In Defense of Dan Johnson | The Process Report

In Defense of Dan Johnson

By R.J. Anderson //

Through 50 plate appearances, Dan Johnson is hitting .114/.360/.200. The curse of Greg Vaughn seems to be claiming another victim. First Pat Burrell, then Hank Blalock – although, the talent robbing fairy did him in more than anything else – and now ostensibly Johnson. Unlike Burrell and certainly unlike Blalock at this point in their seasons, Johnson shouldn’t be replaced. In fact, if given the time, he’s going to be just fine, and one can defend his roster spot without referencing his clutch 2008 home run.

For starters, Johnson holds a 0.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio. If he were a pitcher that would be horrible but he’s a hitter and that makes 0.5 a wonderful rate. John Jaso and Ben Zobrist are comparable hitters in approach and skill set yet neither is touching the Tomato King. Zobrist has a SO/BB of 1.1 and Jaso of 0.6. Johnson actually leads the team in this regard and is well above league average. He’s not just fending off strikeouts, but also drawing walks in 28% of his plate appearances so far which is just an absurd (and unsustainable) rate.

Of course, anytime a batter is walking so much and having a hard time recording base hits folks will mention that being patient and being disciplined at the plate are two different skills. That is a valid premise. Being patient implies waiting whereas being disciplined has no bearing on time. A batter cannot be patient if he swings at the first pitch every time up, but he can be discipline if that first pitch is a meatball. Johnson is both. He rarely swings, offering at one-third of the pitches he sees, but that matches his career rate. When he does swing, the pitch is usually in the zone.

It is also true that Johnson is well below league average for swinging inside the zone. One could argue that passiveness hurts him and maybe so, but when he’s walking 30% of the time it’s hard to suggest he’s letting too many strikes go by, although perhaps a meat ball here or there is sneaking through, although that holds true for almost every batter. When Johnson does swing, he’s making contact 87% of the time, well above league average and within expectations given his career mark.

Besides, Johnson seems to have some other factors working against him that are beyond his control. Johnson’s career batting average on balls in play is .251, his seasonal total this year is .107. That is the lowest amongst non-pitchers with at least 50 plate appearances. There are no players with a true talent BABIP that low. Even if you believe Johnson is not a good hitter, you must accept that his batting average thus far is a confluence of poor luck and unsustainable results.

Step beyond the BABIP and it’s still suffice to say Johnson can get it done at the major league level. Take the more than 1,000 career plate appearances with league average results. Take the minor league numbers which are consistently strong. Take his skills – his actual, real skills; i.e. walking, working counts, and making contact – and it’s easy to see why he dominated the International League. Do not believe or expect that Johnson has 30 home run power in the Major Leagues. He does have that in the minors because Triple-A pitchers are not as good as MLB pitchers. Johnson’s discipline and patience guide him into a lot of good hitters counts and the pitchers could not adjust or counterattack.

Major league pitchers are not funneling fastballs for strikes down Johnson’s throat. They are pitching carefully to him. Pitchers in the majors are really, really good and when they smell blood in the water against a certain batter, they will not relent. Look at Ben Zobrist in 2007. They threw first pitch strikes roughly 70% of the time and nearly 60% of the pitches he saw were in the strike zone. Percentages like that make it impossible to get into good hitting counts, and if you cannot get into good hitting counts, then you simply aren’t going to make it.

The only piece of concerning data with Johnson involves batted ball data. Specifically his infield fly rate. The comforting news is those statistics take hundreds of plate appearances to stabilize, meaning in small dosages, like 35 at-bats, fluctuation can run wild and really distort what is skill and what is some ill-timed pop-ups. Johnson differs from Blalock in that what we are seeing process wise is exactly what has led to his past results.

With Blalock, the one thing we absolutely needed to see was power. Now, true, he may have begun to hit for power with extended playing time, but baseball teams are mostly rational. That Blalock: 1) had only two offers, both of the minor league variety; and 2) has no job to speak of since being released, tells us that either the inside information on the guy suggests he’s toast or that he has a character or physical flaw or a combination thereof.

Johnson is showing us his skills and the results just aren’t matching the processes like they have in the past. He needs to start cranking out some hits to buoy his numbers when the walks begin to decline and he needs to flash more power than a lighter during a city-wide blackout, but so far, he has a .360 on-base percentage with about 10% of his balls in play turning into hits. He’ll prove to be a viable big league hitter once the other shoe drops, there’s little reason to believe otherwise.

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