Back in Spring Training I asked what the Braves plan was at third base. After all, at that time last season the Braves were putting the now incumbent third baseman into the wrong side of a platoon. Johnson had a breakout 2013, and I could see why a 127 wRC+ season backed by a .321 batting average would make people forget about the fact that he combined for 0.3 FanGraphs WAR in the previous two seasons combined.
My concerns were that too much of Johnson's production is tied to his batting average. He didn't walk much last season, he didn't hit for much power, and he didn't play well with the glove. It's easy to see a high batting average and look past the other issues, but that only works if the average is abnormally high.
What has happened so far in Johnson's first 85 plate appearances this season? He has shown less power and less plate discipline to start the year, and while of course I could be looking at other players such as B.J. Upton, Jason Heyward, and Dan Uggla, this piece is simply about focusing on Johnson and the third base position as a whole. I have less concerns about the other three due to other factors, such as statistical background, history of performance, and potential replacements.
As you can see here, four of the notable components we look have all started out in the negative compared to last year's marks. Johnson's career BABIP is .360, so despite it being a robust .328 he is quite below his career norm. I expect that to pick up, but even if it does he will be hard pressed to repeat last year's .394 performance even with the best of luck. What concerns me more is the other three categories, the low walk rate, high strikeout rate, and depleted power. Coming into the year I expected less from Johnson in the batting average department and more in the power department than we got in 2013, which would put his wRC+ close to the 105-115 range he has averaged throughout his career.
Two walks to 23 strikeouts is just unacceptable given the lackluster defense Johnson provides. He is an offensive producer first and only, really, so in order for the Braves to justify giving him plate appearances every day he needs to be handling the strike zone with care and hitting. The Braves lack of third base options behind him aside from Ramiro Pena is a concern, and while I am not in full blown panic mode yet, I know statistical outliers when I see them and the more I look at Chris Johnson the more I think 2013 is a year that will be his best by a large margin.
But these are not the only things to look at. We should also look at his batted ball profile. He had a very high line drive rate last year, so if he is keeping that up this year there is hope for his BABIP to rise once again and make his batting average at least respectable.
This shows that his line drives are coming at the same rate but that his ground balls are down in place of fly balls. Fly balls are basically death to a player's BABIP, so if Johnson's stroke reverted back to more grounders in place of the fly balls we should see his average rise back up. However, if he stays at a similar batted ball profile we should be expecting home runs. Unfortunately, utilizing Jeff Zimmerman's fly ball distance tracker, we notice that his current average fly ball distance of 274 feet is actually lower than last year's average distance of 288 feet. Obviously, that may improve or decline over time, but we would have liked to have seen him hitting further fly balls on average if he is going to be sacrificing grounders for balls in the air.
What I seem to be feeling is that the general assumption is to not worry too much about Johnson and that he will rebound. My issue with that is that there is not too much to back those sentiments up aside from a 2013 that I, again, am starting to look at as more of a statistical outlier than a year to be expected. After all, Chris Johnson had a 2.8 WAR last year and that only pushed his career mark up to 3.7. That means in the previous 1,318 plate appearances he amassed before he came to Atlanta he amassed just 0.9 WAR -- or roughly 0.4 per 600 plate appearances. It is not yet time to panic with Johnson but it may be time to alter our expectations.