Davey Johnson and Charlie Manuel Likely to Come Up Short on Today’s Game Ballot

This post is part of a series concerning the 2019 Today’s Game Era Committee ballot, covering executives, managers and long-retired players whose candidacies will be voted upon at the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas on December 9. Use the tool above to read the introduction and other installments. For an introduction to JAWS, see here. Several profiles in this series are adapted from work previously published at SI.com and Baseball Prospectus. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

2019 Today’s Game Candidates: Davey Johnson and Charlie Manuel
Manager G W-L W-L% G>.500 Playoffs Pennants WS
Davey Johnson 2443 1372-1071 .562 301 6 1 1
Charlie Manuel 1826 1000-826 .548 174 6 2 1
AVG HOF Mgr 3648 1961-1687 .546 274 7 5 2.6
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Nearly 15 years ago at Baseball Prospectus, I introduced a means of using player value estimates to compare Hall of Fame candidates to those that are already enshrined at their positions — the system that soon became known as JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score). There is no similar comparison method for managers, but a few months ago, when news of Mike Scioscia’s pending retirement broke, my former SI.com colleague Cliff Corcoran made an interesting attempt to figure out the Hall of Fame standards for managers. Cliff calculated the averages above based upon 21 enshrined managers, excluding three 19th-century skippers (Ned Hanlon, Frank Selee, and Harry Wright) as well as the Negro Leagues’ Rube Foster. While the shorter careers of modern managers — shorter relative to Connie Mack and John McGraw, at least — and the ever-expanding playoff format make cross-era comparisons a bit more complicated, the numbers do help as guideposts when it comes to discussing Hall of Fame managerial candidates

Davey Johnson

Like Billy Martin before him — albeit with far less drinking and drama — Johnson was renowned for his ability to turn teams around. He posted winning records in his first full season at four of his five managerial stops and took four of the five franchises that he managed to the playoffs at least once. However, after six-plus seasons managing the Mets, he never lasted even three full seasons in any other job and never replicated the success he had in piloting the 1986 Mets to 108 wins and a World Series victory.

A fine player in his day, Johnson spent parts of 13 seasons in the majors (1965-75, 1977-78) with the Orioles, Braves, Phillies, and Cubs, making four All-Star teams and winning three Gold Gloves; he also spent two seasons in Japan. Though perhaps best remembered for setting a single-season record for homers as a second baseman with Atlanta in 1973 (42, plus one as a pinch-hitter), it was in Baltimore where the seeds of his managerial career were planted while he was a key part of four pennant-winning teams (including their 1970 champions) under Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver.

Johnson, who had graduated Trinity University with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, devoured Earnshaw Cook’s 1964 proto-sabermetric tome Percentage Baseball, then persuaded Orioles owner Jerry Hoffberger to let him use the IBM mainframe of the National Brewery (of which Hoffberger was chairman), which he programmed to test his theories about baseball. He came to appreciate Cook’s emphasis of on-base percentage, though his printed-out presentation of his “Optimization of the Baltimore Orioles Lineup” — via which he argued he should bat higher in the order — wound up in Weaver’s trash can. Johnson nonetheless absorbed plenty from the statistically inclined skipper, including his disdain for bunting in favor of swinging for the fences.

Johnson got his first taste of managing the Miami Amigos in the short-lived Inter-American League — which also had franchises in Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Panama, and Puerto Rico — in 1979, at the tail end of his playing career. After that league folded in midseason, he managed the Mets’ Double-A Jackson affiliate in 1981 and then their Triple-A Tidewater affiliate in 1983; at the latter stop, he introduced the use of a computer to minor-league baseball, and he took that with him to the majors the following year. Johnson was decades ahead of his time in using statistical databases to figure out probabilities and optimize his lineup, though thanks to his experience as a player, he avoided much of the stigma that would later surface against the so-called Moneyball backlash. “Players aren’t machines,” he told the Boston Globe’s Lesley Visser in 1985, “but the chances of something happening in a particular situation are illustrated by the computer. I don’t run my club by computer, but I use it as another tool.”

Johnson’s players didn’t necessarily love knowing that their boss was using a computer, but fortunately, the Mets had talent, and Johnson got a lot out of the colorful, star-studded squad, which featured Lenny Dykstra, Gary Carter, Dwight Gooden, Keith Hernandez, Darryl Strawberry, and many more — at least until their hard-partying ways caught up. From 1984 to -88, the team won at least 90 games every year, finishing no lower than second place.

