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Chris Johnson's Hit or Miss Season

HOUSTON -  Bill Hall celebrates with Chris Johnson and first base coach Bobby Meacham after the Astros beat the Cardinals 6-5 at Minute Maid Park on April 26. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
HOUSTON - Bill Hall celebrates with Chris Johnson and first base coach Bobby Meacham after the Astros beat the Cardinals 6-5 at Minute Maid Park on April 26. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
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As his batting average plunged below the Mendoza Line this season, we began to wonder: Is Chris Johnson stuck in regression hell?  Chris (CJ) had a great rookie season in 2010, but sabermetric analysts discounted the season, due to his .387 BABIP, which was likely 70 or more points above a sustainable level.  As a result, many projections predicted a significant regression in CJ's stat line for 2011.  The idea that CJ would be due for regression was accepted by most of us here at TCB.  But what we have seen is regression with a vengeance---as evidenced by a 2011 batting average of .190 and a .254 wOBA.  Johnson's .250 BABIP suggests that he has moved from very lucky to very unlucky.

After last season, I knew that a regression in Johnson's batting average was likely, but I hoped that Johnson might see some improvement in his HR power this year---which hasn't happened yet.  However, maybe Thursday's game was a glimmer of hope; CJ put some good at bats together, stroking a HR and a double.  Is this the beginning of sustained improvement?  Only time will tell.

Johnson, for his part, blames the adjustments by pitchers this year:

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."

As I looked back at TCB articles from last year, I was taken by how prescient David had been, as he pointed to Johnson's difficulties with breaking pitches and the possibility that he would see more this season.  A lower percentage of CJ's batted balls are line drives this year, which is consistent with seeing fewer hittable pitches.  As I pointed out a few months ago, CJ's batting average on line drives was among the highest in baseball (.803) and would likely regress.   And, in fact, Johnson's line drive batting average now sits well below (.522) the league average (.722). As with BABIP, it appears that Johnson has been unlucky with line drives falling in this year. David's old article concluded that CJ might be susceptible to both regression and pitcher adjustments simueltaneously---which appears to be the case.

After the jump, we'll take a more statistical look at the basis for CJ's quote.

Chris Johnson says that he seeing fewer fastballs this year, and more breaking pitches.  Fangraphs' pitch data backs up that statement.  Note that I have combined cutters and sliders, given the possibility of misclassification between the two categories.

Percent Change (2011 vs. 2010) As Share of Total Pitches

Fastball  -9%

Slider/Cutter  +8%

Curve  +5%

Change up  +23

The data supports CJ's claim that he is seeing fewer fastballs and more off speed pitches.  Chris Johnson has seen a big jump in cutters and a decline in sliders, leading me to suspect some misclassification between the two pitches.  However, the use of more cut fastballs (which are a cross between a slider and a fastball) could indicate that lefthand pitchers are finding cutters to be effective on CJ. Cutters are often used by pitchers against opposite arm hitters. Although the sample size is small, Johnson has hit more poorly against LHP than RHP this year. 

Chris Johnson sees the third fewest fastballs of any NL hitter (Hunter Pence sees the fewest).   Chris Johnson sees the second most cutters of any NL hitter (Stephen Drew sees the most).  Whether the cutter percentages are accurate enough to rely upon, I don't know.

The fact that Chris Johnson hits fastballs better than breaking pitches is not unusual for a young hitter.  Most young hitters make it the majors because they hit fastballs well in the minors.  At some point, pitchers will test young hitters with a diet of breaking pitches.  My theory is that young hitters with poor walk rates, like Chris Johnson, will have a rougher time making this adjustment.  My reasoning isn't based just on the value of walks, but the path that a hitter has to take to get a walk, i.e., seeing more pitches and more hitter's counts.  Fortunately Chris Johnson's quote indicates that he realizes his need to improve his plate discipline in order to see more pitches.

Hitter's counts and the ability of a hitter to get to a 3 ball count makes it more likely that a hitter will see a fastball.  Using data from Baseball-Reference we can see that Chris Johnson is not getting into good counts to see fastballs, compared to the NL average in 2011.

Pitch Counts As % of Total Pitches

3 ball counts

Chris Johnson  19%

NL Average  20%

Hitter counts

Chris Johnson  24%

NL Average  35%

Pitcher counts

Chris Johnson  56%

NL Average  31%

Using fangraphs, we also find that Chris Johnson swing percentages and first strike percentages are among the league's worst.

NL Rank 2011

Swing Outside Zone  4th

Swing Percent   4th

First Strike Pitch  3d

First strike pitches include outs, fouls, and swings and misses, as well as called strikes.  David's article last year indicated that CJ was particularly effective at hitting fastballs on the first pitch and wondered whether pitchers would begin to throw more breaking pitches on the first pitch.  I don't have the data on first pitch strikes broken down by type of pitch, but I wouldn't be surprised if swings and misses at breaking pitches have hurt CJ on first pitches.