Thursday, September 15, 2016

The story of Davey Johnson, home run hitting second baseman

There is a generation or more of baseball fans who know Davey Johnson as a manager of accomplishment. He managed the '86 Mets to a World Series title, guided four other teams to the postseason, was named manager of the year twice and racked up a .562 winning percentage in 17 seasons.

But if you're old like me, you remember him also as Dave Johnson, player of accomplishment. Four times an All-Star, three times a Gold Glove winner, the everyday second baseman on two World Series champs and on two more pennant winners -- and one of the few keystoners to hit 40 home runs in a season.

It's that last accomplishment that spurs this post, because there are certain parallels to Johnson's one season as a serious slugger and Brian Dozier's remarkable 2016.

Johnson spent most of his career with the Baltimore Orioles. In 1971, he hit 18 homers as the Birds won their third straight American League pennant. He hit .282, he won the Gold Glove, he was 28 years old. He was really good.

And Bobby Grich was ready to play. In 1972, Johnson fell off to .221 with five homers. Grich, splitting time between second base and shortstop, was the second best hitter on a squad that suddenly was having a difficult time scoring runs. The O's had been winning 100-plus games every year; now they were barely above .500. During the offseason Johnson was traded with three teammates to Atlanta.

Where he suddenly morphed into a serious slugger. Two homers in March/April. five in May, nine each in June and July, 12 in August, six more in September/October -- 43 in all. It is one of the great fluke seasons in baseball history. It takes Johnson's three best non-1973 seasons combined just to match his 1973 homer total.

The 1973 Braves had three 40 home-run guys -- Johnson with 43, Darrell Evans with 41 and the aging Hank Aaron with 40 (in just 392 official at-bats). Despite all these sluggers (another future manager of note, Dusty Baker, hit another 21 bombs), the Braves had a sub-.500 season.

It was Johnson's age 30 season, and he had slowed up significantly in the field. The next year he split time between first and second. He hit 15 homers in 1974, his third highest career mark. And that was his last season as a regular. The Braves released him, he went to play in Japan, he came back to bounce around the majors as a reserve, and he played his last game in 1978.

What happened in 1973 to make Johnson a big-time homer guy? One factor was Atlanta's home park, the Launching Pad. Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was a notorious home-run generator, and 26 of Johnson's homers that year came in home games. That's only part of his surge, of course; he had 17 homers on the road, which almost matches his next-best full season.

Johnson himself years later offered another explanation: He had, he said. learned that he was a "zone hitter." Instead of looking for a specific pitch (fastball), he was better off looking for an offering in a specific portion of the strike zone, regardless of whether it was a fastball or a breaking ball. That knowledge came just as the rest of his game was deteriorating, however, so he got only one big season out of it.

There appears to be a good bit of that in Dozier's approach. He gets an inside pitch, he whacks it.

So what does Johnson's story imply about Brian Dozier's future? Possibly nothing. Everybody's different, and the parallels, while certainly present, aren't precise.

Dozier is in his age 29 season, one year younger than Johnson was in his big year. Presumably he's in better condition than Johnson was 43 years ago, in an era when players worked offseason jobs rather than workout constantly, but athletes still frequently fall off sharply once they hit 30. Unlike Johnson, Dozier has had significant home run seasons in the past. I don't expect Dozier's career to crumble as rapidly as Johnson's did.

But the odds are that Dozier's not going to be a 40-homer guy next year, or the year after. That's not to take away from what he's doing. That's simply reality.

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