Chris Johnson is batting .320, the highest batting average on the team, and this means almost nothing because he is trash and the Braves desperately need a real third baseman. That is a bit of an exaggeration, but only a bit. Certainly Johnson has far exceeded the Braves wildest dreams so far and has been an excellent throw in to the Justin Upton trade. The problem is there is no reason to expect anything but massive regression going forward. I think Frank Wren is a generally excellent GM so I assume his thinking has not been adjusted significantly by Johnson’s start. The average baseball fan though loves a guy with a high batting average and tends to believe things like that can last forever. Certainly most Braves fans have only ever seen Johnson hit for a high average and therefore fully expects him to continue to hit over .300. After all, if a person has never seen a player struggle before they have no reason to think he will ever struggle. Therefore I am here to help explain why my thinking is far more pessimistic towards Johnson than my colleague who posted earlier about how people like me need to be nicer to Johnson.
First off Johnson is terrible at defense. Everyone seems to acknowledge this but Johnson defenders brush this off as if it is just a tiny thing, like it isn’t a bigger deal than playing music too loud in the clubhouse or something. Being bad at defense is just a nuisance but not something truly meaningful such people seem to think. Well no Johnson isn’t just bad at defense he is the worst defensive third baseman in baseball and that is not a little thing. Johnson so far this year is at -6 defensive runs saved and since 2010 has been worth -45 defensive runs saved. This is beyond atrocious. According to UZR Johnson has been worth -7.8 runs below average this year and projection systems have him on pace to cost the Braves between 11 and 14 runs this year. All of this is with Johnson playing the easiest third base assignment ever. With Andrelton Simmons playing shortstop the Braves have Johnson playing no doubles defense right on the line almost exclusively. Johnson still manages to be a disaster at even this relatively simple task as evidenced by the play last week when a ball hit right at him went straight through his legs and was ruled a double. Johnson isn’t just a bad defensive player he is an absolute disaster who plays defense as if he were a deaf, dumb, and blind pinball wizard.
Now if Johnson’s .359 wOBA was sustainable and representative of his true talent level at the plate than his horrific defense would be almost tolerable. Unfortunately, his .359 wOBA is nowhere near sustainable and to act as if it was would be as colossal a mistake as the Braves front office could make. Not all success is created equal and Johnson has a .401 BABIP which no player is capable of sustaining over a full season. While not all high BABIP’s are a mirage everything about Johnson’s profile as a hitter suggests his hot start is mostly smoke and mirrors. Johnson walks in 5.5% of his plate appearances and strikes out in 23% of them. A high strikeout rate is tolerable in a player who strikes out because he is working the count and taking borderline pitches while hitting for a lot of power. Johnson does none of those things. Johnson doesn’t walk and isn’t really a power hitter having hit only 38 homers in his 3 and a half year career. A low walk rate, high strikeout rate, high BABIP, and lack of power all scream about a player heading for an unfortunate encounter with the regression monster. Projection systems ZIPS & Steamer both predict Johnson to either lose value or add no further value the rest of the year and this is a prognosis I agree with.
Certainly as a Braves fan I love when Johnson manages to squeeze another bleeder through the infield. I would love it if he continued to bat .320 for the rest of the season and maintained his .359 wOBA. But I do not think such an optimistic prediction can really be made based on any rational thought process. Thank you Chris Johnson for all you have given the Braves so far and certainly he has been an excellent addition to the Justin Upton heist. That being said a smart GM will still be looking to add a third baseman at the trade deadline. Fortunately, Frank Wren is a very smart GM.