Nick Johnson needs a typical Nick Johnson season to secure his legacy. Not as an injury-prone first baseman — that’s his other legacy — but as an on-base machine. The 33-year-old left-handed hitter came into the year as one of fewer than 60 players in history [minimum 3,000 plate appearances] with a career OBP of .400 or better. Now with the Baltimore Orioles, Johnson was right at that mark when he talked about his disciplined approach prior to Saturday’s game.
Johnson on his career .400 OBP: “[Having a high OBP] means that I’m helping the team out. That’s how you score runs. You get on base and the next thing you know someone pops one, or hits one in the gap, and you put a couple of runs on the board. You have to be on base in order to score runs. I think [OBP] is big.”
On his patient approach: “Ever since I started playing the game, I‘ve had that approach. Even in Little League and high school. I’ve had people tell me to swing the bat more, and this, that and the other, but it’s just something I’ve always had. I don’t know where it came from.
“Sometimes, when you’re seeing a lot of pitches, you can get too passive. I think there’s a fine line with that. But I like seeing pitches. The more pitches I see, the more comfortable I get throughout the at bat. I don’t mind hitting with two strikes.
“I’ve [taken the first pitch] a lot, but you have to know the pitchers and sometimes it’s not bad to jump on one early. They might leave one out there, so you have to be ready to hit. With men in scoring position, sometimes walks aren’t as good as other walks. You might have had a good pitch to hit early in the count, and you took it just to take it. If you were aggressive, you could have done a little more damage. Like I said, there’s that fine line.”
On seeing the ball: “I like to see what the ball is doing. I like to get a read on, say, a sinkerballer. I watch a lot of film, but when you get up there is when you get a gauge of how it’s moving. You also talk to guys, but you have be at the plate to get the timing. The takes I have in a game are really important. They allow me to see what kind of position I’m in on pitcher’s pitches — the ones they want me to swing at. That way I can move my sights to wherever they need to be.
“Out of the hand, I’ll see his release point, but it’s mostly just a matter of picking it up — of seeing the ball. I think I’m pretty good at recognizing pitches. But that can actually hurt you at times. You see it so early that you give up on it and it ends up coming back in. You see it and think “ball,” and give up on it, and it backdoors. Maybe it’s a cutter or a backdoor curveball. You have to make sure you stay with the pitch long enough.
“I try to look for the ball right down the middle. I don’t really look in and out. Looking down the middle, I only have a couple of inches either way to adjust. If they stick it on the black, I give it to them unless it’s 3-2 and I need to protect. My approach is to stay up the middle, work to left center, and react to everything else. I like to let the ball come to me.”
On where he likes to hit in the order: “I don’t care where I hit. I just check the lineup and go from there. I’ve never led off, but I have hit in the two-hole. I’ve hit third, fourth, fifth, sixth — probably everywhere except first. [OBP] matters in all of them. If you’re on, there’s a guy behind you who can hopefully do some damage. If you’re on first base, the hitter is going to have a hole over there. The more you’re on, the more things open up and the more chances you have to score. When there’s no one on, there’s not a lot going on.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.