Davey Johnson and Lessons Learned

(Bumped from FanPosts. -- James)


Over the past few weeks, the sports talk radio conversation here in Washington, DC has revolved around the Nationals and Operation Shutdown. The Nats and GM Mike Rizzo have announced that Stephen Strasburg, pitching in his first full season after Tommy John surgery, has an innings pitched maximum of 180. This means that Strasburg will almost certainly miss all of the postseason. Normally such incessant blather on a single topic would be excruciating, but believe me, any relief from discussion of Redskins minutiae is a Godsend. (By the way, did you know that Robert Griffin III's bust is already ready in Canton? His having a career worthy of induction is a mere formality.)

People seem to be fairly split on this topic. Most of the show hosts have defended the Nats' position, but some fans are understandably frustrated that after seven years of pathetic baseball, the team is finally poised to make a run into October only to have their ace* yanked away.

*:In point of reality, Jordan Zimmerman has been their true ace, but that doesn't seem to faze most of the individuals opposed to shutting Strasburg down.

This has also garnered discussion in the national sports media. Former Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone was one of the loudest critics of Nationals management, although perhaps he has a bit of selective memory.

Thankfully for us all, Rob Dibble took time away from his busy work formulating a response to Immanuel Kant's A Critique of Pure Reason to offer some sage words of advice on this matter. When we last saw Mr. Dibble he was busy telling Strasburg to "suck it up" after he was removed from a baseball game - the last one he pitched before having Tommy John surgery. Dibble is evidently not a fan of the decision to shut Strasburg down. He had some choice words for the pitcher's declaration that the decision is out of his hands.

"That’s all you need to know. It’s out of my hands. I don’t want it in my hands, even though I’m a professional pitcher trying to — from spring training to the end of the season — win championships....He’s in a totally different world. Remember the Stepford Wives? He’s a Stepford Pitcher."

Such brilliant analysis is why Dibble is paid for his very own sports talk show that nobody listens to.

What struck me, and what allowed me to put this post up on a Mets blog, is this comment about Nationals manager Dave Johnson.

"The manager of the Nationals has a world championship ring, called the ’86 Mets, when he was managing Doc Gooden, who was like 20 years old. I think he knows how to handle young pitchers. He’s not gonna burn them out. And then you have a general manager who’s never won a championship. And he’s telling everybody, he knows more than orthopedic surgeons, pitching coaches, everybody. He knows the answer to how you can keep a guy from getting hurt. It’s a wonderful concept. I hope it works.

I love the idea of the '86 Mets being a championship ring. One pictures the championship roster shrunken and petrified, forced to dwell for all eternity on Davey Johnson's championship ring like the villains in Superman II. Also, Dibble here claims that Rizzo is asserting that he knows more than the doctors when it's Dibble himself who is claiming to more know that the doctors who have actually worked with and on Strasburg. Has Rob Dibble ever spoken to any of Strasburg's doctors? I have a gut feeling that Mike Rizzo has probably spent just a bit more time in conversation with them than Dibble.

Getting back to Davey Johnson, as much as it pains me to disagree with the ever insightful and knowledgeable Dibble, he couldn't have picked a worse example to make his point.

Indeed Gooden was 21 when the Mets won the World Series in 1986, and it was his third full season in the majors. In 1984 Gooden made his debut at the tender age of 19, and he proceeded to log 218 innings in his rookie season, a year in which he struck out 276 batters and compiled a 137+ ERA and had a 5.2 WAR according to Baseball Reference. In 1985, Gooden had the greatest season of his career and one of the greatest single season performances in baseball history. Gooden won the pitching triple crown, winning 24 games with a 1.53 ERA and 268 strikeouts, compiling 11.9 WAR. In that season - which was his age 20 season - Gooden amassed 276.2 innings pitched. Perhaps we should be grateful that the Mets missed the post-season, sparing Gooden any further work. Furthermore, Gooden went the distance in sixteen of his 35 starts.

If Dwight Gooden was coming up today and Davey Johnson let him pitch just under three hundred innings at the age of 20, Johnson would not only be out of a job, he might be arrested for assault and battery. Yet, few blinked at the time at Gooden's workhaul.

Gooden was never remotely as dominant again. He had a great season by most standards in 1986: 17 wins, a 2.84 ERA, and 200 strikeouts in 250 innings of work. Yet he was clearly not exactly the same dominant pitcher, exemplified by the diminished strikeout totals. As someone who had The 1986 Mets: A Year to Remember on constant loop, I know that Mel Stottlemyre's explanation was that Gooden was trying to "downplay the strikeouts." If this was actually a plan, then it was incredibly stupid. Why would you make a pitcher strikeout fewer batters, particularly when that pitcher is coming off the greatest season in franchise history? But it's more likely that this was a smokescreen used to ignore a troubling sign of diminished performance.

Doctor K remained a good pitcher, compiling good win totals with in an ERA that hovered in the low 3's through most of the remainder of his time on the Mets. Advanced stats reveal that Gooden was far more mediocre than fans appreciated at the time. His ERA+ fluctuated through the rest of his Mets tenure, but it was usually just above or below league average. His WARs between 1987 and 1993 were: 3.5, 3.1, 1.4 (in half a season of work), 2.2, 3.0, 2.1, and 3.3, before he finally fell off the cliff in 1994, his final year in a Mets uniform. Other than in 1990 when it rebounded to 8.6. Gooden's K/9 never topped 7.7 again, this after rates of 11.4 and 8.7 in his first two seasons. Finally, his innings pitched totals never matched his ridiculous 1985 total. He logged 250 innings in 1986 and 248 in 1988 (not including post-season, when he had 26 and 18 IP respectively). Otherwise, his IP totals were in the low-200s, high 100s range.

Gooden did have a slight career renaissance after leaving the Mets. He pitched his lone career no-hitter in 1996 for some imposter team with NY on their hats. He had one last decent year pitching for the Indians in 1998, where he went 8-6 with a 3.76 ERA., a 127 ERA+, and 2.5 WAR in 135 IP. Unfortunately, that was his swan song, and he was done after 2000, his age 35 season.

Mets fans are well aware of the off-the-field issues that plagued Dwight Gooden throughout his career, and which he sadly still battles to this very day. That certainly had a part to play in his diminished production. But how much did throwing nearly 500 major league innings before his 21st birthday impact Gooden's career? Had Davey Johnson and the Mets been more cautious in bringing Gooden along, could he have maintained a Hall of Fame career, despite his alcohol and drug abuse? I doubt there's way to know for certain, but I don't think I'd be using him as an example of how Davey Johnson masterfully handled a young stud pitching prospect, because Dwight Gooden ceased being dominant as a pitcher at an age that is younger than Strasburg currently is, and he was essentially washed up by the time a pitcher should be entering his prime.

For what it's worth, Scott Boras, Strasburg's agent, has appeared on a couple of talk shows the past couple of days and addressed this situation. Obviously Boras has an interest in protecting one of his prize clients, but not only does he support Nationals management, it's clear he has done some research on this issue. Pitchers who throw a lot before they turn 24 tend not to throw too much after they turn 30.

I sympathize with the Nats fans who are frustrated. Even though the Nats appear to have a team that is poised to compete for years, you just never know what will happen. I probably speak for a lot of Mets fans who didn't anticipate that Adam Wainwright's curveball to Carlos Beltran would be the last postseason pitch involving the Mets for at least six years. But here we are. That said, I cannot fault Rizzo for taking the cautious approach, and the one that is probably the correct one. At the very least, he has a lot more information available to make the call than do the likes of Rob Dibble.

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