That's largely because, as teams have added sabermetrics departments and hired former investment bankers to be their general managers, Johnson has been off doing other things, whether it's serving as a bench coach for the Dutch Olympic team, managing U.S. teams in the Olympics or World Baseball Classic or turning up in a collegiate wood-bat summer league near his home in the Orlando area.
But Johnson's role in rethinking statistics is no less crucial. Long before Baseball Prospectus or SABR were around, he was putting key-punch cards into enormous IBM 360 mainframe computers, using now-archaic programming languages like Fortran and COBOL to calculate the optimal batting order based on on-base percentage. You know Billy Beane, the Oakland Athletics GM who's the protagonist of the book "Moneyball" and will be played in an upcoming movie by Brad Pitt? Johnson managed him as a player. (No word on whether he'll be portrayed in the film.)
As Johnson returns to managing in the majors after an 11-year hiatus, I wanted to see how one of the game's early sabermetric thinkers fit into the mix now, where statistics are available in such abundance that they can almost have a numbing effect. I'll have a piece later today about where statistics fit into his managerial philosophy, but I wanted to look first at where he got his interest in numbers and how it shaped his time as a player and his early years as a manager:
Johnson attended Texas A&M for a year before getting drafted by the Orioles in 1962, and studied at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and Trinity University in Texas to complete his degree in mathematics. It was during his time in Baltimore that he ran across a book called "Percentage Baseball" by Baltimore mathematician Earnshaw Cook. While Johnson didn't agree with all of it, certain concepts - particularly on-base percentage - resonated with him.
"He was talking about a .250 hitter, if he's got two balls on him, he's going to get on base better if he takes (pitches)," Johnson said. "He was talking about on-base percentage before Elias (Sports Bureau) was even computing it. It made logical sense to me that the more guys you could get to the plate, a direct function of that would be, you could score more runs. I entertained the philosophy of hitting your highest on-base percentage guy first and going progressively down the ladder."
Johnson started getting printouts of the previous year's statistics from the Orioles, and writing programs to show that even though each player's statistics would be the same, the Orioles would have more at-bats, and score more runs, if they structured their lineup on on-base percentage. He presented his findings to Baltimore manager Earl Weaver - who famously threw them in the trash. But Weaver's 1970 Orioles team, which won the World Series with Johnson playing second base, led the American League with a .344 on-base percentage.
And when he got his first job as a major league manager in 1984 with the Mets, Johnson could put his ideas into practice.
He started keeping books on opposing manager's tendencies - when they liked to hit and run, when they liked to bunt - and did the same thing for pitchers to find patterns and trends. He continued to tinker with lineups using on-base percentage. Some of those ideas rubbed off on Beane, who played for Johnson as a weak-hitting outfielder in 1984 and 1985.
"He knew I was into numbers. He's a real smart guy, and I think he liked what he was hearing or seeing was going on," Johnson said.
But as he managed, Johnson quickly saw there was more to it than just the math.
The flaw with statistics is that they treat each player, and each situation, as equally-weighted points of data. That might be true in theory, but in real life, where dropping a player in the lineup might play on his psyche and have an effect on his performance, Johnson had to account for other things.
That's where he learned the value of constructing relatively rigid lineups, so players could come to the ballpark each day knowing where they would be used. He learned what made players tick, which ones would perform better when prodded (often through one of Johnson's favorite tactics - using reporters to send subtle messages to them) and which ones needed to be treated more gently.
Optimizing a lineup was one thing, but optimizing a player's confidence? That was a different beast.
"I always look at slotting and where I think the guy best fits. Once the player realizes the better they are at their job, the more their job is expanded. That's a language every ballplayer understands. Conversations, and verbal communication with players is huge," Johnson said. "The loudest language in the world is how you use me. You tell me I'm the No. 1 beat reporter, but you won't let me go out and cover any stories, well, I've got to do it all on the television or something? It means more with how you relate to the use you have. It's really not rocket science. It's human nature."
In addition to thinking about statistics differently, Johnson set out to form relationships with players differently than his predecessors, with less hard-and-fast rules and more open conversation.
"The era changed maybe my first year in the big leagues - it was starting to change where managers weren't so godly or dictatorial. They became more, not necessarily player's managers, but related better to players," Johnson said. "You try to develop mutual trust and respect for each other. That's probably also a good trait for business - you have that respect for your editor, or whatever, and trust. And it goes both ways - not just you to him. It's constantly nurtured and worked on."
It's why, in certain situations, Johnson will play against percentages. If a hitter is on a hot streak, Johnson will go against the data and leave him in the lineup - like he and his teammates would plead with Weaver to do when Don Baylor was on a tear. He'll pinch hit for players in unusual spots, like he's done with Ivan Rodriguez several times in his first month as Nationals manager, putting himself at risk of not having a backup catcher.
"In my job, I try to look at everything where, I always want the best decision for that moment," Johnson said. "I try to be right all the time. I will gamble. I gamble with talent. I'll go against percentages sometimes. But that's more of an instinctual thing. All different kinds of emotion goes into it - riding hot hands. I believe in streak hitters; some guys, when they're hot, they can hit anybody. I don't care what the numbers show."
I'll have more on Johnson's thoughts about the current trends in statistics later today.