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Mets Hall of Fame case: Davey Johnson

Johnson was one of baseball's most winning and innovative managers, but his mixed postseason success and relatively low career win total could impede his quest for Cooperstown.

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In the 12th installment of our Hall of Fame series, we profile the career of Davey Johnson. Click on the links below to read any of the first 11 parts of the series.

Mike Piazza

Keith Hernandez

John Olerud

Carlos Delgado

Jeff Kent

Robin Ventura

Carlos Beltran

David Cone

John Franco

Billy Wagner

Gil Hodges

Johnson managed in the Mets’ minor league system for three years before the organization made him the big league skipper. Johnson managed the team from 1984 to 1990, and became the winningest manager in franchise history. During that time, Johnson led the Mets to the World Series title in 1986 and to Game 7 of the NLCS in 1988. His 1,012 games managed and 595 managerial wins are the most of any Mets manager, and his .588 winning percentage (595-417 record) and 1.7 average team rank are the highest. The Mets recognized Johnson’s contributions to the organization by inducting him into the team Hall of Fame in 2010.

The case for

Johnson was a winning manager with all five of the teams he managed: the Mets, Reds, Orioles, Dodgers, and Nationals. He made the postseason six times with four different organizations, and it could have been seven had the players' strike not ended the 1994 season, when his Reds were in first place in their division.

Simply put, Johnson is one of the most successful managers in major league history. Among managers with at least 1,000 games managed, Johnson ranks 13th with a .562 winning percentage (1,372-1,071 record). His winning percentage is better than those of 16 of the 22 managers in the Hall of Fame, including Bobby Cox, Sparky Anderson, Joe Torre, Tony La Russa, and Tommy Lasorda. Johnson’s 1.9 average team rank is the second-highest of all time among managers who fit that criteria, with only Charlie Manuel’s teams ahead of his. The baseball writers rewarded Johnson for his winning ways with Manager of the Year Awards in 1997 with the Orioles and in 2012 with the Nationals, making him one of just seven managers in baseball history to win the award in both leagues.

In terms of raw win totals, Johnson’s 1,372 regular season wins rank 29th all time, and are more than those of four Hall of Fame managers: Ned Hanlon, Frank Selee, Whitey Herzog, and Billy Southworth. Johnson is 16th all time with 25 postseason wins and, in that category, is ahead of 12 Hall of Fame managers, including Connie Mack, Walter Alston, Dick Williams, and Leo Durocher.

Just as impressive as Johnson’s general body of work is what he did with each of the teams he managed. Beginning with his time in New York and continuing through his time in Washington, Johnson developed a reputation as a turnaround artist. The Mets averaged just 66 wins a year (not counting the strike-shortened 1981 season) in the six years before Johnson took the helm. During his six full seasons as Mets manager, the team averaged 96 wins per season, a remarkable 30-win improvement. Johnson led the Mets to their most successful run in franchise history, and two of their three 100-win seasons. Among those was the storied 1986 season, when the team finished 108-54, clinched the organization’s first playoff berth in 13 years, and won the World Series.

After leaving the Mets, Johnson took over a struggling Reds team in the middle of the 1993 season. The team finished that year 73-89, with a subpar .451 winning percentage. By the next season, the Reds were a first-place team with a 66-48 record and a .579 winning percentage before the players’ strike ended their run. The team was even better in 1995, when it won its division with an excellent 85-59 record (.590 winning percentage), made the playoffs for the first time in five years, and advanced to the NLCS.

It was a similar story in Baltimore. In 1995, the year before they hired Johnson as manager, the Orioles finished third in the AL East with a 71-73 record. Johnson led the O’s to an 88-74 record in 1996, good for a Wild Card berth and the organization’s first playoff appearance in 13 years. In 1997, the Orioles improved to 98-64, winning their division and advancing to their second consecutive ALCS.

After a two-year stint in Los Angeles in which Johnson missed the playoffs and suffered his only full managerial season below .500, the skipper took a 10-year hiatus from managing in the big leagues. In the middle of the 2011 season, Johnson moved from the Nationals’ front office to the dugout and steered the team to a solid 80-81 finish. In typical Johnson-esque fashion, he followed that up by leading Washington to a 98-64 first-place finish in 2012, and then an 86-76 second-place finish in 2013. Johnson retired from managing after the 2013 season and returned to his role as the Nationals’ senior adviser to the general manager.

It’s difficult to quantify just what makes a "Hall of Fame manager," and managers don’t have a JAWS equivalent for evaluating their candidacies. However, Bill James attempted to create such a system in 2013, and he based it on five main criteria: games won, percentage of games won, league championships won, world series titles, and number of teams that exceeded reasonable expectations. According to James’s system, in which a likely Hall of Famer receives a score of 100, Johnson registers above the line with a score of 108.

