January 31, 2013
Farewell to Nick Johnson
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.
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.