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A Salute to Jay Johnson

He coached to win, not to avoid criticism

NCAA Baseball: College World Series Final-Florida vs LSU
Hail! Hail!
Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

One of the best things about being a sport blogger is getting to second guess people consequence free. We get to sit back on our couches in mom’s basement and lob our criticisms after the fact.

We are huge fans of saying what coaches “should have” done, as if they are not aware of all of the tactical and statistical research. We really are an arrogant bunch, and we get to do it without hundreds of thousands of fans braying for blood.

And this is fair play. It’s the job. Since time immemorial, coaches have had to deal with second guesses from the peanut gallery. Over the years, they have developed two basic defense mechanisms: coaching to minimize criticism or genuinely telling everyone else to shove it.

Jay Johnson chose option B.

At every turn this season, Johnson made the risky, high-reward call. That’s easy to do when its not your job on the line, but he was opening himself up to an endless barrage of criticism if he didn’t win the title with the most talented LSU team ever. It’s far easier to go by the book, and if you don’t win, blame the bad breaks. Hey, you called it right, but that’s just the way baseball goes sometimes.

Johnson invited criticism, and he was rewarded with a big trophy. Let’s look into those moves.

Paul Skenes has 0 AB. If you remember in the preseason, part of the hype surrounding Skenes wasn’t just that he was an ace starting pitcher, but that he was a legit hitter as well. He was the Shehei Otani of college baseball, and was gonna revoltuionize both the staff and the lineup.

That didn’t happen. Johnson decided to make Skenes a full-time pticher, a move that paid dividends, but let’s think if Skenes does not develop into the second coming of Roger Clemens. He signed the Ohtani of colelge baseball, then told him to not take a single at bat. And the move worked. Skenes added a few MPH to his fastball, and concentrating on pitching allowed him to blossom into Paul Skenes. But we’ve completely papered over just how risky of a move that was in the first place.

Lineup construction. For about 100 years, baseball coaches have put together their lineups the same way: a speedy guy who gets on base first, a contact hitter second, your best hitter third, and some masher fourth. It’s just the Way Thing Are Done.

Ok, sometimes a “revolutionary” will bat a slow OBP machine first in a nod to analytics. Slow down, y’all. Johnson tore up the Book and put his best hitter, Dylan Crews, in the leadoff slot. He then put his big bopper, Tommy White, in the #2 hole, followed up by his best contact hitter, Tre Morgan, at #3. It worked like gangbusters.

Tre Morgan... outfielder? Look, not every move worked. Johnson took his brilliant defensive 1st baseman and put him in the outfield, just so he could try to get another bat on the field. Johnson was hamstrung by too many DH’s on the roster, and he sacrificed some 1B defense so he could get another huge bat, freshman Bear Jones, in the lineup.

Give Johnson credit. Jones was a freshman All-American, but he found himself on the bench in the postseason because Johnson decided the value of Morgan’s glove was greater at first base. And Morgan rewarded him with this.

Pitching Skenes against Tulane. As a general rule of thumb, the #1 seed does not pitch its ace against the #4 seed in the regional, saving him for the Marble Game. Tulane was one of the worst teams to make the field, and LSU had crushed them with ease in a midweek game. Every sign pointed to saving your ace.

Instead, he threw his ace. Yes, his decision looked better in retrospect, based on the weather, but I think it was the right call even if there hadn’t been a delay on Saturday. One of the reasons the 90s Yankees were so great is that Joe Torre managed every game in the playoffs to win, with no regard for the future. Nothing is more important than today. It sets a tone. LSU was going to play every game to win... until they didn’t.

Conceding Game 2. I mean, holy shit. Have you truly wrapped your mind around how radical of a decision this was? Bringing in the little used Collins to start the 5th inning was essentially conceding the game. Johnson saved his pen for Game 3 and took the beating, a record-setting 24-4 loss.

This could have mentally wrecked his team. Also, conceding a game in a three game series means you have to win both of the games you are trying to win. It’s a supremely cocky move, when you think about it. If LSU doesn’t win Game 3, Johnson is still getting killed for throwing in the towel in Game 2. But Johnson correctly read that his team was playing its sixth game in seven days and had another game tomorrow. They needed a break, and losing that way almost made it easier for the team.

Jordan Thompson. There was no way Johnson was going to bench Thompson, despite a miserable series so far, But Thompson rewarded his coach for his faith in him. Johnson had no backup plan... he didn’t need one.

If any of these decisions backfire, Johnson is getting pilloried by, well, people like me. Instead, he’s a national champion, precisely because he didn’t care about a single word that we write.

That’s how you win.