In addition to—and, indeed, contributing to—his managerial success is the fact that Johnson was an innovator. Just after he took over as Mets manager in 1984, PC Magazine published an article describing how Johnson became one of the game’s earliest proponents of sabermetrics. Johnson got a mathematics degree from Johns Hopkins and, in the early 1970s, started applying his skills to the game of baseball while playing for the Orioles. As the article reports, Johnson used an old IBM 360 mainframe to develop a model that projected likely outcomes in game situations. Although O’s manager Earl Weaver usually dismissed Johnson’s findings when presented with them, Johnson continued honing his computer models and relied heavily on them as both a minor league and major league skipper.

Johnson’s biggest takeaway from his computer modeling was the importance of on-base percentage. Consider this passage from the PC Magazine piece, which, remember, was written back in 1984:

"What Johnson discovered was the importance of one statistic in particular—on-base percentage. It is the figure for the number of times a player reaches base for each time at bat, and it is the crux of Johnson’s new-age managerial style. From a mathematical standpoint, he believes, the number is best applied to configuring the optimal batting lineup.

"'It makes sense that if you bat the players in the order of the highest on-base percentage, and all the way down, obviously you’d get more guys to come up to the plate. The more guys you can get up to the plate, the better chance you have to score runs,’ Johnson explains."

Johnson’s revelation is particularly startling when you consider that he experienced it more than 40 years ago as a twenty-something-year-old baseball player. While his analysis is considered conventional wisdom today, it certainly wasn’t back then. In fact, as Mets manager, Johnson turned heads when he "used the on-base average as a basis for replacing [Mookie] Wilson in the leadoff spot in the batting order with [Wally] Backman, a change from 1983 that produced demonstrably profitable results."

One final subject worth mentioning is Johnson’s playing career. Before becoming a manager, Johnson spent parts of 15 seasons a major league second baseman, primarily with the Orioles dynasty of the late-sixties and early-seventies. During that time, Johnson won two World Series rings and two additional American League pennants with the O’s. He finished his career with a .261/.340/.404 batting line (112 wRC+)— quite good for a second baseman—along with 136 home runs, 609 RBIs, 1,252 hits, 564 runs scored, and 28.9 fWAR. While he was a very productive player for the Orioles, Johnson’s career year actually came as a member of the Braves in 1973, when he hit an outstanding .270/.370/.546 (147 wRC+), with a career-high 43 homers, 99 RBIs, 84 runs scored, and 5.3 fWAR.

Hall of Fame voters are supposed to consider each candidate as either a player or a manager, so, technically, Johnson’s playing career should not factor into his managerial candidacy. Still, his success on the field is a nice bonus to a long career as one of the most winning and innovative skippers in baseball history.

The case against

Johnson’s greatest weakness is his relative lack of games managed, primarily the result of his 10-year break from 2001 to 2010. Compared to the 22 managers in the Hall of Fame, Johnson has more career wins than just four of them.

It also hurts that Johnson was a sub-.500 manager in the postseason. In fact, Johnson’s .490 postseason winning percentage (based on his 25-26 playoff record) is lower than those of fourteen Hall of Fame managers. Furthermore, it’s true that his 25 playoff wins are more than those of 12 Hall of Fame managers; however, most of those 12 managed prior to 1969, when the World Series was the only playoff round that existed. None of those 12 managers managed after 1994, as Johnson did, when the Division Series was introduced. Therefore, the only reason Johnson’s playoff win total would be in the middle of the pack of Hall of Fame managers' is because Johnson had far more opportunities to win postseason games. As a result of his teams’ mixed success in the postseason, Johnson would be the only manager in the Hall of Fame not to have reached the World Series more than once.

Finally, most Hall of Fame managers are identified with one or two teams that they managed for a long period of time. Joe Torre, for example, is identified with the Yankees, Bobby Cox with the Braves, and Tony La Russa with the Athletics and Cardinals. Johnson, on the other hand, doesn’t have that same identity with any one organization. His six-plus-year run with the Mets was the longest in franchise history, but not close to the tenures that any of those other managers had with their respective teams. And, while Johnson enjoyed success everywhere he went, his longest tenure outside of New York was just three years, mostly due to various conflicts with his front offices.

The lack of identity with one organization is surely more of a problem of perception than performance for Johnson. Still, it’s a very real issue, and one of three important factors that can hinder Johnson’s quest for Cooperstown.

Prospects for induction

Johnson was first eligible for the Hall of Fame as a player in 1984. That year, he received just 0.7% of the vote and was knocked off the ballot for failing to reach the requisite 5.0%.

However, Johnson will be eligible for consideration as a manager by the Expansion Era Committee in 2017, and in every third year after that. Given his long track record of success with multiple organizations, his world championship with the Mets, his six postseason appearances, and his two Manager of the Year Awards, Johnson will give the Committee a lot to think about as they evaluate his outstanding managerial career.