The Mets won the NL East in 1986 while tying for the NL’s highest win total since 1910, then beat the Astros in the NLCS and the Red Sox in a thrilling seven-game World Series. The Mets’ other division champion, a 100-win team in 1988, met a more ignominious fate, losing the NLCS to the Dodgers after going 10-1 against them during the regular season. After slipping to 87 wins (but another second-place finish) in 1989, ongoing clashes with the Mets’ front office made the team’s 20-22 start in 1990 too much to survive. He received news of his dismissal via a television report.

Still under contract with the Mets, Johnson didn’t get another managerial job until 1993, when the Reds ditched Tony Perez 44 games into the season. He spent the two strike-shortened seasons in Cincinnati but didn’t get along with owner Marge Schott, who fired him in part because she disapproved of his living with his fiancée before marriage. He returned to Baltimore and took the Orioles to back-to-back postseason appearances, but owner Peter Angelos’s meddling led him to resign on the same day that he was recognized as the 1997 AL Manager of the Year. He spent two undistinguished years at the helm of the Dodgers (1999-2000), but topped out at 86 wins, not enough for a playoff berth.

While dabbling in international baseball with the national teams of the Netherlands and the United States, Johnson didn’t return to a major-league dugout until mid-2011, at the age of 68, when he took over the Nationals after the unexpected resignation of manager Jim Riggleman. He had joined the Nationals as a consultant under vice president/general manager Jim Bowden and then became a senior consultant to GM Mike Rizzo in 2009. In his first full season back, he navigated a squad featuring 19-year-old Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper and pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg (who was controversially shut down in mid-September) to 98 wins. Though he would again win Manager of the Year honors, the Nationals squandered a two-run lead in the ninth inning of the fifth and deciding game of the Division Series against the Cardinals. Though they won 86 games in 2013, they missed the postseason and the 70-year-old Johnson was nudged back into a consulting role.

Hall-wise, Johnson’s career is a short one compared to those enshrined purely as managers. Among those from the 20th and 21st century, only Whitey Herzog and Billy Southworth managed fewer, but both won at least three pennants, where Johnson only won one. His 1,372 wins ranks a modest 31st all time. On the other hand, his .562 winning percentage is 13th among those who managed at least 1,000 games, eighth if you limit the field to those who did so after the 19th century. Even including those managers, he’s 15th in games above .500, the only man among the top 19 outside of Cooperstown.

That’s impressive stuff, but much less impressive is his postseason track record. Four times — in 1986 and -88 with the Mets, in 1997 with the Orioles, and 2012 with the Nationals – he took a team with the league’s best record into the postseason, yet only once did he make it through to the World Series. For as innovative as he may have been in the dugout, he would be the only post-19th century manager enshrined without having won at least two pennants. I have a difficult time getting past that as far as giving him a vote.

Charlie Manuel

The appearance of Manuel on this ballot might be its biggest surprise given the chance to round out the ranks with Dusty Baker or Jim Leyland, both of whom racked up far more wins than Manuel (1,863 for Baker, 1,769 for Leyland), and the latter of whom won more pennants as well. Those men, Johnson and Lou Piniella (whose career I’ll address in the next installment of this series), all got their first shots at a major-league managing job in their early 40s; Baker, at 43, was the oldest. Manuel, by contrast, didn’t take the helm of the Indians until he was 56, a survivor of three heart attacks who had spent the better part of the previous two decades managing in the Twins and Indians system, and serving as the latter’s hitting coach at a time when the team boasted the game’s premier offense. Despite his comparatively advanced age, Manuel earned a reputation as a players’ manager, particularly while molding a core of young Phillies into a powerhouse squad. In a managerial career that lasted just 10 full seasons and parts of two others, Manuel took his teams to six division titles, two pennants, and a championship. Three more of his teams finished second, missing the playoffs by a combined five games.

