Was Nick Johnson really the wrong choice?


A post this morning on Baseball Time in Arlington got me thinking about the DH situation. There were four big DH free agents heading into the offseason — Nick Johnson, Hideki Matsui, Vladimir Guerrero, and Jim Thome — and it looks like the Yankees made the wrong choice. Nick Johnson is out for the year and is providing the team no value. Meanwhile the other three remain healthy. Throughout the season I’ve seen fans complain about the team picking Johnson over Matsui, since it was such an obvious mistake. Yet when I looked at it, the result isn’t so obvious.

Johnson has been out since early May, having produced 0.1 WAR before hurting his wrist. That’s not a great return on $5.5 million. Matsui has been healthy enough to accumulate 411 PA, more than four times the number Johnson managed. Yet Matsui has produced an identical 0.1 WAR. In other words, while Matsui has stayed healthy he hasn’t done much to help his team. Hell, even Juan Miranda has produced 0.1 WAR this season.

The big winner among the foursome is obviously Vlad, who has produced 2.1 WAR despite a recent downturn. Yet Jim Thome, in 212 fewer plate appearances, has produced 1.8 WAR. If the Yanks were looking for a left-handed DH, he gets the hindsight award for the pick I’d endorse.

Categories : Offense


  1. Poopy Pants says:

    Sometimes the best move is the one that isn’t made, especially if you already have a conga line of aging players that could use the DH spot.

  2. Jamal G. says:

    I was unaware of the fact that Jim Thome ranks tenth on the all-time walks list (and Gary Sheffield ranks 19th). I really hope he gets his 600th home run.

    I wonder if Cashman felt he was just declining too much (this being his age-39 season, 2009 saw a three-year decline in ISO and a significant increase (just south of 5%) in K%), and that Nick Johnson was the better bet in terms of production.

    Also, before they realized that Marcus Thames was a DH, the way the roster constructed was not very conducive to platooning two left-handed hitters. Despite an average career mark (.335 wOBA) against southpaw pitching, Thome has been quite below average since 2005 (.320 wOBA in 757 plate appearances).

    Cashman had two choices: go after the surer bet in terms of health, but also the seemingly platoon-needing slugger in decline, or the wild card in terms of health, but the seemingly surer bet with the bat. I think Johnson was the correct choice.

    • Yup. It’s easy to say in hindsight Nick Johnson was a mistake. Were there signs him being out for a significant time was a distinct possibility? Yeah, sure. But really, given the dearth of solid options, it was a wholly justifiable move. No, it didn’t work out; still, process is as important as results.

      Without Joe Morgan’ing, it’s still a move I’d sign off on given all the information that was available at the time.

      Still sucks though.

      • Accent Shallow says:

        Were there signs him being out for a significant time was a distinct possibility?

        How much one likes the NJ signing depends on whether you view him getting hurt as “a distinct possibility” or “a virtual certainty.” This is a guy who’s made of broken glass and bubblegum.

        (I’m not sure I ever made my mind up on the signing, for the record)

  3. JohnnyC says:

    Also, are we sure Thome has any interest in signing with the Yankees? Except for his cameo with the Dodgers, he strikes me as a real midwest type of guy.

  4. Kiersten says:

    Matsui’s struggles aside, I think heading into the season there was as much a chance of him being out all season with an injury as there was Johnson.

    I think at the time, Johnson was the best choice.

  5. Chris0313 says:

    Yankees In:

    Carlos Beltran

    Mets In:

    Curtis Granderson
    Juan Miranda

  6. This looks eerily like an article I read on Fangraphs this morning…

    Checks byline on Fangraphs article.

    Oh hey there, Joe!

  7. The209 says:

    He’s providing the team no production…

    To say he’s providing “no value” sounds wrong…isn’t he actually providing negative value — the lost $5.5M, and the fact there’s a gaping hole @ DH?

    • Yeah, his proportional value to what he’s being paid is undoubtedly negative. I think Joe meant in terms of real production.

      Though oddly, as Joe pointed out, he’s produced as much as Matsui despite having played like a month of baseball and spent the rest of the time growing out a sweet Mario mustache.

      • j_Yankees says:

        again…i don’t really want to have a go at WAR. But i have to question how Matsui and Johnson have been worth the same.

      • The209 says:

        Thanks for the reply…funny sh*t

        from the comment just below: Matsui has 7x more HRs and RBIs this year than NJ… isn’t WAR a little meaningless here..?

