Sometimes, to get a batting champion, you have to pay a steep price. Right now, Miguel Cabrera is blowing away the competition in the American League, to such an extent that it’s hardly a competition at all. The Tigers, of course, couldn’t be more thrilled that he’s on their side, but when they got him, they had to have some doubts. And sometimes, to get a batting champion, you can make a move that people hardly notice. The leader in the National League right now is Chris Johnson, batting .342. Johnson didn’t even begin the year as an everyday player.
Johnson went from the Diamondbacks to the Braves as part of a much larger deal. The key, everybody understood, was Atlanta’s acquisition of potential superstar Justin Upton. This was the conclusion of the Justin Upton sweepstakes. To this point, Upton has been worth 1.6 WAR. A big part of Arizona’s return was the solid and underrated Martin Prado. To this point, Prado has been worth 0.4 WAR. Johnson went to Atlanta and people didn’t notice. To this point, he has been worth 1.9 WAR. He was worth more than a third of that in July.
In chats all year long, I’ve been fielding questions about what the Braves might do at third base. Johnson, obviously, wasn’t any kind of real solution, so, what was out there and available? How was this playoff team going to upgrade? I’ve presented a few ideas, but the only problem has been that Johnson hasn’t slowed down at all. To whatever extent people don’t believe in him, he’s earning more believers by the day. What’s the Braves’ solution at third base? Chris Johnson might be the solution at third base. Except-
Except it’s easy to be skeptical, and here’s why:
- Chris Johnson, .426
- Joe Mauer, .398
- Jhonny Peralta, .384
- Jarrod Saltalamacchia, .381
- Mike Napoli, .376
There are your current league leaders in BABIP. Only Johnson and Yasiel Puig find themselves north of .400, and Puig’s a freak who didn’t come up until later. When people see a high BABIP, they instinctively think “luck,” and it’s not like Johnson makes major contributions in the field or on the bases or with his raw strength. “Regress that number,” your brain says. “Regress that number, and Johnson’s damned ordinary.”
Of course, Johnson won’t remain at .426. That’s not worth the sentence it takes to write it. But this can get as interesting as you want it to be, and look what happens when you examine Johnson’s track record. Last year, his BABIP was .354. Before that, .317, but before that, .387. Johnson debuted in 2009. Why don’t we take a look at the all-time BABIP leaders, setting a minimum of 1,500 plate appearances? Yeah, this mixes active careers with inactive careers, but this is for reference, not science:
- Ty Cobb, .383 BABIP
- Shoeless Joe Jackson, .366
- Rogers Hornsby, .365
- Chris Johnson, .364
- Austin Jackson, .364
Right now, with this minimum, Chris Johnson owns the fourth-highest BABIP all-time. Just behind this top five: Joey Votto, Rod Carew, and Derek Jeter. Johnson finds himself in the company of great players, and for this reason, it wouldn’t be right to dismiss all the hits off-hand. We have to at least consider the possibility that there’s just something about Chris Johnson, even though it doesn’t seem like there ought to be. He’s not exactly a burner. He doesn’t demonstrate tremendous discipline when he’s batting, and he strikes out pretty often. In so many ways but this one, Johnson’s a bench player or a waiver claim. In this way, he’s been a Hall-of-Famer.
If it’s visuals you want, Johnson has made two outs this year when hitting the ball to left field. Four months, two outs, to the pull side of the outfield. Here are those outs:
Well-struck outs. League-wide, righties have batted .617 pulling the ball to left field. We’re looking at line drives with maximum bat speed. Johnson’s batted almost 1.000, and from looking at his swing and from looking at his spray charts, he seems like a low-line-drive sort. He doesn’t hit very many infield flies. He’s what you imagine when you think of a guy who sprays liners, and the numbers so far back that up.
But now what? Johnson owns a .364 BABIP and he’s in his fifth season in the majors. Johnson can’t tell us what’s going to happen in his career, so what might history have to say? Using the Baseball-Reference Play Index, I isolated all the guys who posted BABIPs of at least .340 over their first five big-league seasons and 1,500 plate appearances. This yielded a pool of 66 players, from Lou Gehrig to Quinton McCracken. I then looked to see how these players did in their sixth seasons. Immediately, three players are eliminated from the sample, because they’re still in their fifth seasons right now. Dale Alexander didn’t have a sixth season on account of gangrene. Alex Sanchez didn’t have a sixth season on account of steroids and injury and personality. I also left out Ray Grimes and McCracken, because in their sixth seasons they barely played. I’m aware that there are sampling biases here, trust me, but let’s just look at the remaining sample of 59 guys.
Overall, they averaged a .350 BABIP over the first five years. In the sixth year, they averaged a .333 BABIP. They averaged a 5% BABIP loss, but five players showed no change and 16 players showed improvements. George Sisler’s BABIP shot up to .401. Joey Votto’s BABIP shot up to .404. At the other end, we find guys from Fred Lewis to Alex Rodriguez to Stan Musial. Nobody’s BABIP in the sixth year was bad, and the evidence suggests that if you demonstrate something of a BABIP skill, at least some of it is probably real. Anybody at an extreme needs to count on some regression, but it’s a matter of figuring out how much regression to count on. Chris Johnson might very well not regress all the way. The rest of the year, ZiPS projects him for a .354 BABIP. Steamer, .342. Under both projection systems, he’s a safely above-average hitter.
There’s just one other data point we haven’t discussed. Johnson’s a major leaguer with a high BABIP, but he’s also been a minor leaguer. For parts of six years, actually, with nearly 500 games and nearly 2,000 plate appearances. He put nearly 1,400 balls in play. Over those balls in play, his BABIP was .312. That’s pretty standard minor-league territory. Even in Triple-A, it was .328. Among contemporary players, we find Dan Johnson near the bottom of the big-league BABIP list, at .244. His minor-league BABIP is .302. Johnson wasn’t the same player in the minors as he’s been in the majors — that’s the reason the minors exist — so it’s not fair to make a direct comparison, but at the same time we can’t pretend like one player doesn’t have anything to do with the other. In lower levels, Johnson didn’t demonstrate an extreme BABIP skill, so either he’s learned that more recently, or this is a skill he doesn’t actually possess.
As with all things, the Chris Johnson truth lies in the in-between. He is neither as good as his BABIP, nor is he probably as average as an average BABIP. It’s a matter of degree of regression, and that’s not something we can easily predict. For Johnson, with his .364 career BABIP, he’s been worth 1.0 WAR per 600 plate appearances. The one time his BABIP was normal, he came in below replacement-level. How much he sinks is a matter of some interest to us. It’s also a matter of extreme interest to Johnson, since his BABIP looks like it’ll determine the course of his career. So far, at least, so good. So astonishingly good.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.