In discussing the possibility of Washington Nationals' manager Davey Johnson winning the NL Manager of the Year Award earlier this winter, before Johnson did actually win it, Nats' GM Mike Rizzo told ESPN980's Thom Loverro and Kevin Sheehan that the way the 70-year-old skipper related to all types of players was one of the more impressive things about the player-turned-manager, who's spent 51 of his 70 years in the game of baseball. "You've got the wily old veterans, the young players, kind of the superstar potential-type of guys," Rizzo said, "some guys that have an ego, the guys that you have to get out of [their] shell a little bit. This guy does a masterful job of motivation and he's also a terrific teacher."
When it comes to teaching, it's on the hitting end that Johnson has been especially helpful for the Nationals since he took over on the bench in June of 2011. "He's as good a hitting guy as I've ever been associated with," the Nats' General Manager said, "And he and Rick Eckstein, our hitting coach, do a marvelous job with that and just the calmness and the aura that he portrays in the dugout and in the clubhouse, on the team plane, in the hotel, it's wonderful to watch." Johnson and Eckstein are already hard at work with Denard Span as Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore wrote this morning in a post on what the Nats' manager and hitting coach have done to help the Nationals' newest outfielder at the plate.
According to the WaPost's Mr. Kilgore, the process actually began early this winter, when Eckstein drove across Florida to work with Span in his backyard batting cage and it has continued in Spring Training as players get their first BP sessions of the year in under the watchful eye of their manager and hitting coach:
"Johnson helped with his small piece of advice. Outside the cage yesterday, Johnson told Span he had been 'striding open.' When he stepped toward the pitch, he pointed his toe at the pitcher rather than keeping his foot square to the mound. The subtle move prevented Span from making solid contact with strikes over the outside half of the plate."
As Span told the WaPost reporter, he listened to Johnson's advice and it helped. "'He told me that one thing,'" Span says, "'I made that one adjustment and the rest of my BP went good. I didn’t realize it until he pointed it out. It made sense. I felt it, but it didn’t really dawn on me.'" Span's not the first National to benefit from the Nats' manager's advice. Johnson's been studying hitters and offering advice for decades, going back to the time when he was still playing in the majors himself as he explained recently in a couple of anecdotes from his time with Baltimore Orioles and the Atlanta Braves.
"I used to watch Hank Aaron," Johnson said recalling his days in Atlanta from 1973-75. "He was fascinating to watch take BP. He never hit a ball out of the ballpark in BP. Never. And he was just a marvelous thing to watch. He was so relaxed and working on just hitting little line drives and ground balls, two-hopper ground balls through the infield and soft line drives. And he only took batting practice during the year maybe once a week. And there's something to be learned from that because I asked him one time, 'Why do you just swing like maybe 50%?' and he said, 'I'm timing a guy throwing 60 [mph], I can always turn the volume up and I said, well that's right."
Aaron also told Johnson why he famously said he always looked for a breaking ball on every pitch that was thrown to him. "I asked him, 'What do you look for up there?' and he said, 'I always look for a breaking ball.' I said, 'Yeah?' and he said, 'Yeah, because they can't throw the fastball by me.' I said, 'You got that right!'"
In addition to studying Aaron's swing, Johnson had time in Baltimore to watch Frank Robinson closely and even offer advice upon occasion. "I watched Frank Robinson so close," Johnson said, "and everything he did when he came over [to] Baltimore. I remember one game, the first game of a doubleheader, he was getting jammed during the game and I knew where his toe hold was. I knew where he strided. I knew what bat he was using. I knew everything. In fact, it was because of him I went to a bigger barrel bat, and I told him the first game of the doubleheader, I said, 'You know, they've been throwing you a lot of breaking balls and your back foot's about six inches closer to the mound,' and I said, 'I think you're unconsciously creeping up because of all the breaking balls they're throwing you.'
"And he just listened to me and then the next game I think he moved back because I know he went and hit a couple of home runs," Johnson laughed. "But I was always observant of the great ones." Observant, intelligent, opinionated and able to get his message across to hitters, who only have to listen and learn. When Davey Johnson talks, hitters listen and they usually benefit from the advice. Ask Ian Desmond. And ask Span later this year.