Is Chris Johnson salvageable?

Kevin C. Cox

A look at Chris Johnson's disastrous start to 2014 and a search for a path back to usefulness

Chris Johnson has been pretty awful in 2014. Johnson has a .256/.274/.336 triple-slash and is walking at a career-low rate of 2.3%. With Dan Uggla seemingly a permanent bench player at this point, Johnson is the Braves player most likely to get out in any given at bat and only the collection of refuse that has manned second base has hit for less power than Johnson.

One of the biggest reasons to be concerned long-term about Johnson is his batting average on balls in play. In 2013, Johnson was an oft-debated topic amongst Braves fans due to his league-leading BABIP causing many analytically-minded fans to mark Johnson as a candidate for major regression. In 2013, Johnson batted .394 on balls in play, a mark that was unsustainable for any player in MLB history. Johnson wasn’t going to repeat that level of success on balls in play and sure enough, he has come back down to earth in 2014. This season Johnson is batting .333 on balls in play, which is a very good mark and a sustainable one for a player who hits line drives like Johnson. That .333 mark being sustainable is exactly why Braves fans should be terrified of the contract extension Johnson was recently signed to.

The reason it is terrifying is because Johnson is 40th in MLB in BABIP (just above Freddie Freeman), which is very good, but overall his offensive game has been awful. Johnson has a 2.3% walk rate, a 25.1% strikeout rate and an .081 isolated power. Amongst qualified hitters Johnson ranks 174th in walk rate, 144th in strikeout rate and 164th in isolated power. Basically the only way Chris Johnson can be a successful offensive player is if he reaches base on balls in play like he is Ty Cobb.

Now, to find some good news for Johnson and some way he might be able to salvage his offensive value outside of selling his soul to the devil again. For one, his contact rate on balls in the zone is exactly the same as it has always been. Johnson has made contact on 88.5% of pitches he has swung at in the zone this season compared to 88.6% in 2013. When Johnson swings at a good pitch to hit, he usually makes contact with it, and while his success at reaching base when he makes contact has declined, it’s still good. The problem for Johnson has been that in 2014 he has swung at 44.4% of pitches outside of the zone compared to 39.4% in 2013. Johnson has expanded his zone and is swinging wildly at pitches he can’t hope to make good contact with.

The good news is the rate that Johnson is chasing at in 2014 is well above his career norms. It is possible Johnson is pressing in an effort to justify his contract extension. If he were to return to his career norms in his chase percentage, it is likely his strikeout rate and walk rate would go back to his career average. This would go a long ways towards making Johnson a non-cesspool in the middle of the Braves lineup. This might not do anything for Johnson’s putrid isolated power, but his good BABIP skills would help him more if he struck out less and walked more. Being the BABIP king of baseball doesn’t really do you any good if you aren’t putting the ball in play.

There is, however, one area where Johnson might be able to help his power come back a little too. Specifically, Johnson needs to abandon his approach of always looking to hit the ball to the opposite field. An approach of looking primarily to go the other way is objectively terrible. In 2014 Major League Baseball as a whole has 154 wRC+ on balls that are pulled by the batter. That number drops to a 93 wRC+ when hitters go to the opposite field. In short, the average MLB hitter becomes Freddie Freeman when they pull the ball but transforms into Justin Smoak when going to the opposite field.

The splits have been even more extreme for Johnson in 2014. Johnson has a 207 wRC+ when pulling the ball in 2014 (basically Babe Ruth), but that number Felix Baumgartners down to 49 wRC+ when Johnson goes the opposite way (basically Jeff Francouer at his absolute worst). Johnson needs to abandon looking to primarily hit to the opposite field if he wants to have any hope of turning his season around.

All of this is much easier to say than to actually implement. It is not as if a hitter can just say "Yanno, that Harris dude is on it. I’m gonna stop chasing pitches off the plate and start pulling the ball more." When a ball is traveling towards a hitter at 95 mph he doesn’t have time to do much of anything other than react instinctually. It is quite possible that plate discipline is a thing that cannot be taught at all. The good news is that Johnson doesn’t have to totally become a different hitter to change his season. A return to his career norms in walks and strikeouts would do a lot to improve his game. A more pull focused approach would certainly help, though I honestly have no idea how plausible such a change would be.

One other way that Johnson's value might be salvaged is to platoon him. This isn't normally what a team does with a player they just gave a long term extension to, but it is an effective way to preserve value from useful but limited players. Johnson has a 177 wRC+ against left handed pitchers in 2014 and a 49 wRC+ vs right handed pitchers. Once again Johnson has been a monster at the plate against lefties and a mewling child against righties (though he has faced far more right handed pitchers in 2014 than left handed pitchers.) Johnson's splits are far less extreme for his career, but limiting a struggling player's plate appearances against same-handed pitchers is always beneficial. I don't think this is likely to occur given that the Braves abandoned a strict platoon in 2013 to give Johnson the full time third base job and then this year gave Johnson an extension. It would probably help him, though, if the Braves did take steps to give Johnson the platoon advantage while he is struggling so mightily.

*As an aside that is entirely hindsight bias and not really helpful at all, but oh my God while playing in a strict platoon in Toronto Juan Francisco has a .269/.353/.580 line and a 156 wRC+. Miss you forever, Fat Juan*

2014 has been an abject disaster for Chris Johnson in every sense other than financially. His 127 wRC+ from 2013 is likely a mark he will never match. But since Johnson is locked in at third base for the Braves in 2014 and there are no alternatives, fans should hope he can return to something like the 104 wRC+ Johnson has put up for his career. If Johnson can cut down on the strikeouts, walk more, and put up a 104 wRC+ the rest of 2014 then he would be able to salvage some solid value from his campaign. While that is certainly not a given to occur, I think Johnson definitely has the tools to reach those manageable goals.

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