March 19, 2012; Jupiter FL, USA; Houston Astros third baseman Chris Johnson (right) greets second baseman Jose Altuve (left) after scoring a run in the first inning against the Miami Marlins during a spring training game at Roger Dean Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE
Last time we checked on Chris Johnson, it was part of a massive effort to convince everyone that his 2010 season was incredibly inflated. Way back then, I looked at how pitchers reacted to Johnson and predicted the adjustments they might make for him in 2011.
Clack followed up with his own article on Johnson after April, with this very interesting quote:
Johnson has noticed opposing pitchers have been approaching him differently this season. He said he's been seeing fewer fastballs and has been fed a steady diet of breaking balls..."Last year they found out I could hit the fastball out over the plate, and right now I think they're trying to tie me up a little bit inside with the fastball and a lot of offspeed stuff. I've been seeing a lot more offspeed stuff than I've seen in my entire career just this last month. I think that's the approach I'm going with right now, and I'm working on figuring out how to be a little more patient and wait and try to get a good pitch."
The funny thing is, with a full season's worth of data, we see that Johnson saw MORE fastballs than he did in 2010. Weird, huh?
Why should I be looking at Chris Johnson again? Well, he's not only going to be the starting third baseman, but he's also retooled his swing to take advantage of the gaps better. He's seen success this spring, but the question I asked above remains. Can Johnson make a difference in his production through swing adjustments?
Comparing his 2010 season to last year, the first thing that jumps out at me is that pitchers threw him more fastballs than they did the previous year. Well, technically, there wasn't a gain or drop, but pitchers did throw him a lot more fastballs on the first pitch of an at-bat.
The problem for Johnson started right here. Even with the bigger number of fastballs thrown, Johnson actually lowered the number of fastballs he swung at. In fact, his swing percentage on fastballs fell all the way down to 33 percent. Is it any surprise that pitchers started throwing more fastballs to him to start off a count? They knew Johnson would take the pitch.
Don't take my word for it, though. Look at these nifty charts of his fastball swung at and taken:
Lots of fastballs in the middle of the zone taken for strikes leads to a lot of 0-1 counts. While some hitters can recover from that, it only exacerbated Johnson's problems with breaking balls.
See, I speculated after the 2010 season that pitchers would start to capitalize on the number of breaking pitches he saw. That didn't happen in a big way, but it did when you look at how the counts worked out.
If Johnson takes more first pitch strikes, he sets himself up to have to protect the plate against curveballs in the dirt. That's exactly what pitchers seemed to capitalize on in 2011:
While the strike zone above is normalized and not necessarily 100 percent accurate, it's easy to see that a large number of the curves he swung at came on low pitches and most of them were away. Johnson just struggled with these curves, putting them in play barely 17 percent of the time. That's his lowest percentage of all five main pitches he saw last season.
The problem doesn't stop with the curve, but Johnson did seem to improve some with how he handled sliders.
He's still swinging at too many of these sliders falling off the outside of the plate, but his whiff percentage dropped from 2010 on the pitch and he made slightly more contact on it. Still, looking at how pitchers attacked him, it's clear they wanted to throw him breaking pitches low, because they knew he'd bite.
Back to the original question now: can an adjustment really help Johnson be more successful this season?
Well, if the adjustment to his swing means he can get to balls down in the zone more easily, then yes. That could help quite a bit. More, though, it may be about smashing a few of those first-pitch fastballs and keeping a pitcher honest. If Johnson can avoid falling behind in the count early, he'll have a better chance of putting up stats like 2010.
What I don't know what to do with is his reluctance to swing on first pitch strikes in 2011. I thought Mike Barnett preached swinging at some of those, even while trying to get his guys to be more selective. If the pitcher grooves one, don't just watch it. Did Johnson not get that memo?
We'll check back on Johnson at some point this season to see how pitchers have adjusted to his adjustments.