Monday, March 30, 2015

Which Chris Johnson will we see in 2015?

This is my interpretation of Braves fans having a Twitter war in stick form

Chris Johnson is probably the biggest hot-button player on the Braves. Moreso than BJ Upton, because all BJ inspires is hate. Chris gets disparate reactions from fans that range from moderate support, to wild criticism, to passionate belief, to statistical hatred. Twitter has a love/hate relationship with every player, but Chris Johnson can spur a war of words simply by saying you like him as a player.

Everybody remembers Chris's 2013 hitting streak and batting title run. At the time, hardcore sabermetrics people were decrying him as a flash in the pan while other Braves fans were telling the team to sign him immediately to an extension. So, the Braves did sign Johnson to 3 year, $23M extension. He unfortunately went into the crapper in 2014, and sabermetrics disciples everywhere waved their spreadsheets in triumph while spittle flew from their frothy mouths decrying the Braves front office and fan-base as fools.

I'll be the first to admit that Chris Johnson's 2014 year reminded me of a Six Flags turnstile holding a baseball bat. But to quote Willy Shakespeare, "One year doth not a contract make, anon." Ok, so Shakespeare never said that, but if he was a baseball fan I guarantee he would have tossed out something similar. Along with questions about bullpen use like, "Methinks thou head-man changes hurlers too much."Classical literature references, kids. Look it up.

Chris Johnson is not the first player in the world to sign a big extension and feel the weight of the world on his shoulders. Miguel Cabrera, who is 10x the hitter that Johnson is, signed a huge deal before the 2008 season for $152M. In that 2008 season he saw his average fall 28 points, and his OPS fall 78 points. That season broke a four year streak of All-Star games for Miggy. Sure his falloff is still better than 95% of baseball players alive, but he struggled by his own high standards.

Why do I bring him up? Because even the greatest hitters, and Miggy Cabrera is probably the best hitter in baseball over the last five years, can struggle with the pressures of a big-money deal. By comparison Johnson saw his production fall even further as he hit a low in OPS for his career. So which Chris Johnson will we see in 2015? The career low hitter with 159 strikeouts? Or the batting title candidate with a .321 average?

I think we'll see something closer to the 2012 version of Chris Johnson before he showed up in a Braves uniform. Back then, Chris was bouncing around a couple of teams, hitting a .281/.326/.451 slash line. By the way if you don't know what a slash line is, that's batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage. I'll use it a good bit when talking about a player's stats. I think if the Braves put Chris in the middle of the order 4-5-6, then he can hit 15 homers and 75 RBIs on the season, and I would take that in a heartbeat.

As I've said before spring training stats don't mean much to most players. The only thing I really take from this is how a player is seeing the ball and if he's making decent contact. In spring so far, Chris has 4 walks, 2 homers, 9 Ks, and an OPS of .800. Last year when he struggled, Chris's spring numbers were much lower with 2 walks, 11 Ks, 1 homer and an OPS of .674. Just from the standpoint of how Chris was seeing the ball, you can tell that's making better contact, taking more walks, and seems generally more comfortable at the plate this spring.

That may translate to better numbers for Chris in 2015. Because in 2013 spring training, Chris hit 3 homers, had 1 walk to 13 Ks, and had an OPS of .879. Despite what looks like an increase in strikeouts, Chris actually had a lot more ABs in spring that year, and he was barreling up the ball. That hitting carried over into his regular season. My hope is that Chris is the type of player where a good spring really catapults him to a good regular season.

The good news at the minimum is that I believe Chris is seeing the ball better right now, and I think his mind is in the right place. Last year can be written off as an anomaly, and the clubhouse turnover really benefits guys who were slumping since it can be viewed as a new beginning for their careers. That's going to be key for a guy like Chris who will likely be slotted in the clean-up spot as protection for Freddie Freeman.

Call it wishful thinking, but I'm looking for a nice rebound for Chris Johnson in 2015. And the Braves will need all the help at the plate they can get.


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