Strategist has mound of strengths Davey Johnson: Orioles manager has his own way of working and, more importantly, not working his pitching staff.

February 20, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Orioles manager Davey Johnson has ignored some of the examples offered by his former manager, Earl Weaver. Kicking the bat rack and knocking over water coolers as a sign of displeasure, Johnson suggested with a hint of a grin, may not necessarily augment the confidence of a wild pitcher.

But Johnson watched Weaver run a pitching staff, watched a master at work, and now others say this is Johnson's strength as a manager.

"He's pretty good at getting the most out of his guys," said Chicago Cubs manager Jim Riggleman. "He's good at getting his guys in situations where they're going to succeed."

There is more to this than, say, simply getting a left-hander into the game to face a left-handed hitter. Keeping a pitcher as fresh as possible, as healthy as possible, is critical to Johnson, and this is evident in the way he uses his starters and bullpen.

Some examples of how Johnson likes to operate:

* First and foremost, Johnson believes in keeping his pitchers rested. Last season, when he managed the Reds, on only one occasion did a Cincinnati starter throw more than 120 pitches. By comparison, Toronto's Cito Gaston let his starters throw more than 120 pitches 40 times. Former Orioles manager Phil Regan: 27 times.

Johnson also likes to carry on his staff what he refers to as a "sixth starter." It's someone whose specific role is to be ready to step into the rotation for a day in case another starter is hurting, a little stiff or sore. He prefers to use an older pitcher in this role, HTC not someone like Jimmy Haynes or Rocky Coppinger. "You don't want to use a young guy you're trying to develop," he said, "because you want those guys to get consistent work."

* Johnson will work to protect a pitcher nursing a fragile arm. Before last season, Cincinnati signed right-hander Mike Jackson, reliever with tremendous ability and an elbow many teams thought was on the verge of blowing apart (the Orioles passed on him, wary of his medical status).

"Basically, I didn't use him for the first three months of the season," Johnson said. "That way, he would be ready for when we really needed him."

Jackson made just 11 appearances before the All-Star break, 29 after the All-Star break. Johnson rarely used Jackson on consecutive days -- only five times -- and rarely for more than an inning (Jackson had only 49 innings pitched in 40 games). Jackson went 5-1 after the All-Star break, with a 1.72 ERA.

* In a best-case scenario, Johnson splits his middle relievers into two teams. He used this example: In Cincinnati last year, Team A could've been Hector Carrasco and Johnny Ruffin, and Team B is Chuck McElroy and Xavier Hernandez. On one day, Team A will be told that if there's a need for relief, it likely will get the call. The next day, Team B is responsible, and Team A the day after that.

"That way," Johnson said, "you keep everybody fresh."

Pitching coach Pat Dobson said: "Pitchers like it more that way, because then they'll be ready if something happens. They know they'll get some work."

The makeup of Team A and Team B will change, according to whom the Orioles play, the specific matchups. If the Orioles are playing at Yankee Stadium in a three-game series, Johnson may want Team A composed of two left-handers, to better combat a lineup loaded with left-handed hitters. If a starter is knocked out early or there are extra innings, Team A and Team B are both available, of course; all hands on deck.

"I can't sit here in the third week of February and tell you how I'm going to use guys on this team," Johnson said, "because I haven't seen them pitch, and circumstances are constantly changing."

* Generally speaking, Johnson said, "if I have a guy warming up, he's going to get into the game."

Regan frustrated some of his relievers last year by constantly asking them to warm up and then not getting them into the game, adding what they considered to be unnecessary wear and tear. Reliever Alan Mills warmed up 35 times over one span of 15 games.

* Johnson likes to nurse along at least one young pitcher on his staff. He did this with Carrasco, who successfully made the jump from Single-A to the majors in 1994. Johnson picked spots carefully for Carrasco, gradually building his confidence, and eventually the youngster became a major force.

He may try to do this with Armando Benitez.

* All managers are attuned to the percentages of a lefty pitcher vs. a lefty hitter, a right-hander vs. a right-hander. Dobson, who worked as an advance scout for the Colorado Rockies, says Johnson also attempts to exploit the specific weaknesses in hitters.

In other words, if there's a right-handed hitter with poor bat speed, Johnson isn't as concerned about getting a right-hander in the game as much as he wants someone who can throw hard. If there's a terrific left-handed fastball hitter, Johnson will call on a reliever with a good breaking ball.

Only one manager in baseball played the usual lefty-vs.-lefty and right-hander-vs.-right-hander strategy less than Johnson last year. Johnson brought in a right-hander to face a right-handed batter and left-handed pitcher to face a lefty only 55 percent of the time. Montreal's Felipe Alou did this 54 percent, with most managers well over 60 percent.

"To be honest with you, I don't think a lot of managers think in those terms," Dobson said. "I think they just go with the hot hand in their bullpen, and play the percentages."

Johnson also likes to use certain relievers after certain starters to take advantage of their individual strengths.

For example, when he managed the New York Mets, on the days when Sid Fernandez pitched -- a left-hander throwing lots of high fastballs -- Johnson then would use Roger McDowell, a right-hander who throws a lot of sinkers. A dramatic adjustment for a hitter.

Weaver would've approved.

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