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January 31, 2013

Skewed Left

Farewell to Nick Johnson

by Zachary Levine

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“I see him more as Jim Thome without the fashion statement.” – BP Annual, 1999

“Johnson is the best prospect in baseball, a ranking very difficult for a first baseman to achieve.” – BP Annual, 2000

“He'll likely end up as a cross between John Olerud and Barry Bonds. I think most Yankees fans can live with that, even if it takes him a few years to get there.” – BP Annual, 2002

“The ball jumps off his bat. He has amazing control of the strike zone. He's still potentially one of the best hitters in all of baseball.” – BP Annual, 2004

“After years of speculation and anticipation, at long last we now know what a full season from Nick Johnson looks like, and it was everything we thought it could be, and more.” – BP Annual, 2006

Nick Johnson announced his retirement this week and somewhat surprisingly so, though it was clear the Yankees wanted to move on after Johnson finally showed signs of aging in 2012. Johnson, just 34, had played his entire 12-year career with the Yankees, winning World Series championships in 2006 and 2009. He retires a few accolades short of a chance at the Hall of Fame, though not as far as some more traditional statistics might show. His patience at the plate was an enormous asset, as he five times topped 100 walks and highlighted battles of attrition against Mark Teixeira’s uber-patient Red Sox. Most of all, he was known for being a portrait of good health, his streak of 987 consecutive games played being terminated only by his 2007 suspension for the famous incident involving umpire Tim McClelland, a chewed piece of bubble gum, and some misplaced groundskeeping equipment. He played regularly until 2012, when his performance started to suffer for the first time, and he hung up his spikes and his impeccable eye. Johnson will likely retire to several offers to continue his baseball life as an instructor.

The alternate ending is pretty nice, isn’t it? Instead, reality’s take on Johnson’s retirement was different, as it came out with barely a whisper this week, most adulation presumably replaced among casual fans with “didn’t know he was still playing.”

Olerud and Bonds would have been tremendous comps, one player to whom every first baseman should aspire in an all-around sense and one unreachable star. But there are bygone wishes closer to home at his position with the team that raised him. He should have been as valuable as his almost immediate predecessors, Tino Martinez at worst and Don Mattingly more ambitiously. (Only speaking in terms of value; there was an entirely different skill breakdown therein with Johnson much more a true outcomes guy than Mattingly.)

What he turned into was yet another Yankees first baseman, one whom history would largely forget if not for his deflowering of the DH position. Johnson was basically, after all that hype as an elite prospect, Ron Blomberg.

It was a comparison floated by former Baseball Prospectus honcho Steven Goldman in 2003 at Pinstriped Bible, and it has proven true 10 years later as Johnson steps into retirement after playing just 233 games in his last six years.

Among players with 500 or more plate appearances who started their careers after 1950, there have been just 26 more like Johnson who had a true average of .290 or better yet never reached 4,000 plate appearances. (They’re all here if you’d like to see them.) Some started late or flamed out early, but injuries were a huge factor in a list that capped its members at six or seven full seasons at the most.

Atop the list, it’s the Designated Hebrew himself, as Blomberg hit for a .312 TAv but was able to compile only 1,493 plate appearances because of an awful injury history.

Johnson’s medical chart, the thing for which he will unfortunately be most remembered, is almost beyond comprehension. These injuries archived in our player cards include spring training days missed but not time before his major league career, so don’t forget the 2000 wrist injury that cost him the season and set the initial conditions for a career of unfulfilled potential.

Year

Days missed

Injury

2002

26

Wrist contusion (L)

2003

25

Wrist soreness (R)

2003

10

Thumb sprain (L)

2003

70

Stress fracture in hand (R)

2004

58

Back strain

2004

44

Facial fracture

2005

2

Leg contusion

2005

29

Foot contusion (R)

2005

4

Foot contusion (R)

2006

6

Back strain

2006

2

Neck strain

2006/2007

193

Broken femur (R)

2008

137

Wrist surgery (R)

2009

1

Foot contusion

2009

17

Hamstring strain (R)

2009

6

Flu

2010

4

Back stiffness

2010

1

Knee contusion (R)

2010

3

Back soreness

2010/2011

224

Wrist surgery (R)

2011

17

Undisclosed

2012

107

Wrist inflammation (R)

And this is what that looks like visually. Between injuries, there were some good times. In 2005 and 2006 for the Nationals, he compiled 9.1 wins above replacement player, but it was a sad tale from there as the serious injuries picked up—four that cost him more than 100 days apiece. One BP Annual threw an Elijah Price comp on him, alluding to Samuel L. Jackson’s anti-title character of the movie Unbreakable.

It all came to an end with a subpar 38 games in Baltimore last season before the wrist just became too much, and this week, according to WFAN, he called it a night. Sadly for those who care about such things, the last gasp of his professional career caused his OBP—his greatest measurement of achievement—to fall below .400, finally resting at .399.

His retirement gift, one would hope, will be a lifetime of good health, as his were baseball injuries, not the plagues of concussions or chronic hip problems or the like. And from us, an appreciation of just what he could contribute when he was able to put on the uniform.

“Brian Cashman approached Nick Johnson like a game of "Minesweeper," figuring that every possible injury square on the board had been uncovered. Surprise—Johnson has nothing but injury squares.” – BP Annual, 2011

“After his second straight season with wrist issues, the perennially unhealthy Nick Johnson may decide to hang up his spikes for good. Once a prospect lauded for his patience and bat, Johnson's days as a big leaguer may be over.” – BP Annual, 2012

Zachary Levine is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Zachary's other articles. You can contact Zachary by clicking here

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