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April 30, 2012
Out of Left Field
The Walking Dead
I’m in the tank for Nick Johnson. Two days after the call-ups of Bryce Harper and Mike Trout have captured baseball’s collective attention, I submit that we need to focus more on Nick Johnson. There are many good reasons to root for Trout and Harper, but they’re both very young. There will be plenty of time for each. Johnson is 33 this year and, at any point, his head could fall off. Something could happen and you would be deprived of the enjoyment of watching Nick Johnson play baseball. I don’t want that to happen.
You may remember Nick Johnson as Baseball Prospectus’ No. 1 prospect back in 2000. Baseball America had him ranked fifth. Between then and now he has bounced around, and he spent 2011 slugging .332 in Triple-A, but this year he is back. It’s true. He’s got a uniform and everything. He’s even been mentioned here in these virtual pages from time to time, proof that his career isn’t over. Yet.
Johnson signed a minor-league contract with the Orioles in February, a full month earlier than he had signed a minor-league contract the previous year with the Indians. He made the Orioles’ active roster out of Spring Training. That is a bit surprising, considering he slugged .332 in Triple-A, but we know the cliché that applies best to the Orioles is: there is no accounting for taste*.
* Other clichés that apply to the Orioles include:
I caught an Orioles/Rays game at Charlotte Sports Park this spring, and Johnson started at first base. In possibly the most Nick Johnson game imaginable, he went 1-1 with three walks. He ended up walking eight times in 56 plate appearances. Walking wasn’t all he did, as his .292/.393/.458 line was a convincing replica of his .267/.399/.439 career totals. But undoubtedly his patience played a staring role in making a team not known for its OBP.
Johnson is not very fast, regular fast, or any sort of fast. Analysts have described his movements as lumbering, plodding, or, when he really gets going, walking. Power isn’t Johnson’s game, either. Johnson’s game is being patient, patient to the point of passivity.
Some might incorrectly label his patience as boredom, a mild insomnia, or early-onset rigor mortis. But if there’s one thing saberists know when they see it (other than a good plate of pudding), it is patience. Johnson ordering at a fast food restaurant that we’ll agree to call McDundalds.
Cashier: Welcome to McDundalds, sir, can I take your order?
That’s Johnson. He gets on base. He gets on base better than almost anyone else who plays the game, or he did. Johnson’s career .399 OBP is the ninth-highest among active players. Johnson is better at getting on base than Bobby Abreu, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, and Kevin Youkilis. He’s just behind Chipper Jones, Joe Mauer, and Albert Pujols. Among all major leaguers ever, Johnson’s OBP is 61st. Meaning: in all of baseball history, there are only 60 players who have been better than Nick Johnson at doing the most important thing a batter can do.
Patience is a valuable skill and, this not being 2002, that is a well-known fact throughout baseball. So why is Johnson and his incredible on-base ability on the second of two minor league contracts? Well, remember before when I said being patient is Johnson’s game? I sort of lied. Being patient is half of Johnson’s game. The other half of Johnson game is getting hurt. It’s an open question as to which he does better.
Trying to look at Johnson’s injury history is a bit like watching the opening of Spaceballs where the words keep rolling and rolling through space. (“Stress Fracture of the third Metacarpal? Ha ha ha! You slay me, Nick Johnson!”) If you pull up Nick Johnson’s player card here at BP and scroll down to the Injury History section, it won’t fully fit on your screen. He has seven surgeries listed. He’s had hip inflammation, thigh strains, knee contusions, wrist injuries, influenza and, and I’m being serious here, acid reflux. Johnson’s injuries could be made into a terrifying version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” (“…four balls a-flying, three femurs bursting, two foot contusions, and a painful Ulnar Collateral Ligament and Torn Tendon Sheeeeeeeeeeath!”) As a result, the number of games Johnson has missed over his career could be coupled together to choke big things that are very hard to choke. Like long snakes or a hippopotamus or something.
The man has been the recipient of lots of bad luck. Back when Johnson was in his prime, he put together some sparkling seasons. In 2003, Johnson posted a .422 on-base percentage and a 138 OPS+ for the Yankees. Then he got hurt. In 2005 and 2006 with Washington, Johnson put together a .419 OBP and a 143 OPS+, and this is the most miraculous part, in 278 games. Then he ran into Austin Kerns and broke his leg. It was fortunate that it came at the end of the ’06 season but it was so bad that he missed all of 2007 anyway. In 2008 he injured his wrist badly enough that he missed 124 games. He was back in 2009 with Washington and Florida, with a combined .426 OBP. In 2010 he re-signed with the Yankees and promptly got hurt. Last year he was in the minors, and that brings us up to the present time with Baltimore. If Johnson was a shampoo bottle on the back it would say, “walk, get hurt, repeat.”
If he doesn’t miss one a day, a major league player will play 2,430 games in 15 seasons. Since his first full year, Derek Jeter has averaged 150 games played per season over 16 years. The notoriously brittle J.D. Drew averaged 119 games played over his 13 full seasons. Nick Johnson has averaged 79.4 games a year during his 10 years and that counts the games he got hurt in. If you subtract those it’s more like 28.6. Johnson has been on the field for fewer than half the games he was under contract to play. That (and also the fact that HE SLUGGED .332 IN TRIPLE-A!) is why Johnson signed a minor-league contract with the Baltimore Orioles in February.
Johnson’s age group isn’t done. Indeed some players who are 33 sign multi-year deals. But Johnson has gone through so much that it’s fair to wonder what he has left. That Johnson is 0-26 on the year with (GASP) only one walk to his credit is probably lending credence to those thoughts. Have his on-base powers deserted him? How long will the Orioles keep running him out there? It’s a small sample, but considering his line in Triple-A (.332!) last year, it’s maybe larger than we’d like it to be.
Johnson’s competition at first base in Baltimore is Chris Davis. Davis, a bit of a failed prospect himself, is busy righting his career by hitting an impressive .319/.373/.580. That helps to explain why Johnson hasn’t played much. Of course, Mark Reynolds, hitting .150, got the start at first over Johnson on Sunday. That doesn’t bode well for Johnson, though in fairness, he may have hurt himself.
The joy of watching Nick Johnson take four balls and slowly amble towards first base may perish from this earth soon. So please, I beg of you, take advantage of this opportunity, baseball fans. Nick Johnsons don’t come around often. Fortunately for all of us, the moment is not yet lost. Despite all those injuries and all the pain and rehabilitation that came with them, Johnson, for the moment, is still standing, both physically (I saw him do this!) and metaphorically. That is, until he gets run over by an escaped rhino. Considering his career, it could happen any minute.