Despite his early struggles, Nick Johnson remains an on-base machine. He hasn’t fared well on balls in play, as just nine of 44 have dropped in for hits. That amounts to a .182 BABIP, an unsustainably low mark. That’s part of the good news. The bad news is that while his BABIP projects much higher, it appears as though he’ll have to make a few adjustments in order to recover. There appears to be a bit more at play than mere bad luck on balls in play.
From 2001 through 2006 Johnson put the ball in play in 62 percent of his plate appearances. He then missed all of 2007 and most of 2008. When he came back in 2009 he put the ball in play 64 percent of the time. This season he has managed to make fair contact in just 48 percent of his plate appearances. He’s putting many of those in the air, 19 fly balls to 16 ground balls and 10 line drives. Two of those 19 have been infield pop ups. Previously in his career Johnson has put more balls on the ground.
On batted ball types, though, we have a pretty small sample. Again, he’s put the ball in play just 44 times in 91 PA. What does he do the rest of the time? Walk and strike out. Both rates are at the highest they’ve ever been in his career. In 24.2 percent of his plate appearances Johnson has drawn a walk, a mark that has helped him avoid making outs while slumping. If Mark Teixeira didn’t slump throughout April and Alex Rodriguez wasn’t going through a mini slump himself, perhaps Johnson would have scored more than 10 runs so far.
His strikeout rate presents a bit of a concern. It sits at 32.8 percent*, the highest mark in the AL. He hasn’t been within 10 percent of that mark since 2004. What strikes me here isn’t the high strikeout rate so much as the breakdown. Of his 22 strikeouts, 15 have been looking. It’s not as if he’s overmatched and can’t get his bat around, or else is fooled by the pitcher. He’s just being extremely selective with two strikes and is paying the price. The latter seems more correctable, so that’s a positive sign. Still, he’s not helping the team by looking at so many strike threes.
*Note: FanGraphs bases K% on AB and BB% on PA. Not sure why, but that’s what I’m working with right now.
Looking at his swing data, we see more troubling signs. He has seen fewer pitches in the zone than at any point in his career, which shows up in his walk rate. Yet his walk rate could actually be higher. He has swung at 18.9 percent of pitches outside the zone, again a high water mark for his career. He’s making contact with these pitches at an unprecedented rate as well, which usually translates to bad contact. That likely factors into his BABIP. He’s swinging at fewer pitches inside the zone, too, though he’s making excellent contact when he does swing at those. Finally, he’s seen by far more first-pitch strikes this year, so perhaps pitchers are taking advantage of his selective nature. He’s either seen an 0-1 count or put the ball in play in 53 of his 91 PA.
It’s tough to put this all together, since there’s so much going on. He’s seeing more strikes than ever before, but is swinging at fewer of them, leading to a high strikeout rate based on strike threes looking. He’s chasing more pitches outside the zone and making more contact on them, which in all likelihood leads to bad outcomes. I’m willing to bet that his slightly increased fly ball rate results from the out-of-zone swinging. His saving grace is that he’s taking walks and therefore not making outs as frequently as others hitting under .200. He ranks 29th in the AL in OBP, and has the lowest average among the top 35 by more than .100.
We can look at Johnson’s BABIP and say he’s due for a correction, and in a way that’s true. In this case, however, there are many more factors to consider. Kevin Long talked about helping Johnson make adjustments, especially on the inside pitch. Is Johnson just taking time to get into a groove? Or is there something going on that just doesn’t work for him? He’s getting on base enough to justify a spot in the lineup, so perhaps he’ll settle in and work things out. Perhaps a move downward wouldn’t be the worst idea at this point.