Johnson still trying to find a groove

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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.

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Winn powers Yanks to win over O's in series opener
Link Dump: Javy, Cano, Romine, Draft
  • http://mystiqueandaura.com Steve H

    The Stick will be just fine. What’s a little scary as well though is that he’s been extremely consistent month to month over his career, so he’s not a Tex-like slow starter. This is obviously the worst start of his career, in his 6 other Aprils, his OPS has been .849 or greater 5 times. Hopefully he snaps out of it soon, especially with Tex showing signs of life batting behind him, and A-Rod due to break out soon.

  • A.D.

    I figured the looking Ks were a product of him slumping with the bat and thus just trying walk his way on to still be productive for the club. NJ made some solid contact yesterday, just at people, so hopefully something that is coming around.

  • http://twitter.com/yankeesgalaxy YankeesGalaxy

    I was hoping that the hit w/ the bases loaded would get him going but I guess not. Hope he gets it going soon cause we need him to hit.

  • http://www.facebook.com/adorador Ray Fuego

    Gardner can hold his own in the two spot if need be, the stick needs to start hitting b4 Gardner comes back to earth. Gardy’s obp isnt going to be .400 forever. Lowering him is right choice for now. I would of lowered tex earlier in the season but it isn’t a girardi move, Cano could of held the three spot fine.

    • Evan NYC

      I don’t think Garner moves, I think Swisher moves into the 2 hole. Having Gardner hit in the 9 hole makes this lineup too sweet.

      • http://www.facebook.com/adorador Ray Fuego

        I thought of Swish too but I like gardner’s speed if Tex and Arod Start hitting

        • Sleepykarl

          That kinda wastes his speed in a sense as they would be less likely to take a chane swiping a bag with Arod and Teix coming up. Hitting 9 is perfect for running as Jeter is a perfect hit and run guy and if he is actually somehow thrown out to end an inning, Jeter is still gonna leadoff the next inning.

          • http://www.facebook.com/adorador Ray Fuego

            Its a good problem to have, his speed in the two spot would allow him to score on hits other guys wouldn’t be able to and in the 9 hole he can swipe more. Swish is hitting more lately so it makes sense to move him to the 2 slot.

  • Evan NYC

    I don’t think dropping him in the order is such a bad idea, especially with Swisher starting to smoke the ball lately. Maybe they could flip-flop the two in the lineup? I know that will open us up to two lefties at the bottom of the lineup (Johnson, Garner) but GGBG has been dominating lefties so I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world. I would be surprised to see Johnson in the lineup tonight with the LHP Matusz on the mound, but Wednesday we could see him slide to the 8 hole.

  • Templeton “Brendog” Peck

    seriously, his slump and granderson’s injury isn’t helping me in my bet that they will out homer damon/matsui….

    i have faith that he will turn it around, though. and if not, 1 yr deal so whateva. this team can more than make up for it in other places and as the season wears on there will always be someone available.

  • Guest

    The scariest thing, by far, is the fact that he’s swinging at more pitches out of the zone. I hope this is just a SSS variation. I certainly hope it is NOT because he is starting to succomb to pressure (from Girardi, Long, Yankee brass, or otherwise) to “be more aggressive.” He is what he is, and what he is a damn fine hitter.

    He should not change his approach. Tweak, yes (swing at “cripple pitches” when ahead in the count, be slightly less selective on close pitches with two strikes). Change, no. He needs to do what makes him successful. And, first and foremost, that means not chasing bad pitches out of the zone.

  • Rose

    *Note: FanGraphs bases K% on AB and BB% on PA. Not sure why, but that’s what I’m working with right now.

    I still think B-REF’s formula for K% is much more accurate. No idea why Fangraphs uses their own.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joseph Pawlikowski

      Just had an email exchange with David Appelman and am satisfied with the K% being based on AB.

      • Rose

        What did he have to say that swayed you? My perspective is that it doesn’t count in walks or sac flys in which you are also not striking out on…

        • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joseph Pawlikowski

          The argument is that it isolates strikeouts a bit more from walks. I do prefer them to be on the same scale, but as David pointed out, the batted ball data is not based on PA, so the common denominator isn’t necessary.

  • Rose

    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.