As his time in Cleveland suggests, Manuel was something of a hitting savant, renowned for his part in putting Jim Thome on the path to Cooperstown and respected by no less an authority than Ted Williams, whose book, The Science of Hitting, he devoured. Though he first happened upon Williams’ book in 1970, he wasn’t able to convert its knowledge into major-league success. Signed by the Twins out of a Virginia high school for a $30,000 bonus in 1963, he didn’t reach the majors until 1969, when he was 25, and hit just .198/.273/.260 in 432 plate appearances strewn over six seasons with the Twins (1969-72) and Dodgers (1974-75).

He did, however, put up big numbers in the Pacific Coast League (30 homers and .600 SLG at Albuquerque in 1974), then spent six seasons in Japan (1976-81) with the Yakult Swallows and Kintetsu Buffaloes, hitting as many as 48 homers in a season while earning the nickname “The Red Devil.” In 1979, he became the first American-born player since 1964 to win the Japan Pacific League’s MVP award, thanks to a league-leading 37 homers while helping Kintetsu to its first pennant. That season was marred by a severe beaning that broke his jaw in six places, requiring the insertion of three metal plates in his head and the removal of nerves from his face. Though he was expected to be sidelined eight weeks, he was back in two, wearing a batting helmet with a football facemask. Afterwards, he would wear the screws that came out of his jaw in a little bottle on a chain around his neck and shake the bottle at the pitcher after a brushback pitch, which — if we’re being honest — is a first-ballot qualifier for the Badass Hall of Fame, if not the baseball one.

After his playing days ended in 1981, Manuel spent time scouting for the Twins and then five seasons (1983-87) managing in their system before being hired as the Indians’ hitting coach. He spent 1988 and -89 with the team before piloting their Triple-A affiliates for four seasons (1990-93), during which he crossed paths with Carlos Baerga, Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, and Thome. Manuel helped Thome — who had gone homerless in 55 games in 1989 — to open up his stance to use the whole field and encouraged him to take a page from The Natural by pointing his bat at the pitcher. Last summer, Thome thanked him in his Hall of Fame induction speech.

Manuel got a front-row look at the damage his proteges wrought while serving as hitting coach under manager Mike Hargrove from 1994 to -99, a span during which the team won five straight AL Central titles, led the league in scoring three times (including 1,009 runs in 1999, the most since 1950) and in homers twice, and won two pennants. He took over when Hargrove was fired after the team’s 1999 elimination, but battled major health issues along with high expectations. In February 2000, he underwent surgery for diverticulitis, during which a cancerous tumor was discovered on one of his kidneys; he made his managerial debut wearing a colostomy bag. While the Indians won 90 games that year, they fell one win short of a Wild Card berth. They won 91 games and a division title in 2001, but Manuel underwent surgery in August to remove scar tissue from his colon, sustained a gall bladder infection, and was hospitalized when the team clinched a playoff berth. The Indians lost to the 116-win Mariners in the Division Series.

A regime change in Cleveland, with general manager John Hart departing and Mark Shapiro taking over, led to Manuel’s firing in July 2002. He bypassed a chance to join the Red Sox as hitting coach and spent two seasons serving as a special assistant to Phillies GM Ed Wade, a span during which the team signed Thome to a six-year, $85 million deal. After manager Larry Bowa was fired in late 2004 — an 86-win, second-place season — Manuel was hired, but the reunion with Thome was short-lived. The slugger was limited to 59 games in 2005 due to elbow surgery; after fill-in Ryan Howard won NL Rookie of the Year honors, Thome was traded to the White Sox.

With his thick Virginia drawl and his reserve of Appalachian witticisms, Manuel appeared to be an odd fit for the hard-nosed world of Philadelphia sports, and he drew heavy criticism after the team — whose young core included Howard, shortstop Jimmy Rollins, second baseman Chase Utley, and starters Brett Myers and, as of 2006, Cole Hamels — narrowly missed the playoffs in his first two seasons. Manuel didn’t have an easy time of it, butting heads with Phillies senior advisor Dallas Green and radio host Howard Eskin, with the latter encounter after the team stumbled to a 3-9 start in 2007.

