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Chris Johnson: "Now I'm Ready to Break Out."

"I'm in the best shape of my life." Spring Training Edition No. 10,581

Maybe the sub-title comes across as too cynical. But as spring training approaches, the ritual of players telling us about their excellent athletic condition is upon us. While Chris Johnson's general theme as told to Brian McTaggert falls in the category of normal spring training fare, his prediction of a break out season is more bold than usual. Also, Johnson's admission that he was too comfortable, and perhaps even ill prepared, last year is more candid than the normal spring quotes.

In some ways, I think Chris Johnson is the victim of his own success in 2010. Riding on the crest of a .387 BABIP, Johnson showed off an impressive rookie offensive performance. As we continually reminded people here at TCB, his BABIP was unsustainable and made it unlikely that his performance would be repeated in 2011.. His 2010 offensive stats set expectations too high among fans, and when he struggled as a hitter in 2011, many fans soured on Johnson's future as an Astros third baseman. The 2010 numbers apparently affected Johnson's mindset and preparation in 2011, which he describes as coming in "on your high horse after a good rookie season."

The Astros have told Chris that he will be given an opportunity to compete with Jimmy Paredes in spring training for the starting 3d base job. So, let's evaluate whether Johnson can salvage his major league career this season.

First, let's examine the general positives and negatives for Chris Johnson's case for becoming the starting third baseman.

The negatives:

  • Age. Johnson will turn 28 at the end of next season. That's too old to be a prospect, and "break outs" are less frequent at that age. The Astros have to wonder if Johnson's age makes him less likely than Paredes to be part of a future contending Astros' team.
  • Defense. Johnson has struggled to field well in the majors. This is reflected both in errors and advanced fielding metrics. Over the past two seasons, Chris averaged -15 runs, according to DRS, and -20 runs/150 innings, according to UZR. Paredes wasn't a great fielder--he is raw and sometimes isn't fundamentally sound--but he has both youth and great athletic ability on his side.
  • Plate Discipline. Johnson strikes out too much and draws walks infrequently. His 0.16 BB/K ratio in the majors is terrible, and his minor league ratios don't foretell much improvement. Jimmy Paredes suffers from the same problem, and his BB/K ratio isn't much different. However, perhaps improvement is a greater possibility, given his age. For Paredes, the question might be whether he can improve his plate discipline more readily in the minors than the majors.

The positives:

  • Likely Improvement Over 2011. Chris has his positives as a hitter; he sprays line drives to all fields, which can make him a tough hitter to defend. Johnson is unlikely to repeat 2010, but he isn't as bad a hitter as his 2011 stats would indicate.
  • Potential regression by competitors. Paredes' .383 BABIP in 2011 puts him in a surprisingly similar position to Chris Johnson's 2010 offensive splurge. Paredes is unlikely to sustain the BABIP, and, as a result, he may be unable to meet offensive expectations in 2013. It is unclear if Matt Downs will be given a shot at starting at 3d base or whether he will be slotted for a utility role. There are signs that Downs' 2011 BABIP is higher than expected (though by not as much as Paredes), and his offensive performance may regress somewhat in 2012.
  • Power. Home run power is in short supply in the Astros' lineup. Chris Johnson is a strong hitter who can hit the ball as far as anyone. If Chris can make adjustments in areas like pitch identification and understanding how pitchers are approaching him, he might flash the 15 - 20 HR type hitter that seemed possible after 2010.

What Can We Expect From Chris Johnson in 2012?

Although Johnson over performed his BABIP in 2010, he under performed in 2011. This improves the odds that he can improve over his 2011 offense. A few months ago, I compared Astros' hitters' BABIP to a predictor of BABIP called x-BABIP. Based on this comparison, Johnson's 2011 BABIP of .317 undershot his x-BABIP of .333. Line drive batting average is another indicator as to whether a batter's future offensive stats are likely to reflect positive or negative regression. Because line drives are a sub-set of hard hit balls which are difficult to field, individuals' batting averages for line drives tend to regress toward a narrow range around league average. Chris Johnson hits lots of line drives, and his .564 batting average on line drives is well below the league average of .722, making him one of the unluckiest line drive hitters in the league. If Johnson's line drives had fallen into play at the league average, his batting average would have been .278 instead of .251, with a comparable percentage increase in his OBP.

By his own admission, Chris didn't adjust well to the changes that pitchers made in the way they pitched him. The pitch f/x data doesn't reflect a major change between 2010 and 2012 in the mix of pitches thrown to Johnson. Johnson hits fastballs well, but struggles with breaking pitches. Pitch f/x indicates that he had more difficulty hitting sliders in 2011 than he did in 2010, which may indicate that pitchers put together a book on how to spot that pitch against him. Compared to 2010, Johnson cut down on his swing percent and made more contact when he did swing. This might sound like a good thing, but in his case it wasn't. He increased contact both inside and outside the zone, but the increased contact percent is most pronounced outside the zone. Contact outside the zone is more likely to result in the hitter getting himself out on "pitcher's pitches." He swung and missed at those pitches over 50% of the time in 2010, but he increased his contact rate on those outside pitches by 15% in 2011. Ironically, the increased contact rate may have reduced his power numbers. My guess is that Johnson needs to work on better pitch identification and understanding of the pitchers' plan so that he can lay off more of the "pitcher's pitches."

Both the Bill James and Rotochamps projections indicate that Chris Johnson is likely to out hit Jimmy Paredes in all components of the offensive slash line---BA, OBP, SLG, and OPS. The Bill James projection for Johnson, .273, .316, .432, .748 (OPS) are roughly at a mid way point between his 2010 and 2011 stats. That slash line would be acceptable for a starting 3d baseman---if the player's fielding is decent.

What about defense?

I think defense will make or break Chris Johnson as a starting 3d baseman. He has offensive weaknesses, but his hitting is good enough to be an average or better third baseman. However, his fielding performance in 2010 and 2011 would be tolerable only if he was a superstar hitter like Ryan Braun (which he is not). My observation is that Chris Johnson's defensive tools are adequate to become an average fielder---he has a strong arm and he moves reasonably well. The minor league scouting reports also indicated that he has the potential to become an average to above average fielder at 3d base. Sometimes it seems like Johnson's fielding errors result from distraction or hesitancy on where to throw the ball.

Defensive proficiency is more than athletic ability--it also involves understanding fundamentals, positioning, etc. These latter elements can be improved through practice and work. It's encouraging that McTaggert's article says that Bobby Meachum is hitting buckets of balls for Johnson's fielding practice this off-season. If Johnson wants to have a chance at the third base position, he can't let up on the fielding work. On the optimistic side, I think it's possible that Johnson can make himself into an average fielding third baseman. As a practical matter, even if he improved to slightly below average as a fielder, he probably could be an acceptable starting third baseman. Whether he does that or not is the question mark.