Johnson deserves award for Nats' rise to contention
Only one National League manager ran a team that was able to accomplish what amounted to a transformation.
That manager was Davey Johnson of the Washington Nationals. On Tuesday, justice was served when the Baseball Writers' Association of America named him the 2012 NL Manger of the Year.
This is to take nothing away from Johnson's primary competitors for this award. The competition was every bit as tough as it should have been. But Johnson's team had the greatest distance to travel to get to the top.
Johnson's club finished with the Major Leagues' best record at 98-64, an 18-game improvement from the previous season. That alone could have put him in the running for this award. But this was an unproven team, emerging from a long stretch of being nowhere near contention. No other NL manager had to climb a mountain of this height.
2012 NL MANAGER OF THE YEAR VOTING
Voting results for NL Manager of the Year, conducted by the Baseball Writers' Association of America
The other two finalists were also accomplished managers. Bruce Bochy of the Giants is a perennial candidate for this award, and did a splendid job again, even before the postseason. Dusty Baker was successful again with the Reds, despite having his season interrupted by an episode in which he was hospitalized with an irregular heartbeat and then a mini-stroke.
Beyond this group, Fredi Gonzalez got his Braves team to turn the page from a late fade in 2011, and he did so while managing around injuries to his rotation. Atlanta qualified for the postseason as a Wild Card team. Mike Matheny managed the Cardinals to the other NL Wild Card berth, despite the loss to free agency of one of the game's biggest stars, Albert Pujols, and despite a numbing series of injuries that devastated the Cards' lineup in the first half of 2012.
So the competition was keen for this award, perhaps even more so than usual. But Johnson had to do more than any of these other candidates.
Johnson was managing a club that had not had a winning season since arriving in our nation's capital in 2005 and had bottomed out as recently as 2008-09, losing 205 games over those two seasons.
Johnson took over in mid-2011 and managed the Nationals back to respectability (80-81). But it's a long way from respectability to an NL East title and the best record in baseball. That's the distance that the Nats traveled in one short season under Johnson's leadership.
Johnson's job was made considerably more difficult by an early-season glut of injuries that temporarily wiped out much of the run production in the Nationals' everyday lineup. Later, he had to handle the considerable distraction of the decision to shut down Washington's ace, Stephen Strasburg, in September, in the midst of the pennant race.
But Johnson handled all of this with his typical aplomb. He is a singular fellow, who combines a down-home personal style with a keen intelligence. Much is made of the fact that Johnson is the oldest manager in the big leagues. He will turn 70 in January. But Johnson has not lost a step. He has simply gained experience. He is both an astute tactician and a top-shelf handler of playing personnel.
The success Johnson had with the 2012 Nationals is nothing new for him. In 16 seasons as a big league manager, he has finished first or second 13 times. Johnson has won six division titles, one pennant and one World Series, with the 1986 New York Mets.
Johnson won the American League Manager of the Year Award in 1997, when he led the Baltimore Orioles to a 98-64 record and an AL East title. With the Nationals reaching the postseason in 2012, Johnson joined Billy Martin as the only managers to take four different teams to the postseason. Johnson also became just the fifth man to win the Manager of the Year Award in both leagues.
Johnson's managerial record (1,286-995) gives him a winning percentage of .564 and places him second in that category to Earl Weaver (.583) among living managers who have 10 or more years of big league experience.
There were doubts voiced when Johnson returned to managing after being out of that role for 11 years. How could he relate to the contemporary player? Extremely well, as it turned out.
Johnson may be nearing 70, but there is nothing about his managerial ability that time has diminished. With a young club, he exhibited patience and instilled confidence in his players, and they responded to his leadership with baseball's best regular season.
Johnson is under contract to manage the Nats in 2013. He then plans to retire as manager to become a team consultant. But there is no need to give Johnson a lifetime achievement award just yet. He richly deserves the 2012 NL Manager of the Year Award, for bringing the Nationals from sub.-500 to the top in one regular season.