Still, Manuel and the Phillies survived a 44-44 first half and a couple of occasions where Manuel asserted his authority by benching the MVP-bound Rollins. The team climbed into contention with a 9-1 run in late July, and went 13-4 over their final 17 games, overtaking the collapsing Mets (5-12) on the final day of the season to claim Philadelphia’s first NL East title since 1993. The team was swept out of the Division Series, but in 2008, after taking advantage of yet another September fade by the Mets, they steamrolled the Brewers, Dodgers, and Rays in the postseason, going a combined 11-3 en route to the franchise’s first championship since 1980. That bought Manuel slack among the Philly faithful — or, as the title of an early 2009 Sports Illustrated profile put it, “Cholly, They’ll Never Call You a Hayseed in This Town Again.” The Phillies won the NL East for the third straight time that year and claimed their second straight NL pennant, but fell to the Yankees in a six-game World Series.

Spurred by the acquisitions of Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt to augment an increasingly star-studded rotation — mid-2009 acquisition Cliff Lee, traded to make room for Halladay, returned as a free agent in 2011 — the Phillies repeated as NL East champions in 2010 and -11, with their two highest win totals under Manuel (97 and 102, respectively). In doing so, they became just the fifth franchise to win at least five straight division titles, after the A’s (1971-75), Braves (1995-2005), Indians (1995-99), and Yankees (1998-2006). Yet they were ousted in the NLCS by the Giants in 2010 and then in the Division Series by the Cardinals in 2011 as their big bats went silent in crunch time.

With general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. slow to dismantle or augment the nucleus of those five-time NL East champions, the aging and increasingly expensive Phillies had nowhere to go but down. Manuel presided over a squad that declined to 81 wins and third place in 2012. The team would win just 73 games and finish fourth in 2013, but the 69-year-old skipper didn’t make it to the end; he was fired in mid-August, replaced by Ryne Sandberg. “I owe a lot to Charlie Manuel,” Utley said of the firing. “He not only brought the best out of myself, but he brought the best out of a lot of players who have come through this organization.”

“He managed personalities, and that was probably his No. 1 gift, as far as being able to go to each individual person and relate to him,” said Rollins. “You hear his country accent and think he’s a little bit slow, but he’s sharp as a tack.”

Manuel finished his career with more wins than any other manager in Phillies history, and he earned a strong reputation as an instructor and a mentor. Nonetheless, his managerial career, including his time in Cleveland, was a short one, with 619 fewer games than Johnson, and fewer than anyone enshrined as a 20th or 21st century manager save for Southworth. His winning percentage is 18th among the 87 managers with at least 1,500 games, but that’s still behind Johnson (11th at .562) not to mention non-Hall of Famers Steve O’Neill (.559), Joe Girardi (.554), and Billy Martin (.553) — as well as Hall of Famers Walter Alston (.558), Bobby Cox (.556), and Miller Huggins (.555), a trio that had substantially longer careers. Manuel is 31st in games above .500 (174), with 19 Hall of Famers above him including four (Clarke, Cap Anson, Frank Chance, and Joe Cronin) inducted as players. Unlike Johnson, he did win multiple pennants, but with the lone World Series win to his credit, it still feels like a light resumé for Cooperstown. Sorry, Cholly.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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5 years ago

Davey Johnson had a nice run for a while where in every full season he managed his teams finished 1st or 2nd, which lasted through his NY, Cin, and Bal years.

At each of these stops his teams reversed fortunes and turned into a winner, and after he left the teams did worse.

His record in LA and Was is more mixed, but being at the helm when the Nats turn into a winner is another nice feather in his cap.

Overall, seems to have a fair case for the HOF.

Neils-Henning Orsted Joc Pederson
5 years ago
Reply to  Tim4242

Agreed, a fair case for Davey. And I have to disagree with the author re Johnson’s October resume, and its effect on his candidacy.

True, he only won the single pennant. But there’s a lot of randomness in short series, and moreover I would argue that his postseason tally on the whole was absolutely Hall-worthy. Davey went 25-26 in the playoffs, and the list of managers with similar records is generally quite illustrious. In addition to Johnson here are the other ten field bosses who have between a .475 and .525 October winning percentage (min. 40 games):

John McGraw, Bobby Cox, Jim Leyland, Dick Williams, Tommy Lasorda, Walt Alston, Joe Maddon, Mike Matheny, Whitey Herzog, and Mike Hargrove. That’s a LOT of firepower. If you go .500 versus the best teams and best managers, you’re a peer of theirs. And therefore a HOFer, if you’ve got the longevity. (Obviously Hargrove and especially Matheny lack that longevity. But the rest will all be in the Hall eventually.)