June 17, 2014

Cool Hand Chris

Almost a month has passed since Chris Johnson got benched for throwing a tantrum in the tunnel leading to the Braves’ clubhouse. He apologized after the game, said that he respected and agreed with Fredi’s decision, and vowed to keep temper in check.  At the time, his pitching a fit was the rotten cherry atop his awful sundae. He had five times as many GDPs as HRs, and more than 10 times as many strikeouts as walks. It’s been a frustrating year for Chris, no doubt, especially after the career-season he had in 2013. The contract extension was supposed to help him relax, but it may have had the opposite effect. Instead of worrying about getting paid, he started worrying about justifying his paycheck. His frustration came to a head on May 23rd and he flipped out, getting himself yanked from the game in the process. It was an ugly incident for Johnson and for the team, but some significant changes have followed.

First, Chris has been on a more even keel. There have been no (public) blowups, no breaking his bat, no shouting matches with Terry Pendelton. Second, he’s improved at the plate. Halfway through June, Johnson’s batting average for the month is .345. Compare that to .277 in May and .230 in April. This month he’s slugging .414, which raises his SLG for the year to .352. He’s got nine multi-hit games since getting benched.

He’s no world-beater (his WAR is barely above zero), but there’s no doubt he’s been better since getting benched. We’re left with the question of causation vs correlation. Is Johnson performing better because of an improved attitude, or is his attitude better because of his improved performance? It’s hard to tell, just as it’s hard to change bad habits. Chris has acknowledged his anger issues before, if not so directly. Remember last year, after being ejected by Jim Joyce, how Chris appeared in the dugout the following game with his mouth taped shut? While I hope he’s really turned a corner and found a way to control his emotions, that may not be the case. We won’t really know for sure until the next time he winds up in a vexing slump. If then the helmets start to fly, we’ll know he hasn’t really changed.

Chris is our third basemen for the next three years. He plays with passion and energy, which we love until his anger gets the better of him. Let’s hope he’s cooled off for good. His bat is a valuable part of the lineup, but a bad attitude can be absolutely toxic. In a tight race, it’s the last thing we need.



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