Last week I wrote about three players–Jason Heyward, B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla–and which of those players we should and should not worry about, and to what degree. One player I left out of the mix was Chris Johnson.
Johnson so far this season has a slash line of .256/.280/.372 with a 77 OPS+ in 82 plate appearances after slashing .321/.358/.457 and a 121 OPS+ in 2013. Johnson was a .276/.315/.430 hitter with a 102 OPS+ in 348 career games before last season. Looking at advanced metrics, Johnson posted a ridiculously high batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .394. Johnson’s career BABIP is now .360. Johnson’ clearly a good hitter capable of posting a high BABIP on skill. He puts the bat to ball and consistently makes solid contact. But a .360 BABIP is pretty extreme for any hitter. So given Johnson’s overall jump in production last season versus career and the fact that he posted a high BABIP, he was/is due for a decline in 2014.
But at this point he is well below his career production, even his career production prior to 2013, when he wasn’t really viewed as anything more than merely an adequate big leaguer. Clearly 20 games and 82 plate appearances is way too small a sample to draw conclusions. So what should we expect from Chris Johnson in 2014? Should we worry?
Really the only significant, fundamental difference between Johnson last season and Johnson throughout his career was his high BABIP. There’s little indication that he changed significantly as a hitter. But before we conclude that that’s troublesome, we should keep in mind that Johnson has always been a high-BABIP guy. He’s not an extremely patient hitter and he doesn’t have a lot of power (though he’s not a weakling either). His ability to consistently make solid contact when he makes contact carries him offensively and allowed him to be around a league-average hitter coming into his career season of 2013. A third baseman who provides league-average production is quite valuable.
The real weakness in Johnson’s game has always been his defense. Though he rated as an average fielder last season, according the the advanced fielding metrics, for his career he’s well below average. His defensive deficiencies have kept him from being more than around a replacement-level player throughout most of his career.
But some other things to consider: At 29, Johnson is still in what should be his peak seasons, and last season was the first season in which he accrued more than 528 plate appearances and only the second time in his career in which he played in more than 107 games. The Braves last season are pretty much the first team to clear the way for him to play everyday (although he started the season sharing time with Juan Francisco).
It’s very possible that Johnson just needed a chance and some assurance that he is the third baseman on his team. His strength is his hit tool and that is what carries him. There’s a decent chance he needed to keep it regularly honed to break from replacement-level value. Combine that with the fact that he’s getting playing time during what is still his peak, and there’s reason to be optimistic that Johnson’s true talent for the foreseeable future is somewhere between what he was last season and a replacement-level player. We don’t need in-depth analysis or a deep look at the advanced stats or scouting reports to realize we shouldn’t expect a repeat of 2013. It was just too good and too much of an outlier. But what he did last season and the skill of hitting he’s displayed throughout his career should give us hope that what we’ve seen so far isn’t likely to continue throughout the season.