Through Friday Chris Johnson has a ridiculously high .430 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) this season. His BABIP is the highest in the majors among players who qualify for the rate-stat leaderboards. This suggests that on batted balls, he’s hitting into a lot of good luck, that a significant portion of his hits are not a result of his skills. However Chris Johnson has a .365 BABIP in 1,671 career plate appearances, resulting in a .291 career batting average.
If you’ve watches Johnson this season or in season’s past, Johnson hits the ball hard and on a line. Since the start of 2010, Johnson’s first season of getting more than a cup of coffee in the majors, he has the third-highest line-drive rate in the majors.
The thing about Johnson is that his strength is obviously his hit tool. He’s probably average or much worse in most other areas of the game. When a player can hit and doesn’t walk a lot, he’s going to have some seasons in which he’s going to hit into a lot of outs but he’s also going to have some seasons in which he’s going to post a high average.
It’s simplistic to suggest that Johnson’s success is all his skill as a hitter and not some good luck. But it’s just as simplistic to ignore his plus hit tool and assume his whole 2013 performance is smoke and mirrors.
Chris Johnson is not a great player. He doesn’t hit for much power, he doesn’t have a great approach, he’s no better than an average base-runner, he’s not fast, and he’s not exactly a plus defender. But he’s a thirdbaseman who can hit, which is very valuable in this day and age in Major League Baseball.
It’s easy to break players down in a simplistic fashion: They are good, bad or average. I even think there can be some value to this. But we have to be careful with not losing some of the complexities of players’ skills, what they bring and how they bring it.
Also, we have to be careful not to focus too much no whether a guy is not walking enough or not hitting for enough power. There are players like Johnson who hit the ball just hard enough and walk just enough and have enough in the hitting department to have value at the major league level, if they can play a certain defensive position even adequately.
Hitting, from the perspective of hit tool, is something that those who pay attention to stats beyond batting average, RBI, pitcher wins and losses can sometimes overlook. Hitting, the hit tool, is something that’s easier to see from a scouting perspective or at least from looking at the scouting-type metrics (like line-drive rate and maintaining a high BABIP). It was easy to underrate Chris Johnson coming into this season. Johnson is a perfect example of why we need to look at both the statistics and scouting when trying to get an idea of what a player is and isn’t.