Talking statistics with Davey Johnson, Part 2

This morning, we looked at Davey Johnson’s background as one of the early statistical innovators in the game, and how it’s shaped his career as a player and manager. When I caught up with Johnson, though, I also wanted to hear what he thought of the current trends in statistical analysis, and the sabermetrics movement that largely hit the mainstream in the 11 years since Johnson last managed in the big leagues.

Now that he’s back in the majors, Johnson has a vast array of information at his disposal - and new technology to get it - that wasn’t there for most of his career. The 68-year-old, who was working on mainframe computers in the 1960s as a math major at Trinity University, isn’t shy about using any of it, either; he had an iPhone set up on one of his first days at Nationals Park, and like most people, he texts, emails and pays bills online. The Web has been a godsend for his wife, Susan - “I made her start putting her checking accounts online. She could never balance the checking accounts, so she never had any money in there,” Davey Johnson said. Now, he laments he never talks to her when she’s fiddling around on her suite of Apple products.

Johnson’s career as a manager came at a time when technology was going through a revolution, and he said one of his regrets is that he hasn’t had time to keep up as a programmer. But he’s certainly not shy about the new baseball statistics that have come about as technology has grown; he said he’s talked with the Nationals’ sabermetrics department during his time as an adviser to general manager Mike Rizzo, and plans to utilize it while he’s the manager.

“I guess I came up when everybody was more traditional - little guys hit one or two, bunt them over - but I think in the last 10 years, it’s changed,” Johnson said. “(Billy Beane) is probably the first one that really put it to use at the general manager’s level. I really look up to him for that. I think he set the standard, maybe the methodology, for scouting, reviewing other players by a formal statistical analysis, rather than just grading out the arms. I think now - I haven’t made a study of it - but I think organizations now are paper-heavy. They’ve got computers everywhere. If you just look in our video room, you can see how many computers we’ve got in there, where guys can go look at matchups, look at what they threw. The game hasn’t changed; we’re just studying it better, which I think is great. That’s evolution. When you know what you’re up against, it should be a direct proportion of performance rising. I think any organization that doesn’t take advantage of the technology today is falling behind.”

When Johnson managed the U.S. Olympic team, he had to make quick decisions about players he’d never seen. So he pored over statistics with general manager Bob Watson and CEO Paul Seiler, to the point where he had a rough idea of who he wanted before tryouts started. He’s done the same thing while working in the front office, and as a manager, he’s able to go into organizational meetings with an idea of who he wants from the minor leagues after splicing the data available to him.

But he’s still not willing to go as far with some of the statistics as many in the sabermetrics community are; Johnson describes himself as a “geeky baseball man” more than a baseball geek, and that’s an important distinction; he’s worked as a scout, talked to players upset about their roles and seen statistically sound decisions backfire in real life. He said when he first became the Nationals manager, he told the team’s baseball operations department what information he wouldn’t need - “I said, ‘Well, you can get all this stuff out of here. That’s erroneous crap.’ I can name a hundred things, but (batting averages at) night, day, all that kind of stuff, maybe somebody likes to know about it, but not me.”

For Johnson, the key has always been to know what he’s looking for and how to interpret it; it’s never done him any good to look at numbers in a vacuum without seeing what they do in real life. The book that first got him interested in on-base percentage, Earnshaw Cook’s “Percentage Baseball” says that a .250 hitter has a better chance of getting on base by putting the bat on his shoulder in a 2-0 count than swinging at a pitch.

“All those things are great, but when you start giving guys the take sign, you start affecting them mentally,” Johnson said. “I’ve had to correlate my baseball instincts and my human instincts with different players. A lot of the stuff was very interesting, but not something you put into practical use.”

Ultimately, Johnson’s approach to statistics is to find the key numbers that have worked for him over the years - on-base percentage, pitcher-vs.-hitter matchups and tendencies being a few of them - and base his decisions on those. But he’s stopped short of overburdening his mind with data that might or might not help him in the eighth inning of a one-run game.

And don’t expect him to share all of his philosophies, either; for a man who enjoys diving into things that have one right answer, he knows there’s a premium to be placed on the way to find that answer. It just makes good sense for Johnson - who’s won a World Series, a Manager of the Year award and taken three different teams to the playoffs - not to give it all to the rest of the world.

“The way I do things and whatever, my methodology, I’m not out to try and teach somebody the way I think we should do it,” Johnson said, with a little of his old fire coming back. “I’m confident to like what I do, and I’m confident enough to know that I’m pretty good at it. I’m not one to go out and start broadcasting what I do to anybody. You see what I do. When I go to statistical analysis, what I filter, what I don’t, I’m not really interested in explaining it to the world, things that I’ve come to believe in over years of experience. ... You use a lot of information in there to make your assessment of talent and makeup. Do I want to explain the way I do everything? No. I don’t think it’s anybody’s business.”