lineup optimization, using computers and math to do so way before his peers did. When it comes to platooning and putting players in niche roles which allowed them to maximize their talents, Johnson had few if any peers among his contemporaries. It was him and La Russa, really, with everyone else far behind.

Added bonus: Johnson was a pretty darn good player, too. He was a four-time All-Star, won three Gold Glove Awards and hit 43 homers back in 1973. You tend to hear less about Johnson’s playing career than the playing career of other managers who played at a high level, such as Lou Piniella or Joe Torre, but he was an excellent second baseman with a career OPS+ of 110 over 13 seasons.

The case against his induction:

His aggregate win total is pretty low compared to modern managers who have been inducted by the Veterans Committee, primarily due to his not managing anywhere from 2001 through 2010. If he had padded that resume with even sub-.500 clubs he’d have win totals which exceeded Casey Stengel, Walter Alston and Leo Durocher. As it is, he’s 31st all-time in wins, just above Chuck Tanner. There are several Hall of Fame managers below him on that list, but a great deal of them were voted in by past versions of the Veterans Committee, which were more about cronyism than merit. It’s a much harder path to Cooperstown these days.

Even if his winning percentage is higher than the majority of managers ahead of him, those totals have harmed his case and make him pale compared to contemporaries like La Russa, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre. That’s an unfair standard — those three are among the all-time greats — but that’s who voters will likely compare him to. If he had two or three World Series titles he may have been able to overcome the win totals, but he doesn’t.

A second factor that also has a lot to do with optics as opposed to merit is that Johnson was seen as having great timing, having been hired by the Mets just as Frank Cashen assembled a killer roster of young talent and later being hired by teams which were already poised to win. One recent Hall of Fame manager below him in the all-time win list, for example, is Whitey Herzog. Herzog is given far more credit for building winners in Kansas City and St. Louis than Johnson is wherever he managed. That should not be held against Johnson — he could only manage the teams he was given — but some people have knocked him in the past for swooping into good situations as opposed to being on the ground floor of winning organizations. It’s dumb, but it’s a thing I’ve heard people say.

One other factor that may or may not play into this: Johnson had a difficult time getting along with the front offices who employed him, leading to short tenures in Cincinnati, Baltimore and Los Angeles. Personally I think not getting along with Marge Schott and Peter Angelos is a sign of good character, but it’s hard to avoid the fact that Johnson was a prickly character himself. Should that affect his Hall of Fame case? No. Will it? Maybe. Depends who is on the committee voting for him.

Would I vote for him?

I would. The only other manager that comes to mind who had the immediate impact Johnson had everywhere he went was Billy Martin. The guy just won and won in many different places under a lot of different circumstances. I wish we could point to some metric that definitively told us who was a good manager and who wasn’t, but in the absence of that I can’t help but look at Davey Johnson and say “Man, that guy was a good manager! One of the best of his era!  I feel he’s worthy of induction!”

Will the Committee vote for him?

I’m pessimistic. Johnson’s win totals, extended absence in the 2000s and subsequent lack of disciples and proteges in the world of baseball make him feel like more of an outsider than a lot of other retired managers who carry on in the game in a clubby kind of way, even after they’re done managing. His greatest exploits seem like they happened a long, long time ago compared the Hall of Fame managers who have been inducted recently and I feel like he has become under-appreciated as a result. I’ll be pleasantly surprised if he gets in, but suspect he will not.

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