Luck, Skill or Both: Chris Johnson and Pitch F/X Data

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. It can also be defined as ascribing something to skill when luck played the biggest role. For instance, hitting a spheroid flying faster than a car on an expressway with a conical stick and expecting it to fall in specific locations or distances over 30 percent of the time is probably a little crazy.

And yet, that's what we baseball fans do every year. I can't speak for you all, but I know I've been a bit off for quite some time. Which is why I wanted to look at the role luck played in Chris Johnson's rookie season.

Yeah, I know that's already been done at least three times by guys on this site. I'm not interested in looking at luck the same way, though. We all know that Chris Johnson's batting average was fueled by a crazy-high batting average on balls in play, right? We know it's going to be hard for him to replicate his 2010 numbers again next season, right? 

I went through five different articles from different TCB writers since September and almost all of them talked about how Johnson's season was luck-based, specifically because of his high BABiP and career-high line drive rate. We all marveled at his prodigious strength on some of those long home runs, but I saw very few mentions of his tool set at the plate. Yes, he strikes out a ton and yes, he doesn't walk, but why?

Is it a hole in his swing? Does he have poor pitch recognition? Does he try to pull the ball too much? I think those are much more interesting questions that we haven't even broached yet about him in discussing whether he can reproduce his very nice rookie campaign.

That's what I'm here for, people. In the grand tradition of my looks into Pedro Feliz and Brett Wallace, I'm going to delve into the Pitch F/X machine and look at Chris Johnson's season. Follow me down the rabbit hole...

First things first, I want to show you a thing of beauty. Seriously, if you were putting together the spray chart for a hitter that could consistently bat .300, wouldn't it look something like this?

Johnson_spray_chart_medium

Everything about it works. He's got hits to all fields and a cluster of balls he pulled to left for hits. He's hit home runs everywhere, including dead center and the opposite way. He's got a good amount of groundouts on the infield to the right side, but not so much that a shift would be called for. In short, he's got a great approach already at the plate.It's what you'd expect of a coach's son, but somehow I was still surprised by it. 

Let's move on a bit to his pitch selection. The most common pitch he saw was the four-seam fastball. Over 400 times, pitchers threw him that and he swung at nearly 50 percent of them, whiffing at only 8 percent. His spray chart on four-seamers was also very even. Basically, Johnson can't get beat on a good fastball. You pitch him in, he'll hit it the other way (sometimes all the way into the right field corner).

Johnson_fastball_spray_chart_medium

I mentioned before about pitch recognition. It's easy to recognize a four-seam fastball, but look how well Johnson does at controlling the zone on heaters. Both his swing chart, his take chart and his called strike chart all show a very solid knowledge of his strike zone with the pitch. If you're looking for a point of regression, it may be here. Of the 400-plus fastballs he saw, nearly 25 percent of them were first-pitch fastballs. He swung at nearly 40 percent of them and whiffed 6 percent of the time. That's a pretty high contact to swing ratio, which suggests he might not see so many early in the count next year.

Looking at his splits briefly on the four-seamer, he did whiff more on fastballs from right-handers, but he also avoided those low and away pitches pretty effectively. 

The big pitches Johnson had trouble with were the breaking balls. He whiffed on sliders 24 percent of the time, 25.5 percent on curves and 32.1 percent on changeups. The only place his swing percentage varied significantly was on the changeups. He swung nearly 10 percent more often on the change than he did on the fastball. 

He also had his lowest contact percentage against the slider (adding the foul and in play percentages). His fastball contact percentage was close to 50 percent, but it was less than 30 for the slider.  Let's look at that pitch to see where pitchers threw it to Johnson.

Johnson saw 279 sliders and 245 of them came from right-handers. They pounded that corner of the plate low and away, much like they do for Hunter Pence. Johnson swung at his fair share, but most of them were at least in the strike zone. He also took a bunch off the plate and got a fair number of those called as balls. So, he didn't swing at every one, but had a hard time hitting those low and away when he did. 

That's a tough pitch and a tough spot to throw it, but if I can figure this out, you can be sure all the other NL teams know what to throw him. Not surprisingly, pitchers started throwing it to him on the first pitch since he hit the fastball so well. Out of those sliders from right-handers, 75 of them came on a 0-0 count and another 55 came with two strikes. So, it was either used to finish an at-bat or start it off right.

The curve was used two-thirds of the time by right-handers,. The pitch, though, was much more successful for the left-handed pitchers, who whiffed Johnson 36 percent of the time on 52 curves. The curve from right-handers was much more boom-or-bust.

Johnson put 19 of the 97 curves he saw from right-handers into play. Of those, 10 fell for hits and three went for home runs. If there was one pitch Johnson had trouble recognizing, it was the curve. Pitchers didn't exclusively throw it to him off the outside corner of the plate, but the did target the outside half most often. They also tried to drop it in well below the strike zone. Why? Because Johnson couldn't lay off it. He swung much more often at those curves in the dirt than he did at the sliders. Look at his swing chart and take chart, compared to his fastball charts. Whether he has trouble picking up the curve low in the zone, or if he just can't lay off it is for others to decide.

What will probably keep him swinging at it, though, is his success when he hits it. I think that probably owes mostly from a small sample size and his obvious strength. As a pitcher, you probably don't want to throw anything slow at Johnson that he can square up, because it could go a long way.

Again, nearly 2/3rds of the changeups Johnson saw came from right-handers. He may have only seen 42 changes from southpaws, but he whiffed on nearly 40 percent of them. Again, they were changes targeted low in the zone. Inversely, from right-handers, Johnson did a pretty good job of swinging at stuff in the strike zone and laying off pitches that were low. He made decent contact on changes from right-handers (38 percent), but didn't really drive the ball much. 

If I had to guess, I think the change threw off his timing. From all this, it certainly looks like Johnson is a fastball hitter. Make a mistake to him, whatever the pitch may be, and he'll probably hit it. But, even non-mistake fastballs will probably get sent elsewhere. 

There are certainly adjustments for pitchers to make next season. I'd expect his percentage of fastballs thrown to fall back about 5 to 10 percent. Pitchers still like throwing it, as it's usually a guy's best pitch, so it won't totally go away. But, I don't think Johnson will regress much there.

Mike Barnett's first order of business is getting him to recognize that curveball better. If he does that, Johnson's walk rate will probably bounce upwards early in the season, until pitchers adjust again. Other than that, it appears the two big flaws in Johnson's game is not being able to square up the change and swinging at too many bad curves. His luck with the fastball may contribute to his BABiP being so high (and his high line drive rate), but it also looks like that might be a repeatable skill for him.

If he regresses, I'd expect it to be from an increase in breaking balls thrown to him. In the macro sense, that'll lower his BABiP and his average enough to look like he's simply a little more unlucky in 2011 than he was in 2010. Or it could just be a product of the ever-changing advanced scouting that teams are doing on him. 

My guess? It'll be a little of both.

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