    Could be. Bobby Abreu has seen 84 of his 115 this season. Doesn’t seem to be affecting his as badly though…although it certainly shows it’s affecting him. A .330 OBP for Abreu is pretty out of the ordinary.

  • Tank Foster

    I wonder if it’s the “new Yankee” phenomenon. I thought he might be able to avoid it, seeing as he was on the Yankees at the start of his career. But I think the most logical way to explain all of the oddities is that he’s changing his approach somehow – like many guys do when they become Yankees. Maybe he’s trying too hard to do what he already does naturally – be selective and get walks, since that was the “mandate” when they signed him. And, maybe since he wasn’t getting any hits early on, maybe the walk/OBP thing is in his head now and is causing him to swing at bad pitches in an effort to get some hits.

    Whatever….I think it’s mental, and that he just needs to have a week or two where he scorches the ball and gets a few breaks, and then he’ll relax and be fine.

  • teddy

    johnson smoked 2 balls yesterday, hit another well. he starting to come out of it. he starting to hit the ball up the middle and left

  • kheaps

    I think in this case K’s / PA is more relevant. Also, I’m curious if the pitches he’s swinging at “outside of the zone” are pitches the ump in that game had been calling strikes, even occasionally – and similarly, if the pitches he’s taking (esp on strike 3) are in a region that the ump has been inconsistent on. How much of a batter’s eye is about the real strike zone vs. what the ump is calling…?

  • MattG

    All these things might be explained by poor pitch recognition. If it were one or two factors, maybe not, but swinging at more balls, swinging at less strikes, taking more third strikes, and so forth, to me means he is either guessing or misreading pitches. The fact that he still makes contact means he is more likely misreading them.

    Having trouble recognizing pitches might be partially explained by switching leagues. As long as his contact rates remain high, there is every reason to believe he will eventually start hitting the ball with authority.

  • vinny-b

    of the players not hitting in the NYY lineup, Nick Johnson is the one which concerns me the least.

    knowledge of the stikezone + ability to hit to all fields = SUCCESS

    the media & fans need to get off his back.

    • Evan NYC

      Is this Nick Johnson?

  • vinny-b

    no.

    Just a person with common sense.

    • Rose

      Then why weren’t you able to hit the reply button? lol

  • http://twitter.com/rebexarama bexarama

    If anyone hasn’t seen Ken Tremendous’ Nick Johnson Watch, it’s pretty entertaining.

    • Sweet Dick Willie

      Link?

  • Mick

    Boy is Matsui missed. This will be a blunder all year.

    • Dalelama

      Exactly….. Or even Damon who could have rotated between DH and outfield

  • Mike HC

    Interesting that he has seen far more first pitch strikes while seeing less pitches in the zone overall. Pitchers are obviously getting ahead, knowing he won’t swing, then not giving him much of anything to hit. He has to be a bit more defensive when down in the count and is probably reaching at some pitches out of the zone he normally would not have if the count was in his favor.

    • Mike HC

      The answer could be to swing at more first pitches until pitcher backs off, and he can continue to do his usual routine.

  • Joe D.

    It sounds odd to say, but what we’ve seen of Nick Johnson in April is *precisely* what makes him so damn valuable. He’s mired in a horrible, awful slump. It’s probably the worst month-long stretch of his career. As mentioned, this slump has included some terrible luck (eg: the BABIP), as well as some things that are completely Johnson’s fault (eg: the strikeout rate). It’s hard to imagine him being healthy and having a worse first month than he did.

    Despite all that, he has a .363 OBP.

    Troll Bait: That’s higher than Johnny Damon’s career OBP, and ajust a notch behind Hideki Matsui’s. :)

  • Dalelama

    A better comparison adjusting for league quality and a better measure of overall contribution:
    Lifetime AL OPS: NJ .783, Matsui .852, JD .795
    If it ain’t broken don’t fix it.

    • Joe D.

      Ah, NJ’s lifetime AL OPS. An interesting choice considering Johnson was last in the AL in 2003, when he was 24 years old. Not a particularly fair fight when he doesn’t get to have his peak in there at all but the others do.

  • http://www.marcys.wordpress.com Marcy S

    “Perhaps a move downward wouldn’t be the worst idea at this point.”

    I agree: I think Johnson should be switched to Brett Gardner’s position in the lineup, and Gardner hit at second.