        And I still don’t understand why they passed on Matsui/Damon (great track records, questionable health) vs. NJ (a career of questionable health)….

        • He’s also made dozens of times more outs than Johnson has. That’s a negative.

        • Right, but in the time Nick Johnson played, he was able to get on base at an excellent clip, so while his overall line wasn’t great, compared to a replacement level player, he still provided a tiny fraction of real value (again, disregarding the contract).

          Matsui, on the other hand, played well for two months and positively impacted his team. But he’s also played some awful defense (though not much – 17 games; it’s still a factor) and has actually been so bad for the majority of the season (two months of wRC+ of 49 and 91, plus August’s wRC+ of 30!) that he’s provided negative value.

          WAR is about what an average nobody-type player could come in and provide as a baseline. Matsui, while having more counting stats, has actually been just as valuable because he’s really hurt the team. Nick Johnson hasn’t really hurt the team in the sense that he hasn’t played. Hope this helped a bit.

          And please, if I’m wrong about anything, feel free to correct me, folks.

          • Quick bit of research: Since May, Matsui has had only ten games in which his WPA was .100 or higher. By my rudimentary count, he’s had 70 games in which he posted a negative WPA. So he’s actually hurt his team in almost 70% of the games he’s played.

  8. j_Yankees says:

    Nick Johnson is out for the year and is providing the team no value.

    Thats about it right there. Don’t really need to say much else.

    but in all seriousness, i have no clue why Nick Johnson and Matsui’s WAR is the same. How? i guess Matsui’s defense? WPA perhaps?

    I know the whole HR/RBI stuff is overrated but my god it has to count for something. Matsui has 14 HRs and 54 RBIs vs johnson’s 2HRs and 8RBI. They have about the same wOBA (Matsu:.323, NJ:.330).

    • JobaWockeeZ says:

      He has a league average bat (98 OPS+) and while I’m not looking it up I’m sure whatever defense he played sucks.

      Tough I’m positive he’ll have a strong second half like last year.

  9. Jose the Satirist says:

    “he gets the hindsight award for the pick I’d endorse.”

    Just to add to that, Vlad was signed for $6.5M. Thome for only $1.5M (probably ends up being $1.8M based on performance bonuses).

  10. dalelama says:

    Actually we could have kept Damon instead of signing Johnson that was another option.

  11. bexarama says:

    IIRC, Matsui also said he wanted to play in the field sometimes as part of his new contract. I don’t blame the Yankees for not wanting to resign him if that was the case, because not only is he a really awful fielder, putting him in the field makes him way more prone to get hurt.

  12. Bob Michaels says:

    In retrospect it was, but i favored the decision to sign Nick.

  13. Dax J. says:

    I don’t think it was the wrong choice. There wasn’t a sure way of knowing that he was going to get injured (again). There was a risk, and the FO took it. That’s what it looks like to me. The upside of him batting 2nd and getting on base like we know he can, was what made the Yankees choose him.

    • Right, we can speculate ’til the cows in the meadow make milk but the FO hedged the reward of Johnson getting on base 40% of the time hitting second over the health risk and the lack of what appeared to be better options. Sometimes you lose on the high-risk, high-reward choices. Shit happens, what can you do? (Sign Lance Berkman, apparently.)

  14. mustang says:

    Player a) 14 HRs and 54 RBI


    Player b) 2HRs and 8RBI

    And some how your telling me that player B is not the obvious wrong choice for DH?

    Wow just wow.

    Hey just wondering if we could this for Randy Winn and Chan Ho Park somehow?

    • You’re making a poor case here, mustang, because you’re leaving out all the outs Matsui has made. Those are negatives, and he’s made a lot of them.

      • mustang says:

        Ok add the outs. But on the other side you have to add the cost of Berkman and the prospects to get him.

        So 5.5 for Johnson + 1.5 Berkman + prospects.

        For 2009 WS MVP Matsui and his outs.

    • RBIs are a dumb statistic; c’mon man, you’ve been around here long enough to know that.

      Also, if Player A has way, way more plate appearances and hits 14 home runs but does so with let’s say, a line of .200/.250/.350 and at a power position, he’s actually negatively impacted the team, even with 14 home runs. He’s taking PAs away from even a player who would perform at an average level.

      Nick Johnson being out means he’s not hurting the team (aside from him not playing and the loss of production on the contract; an average or better player can fill that role).

      If say that player hit all 14 home runs and a majority of those RBIs in a two-week stretch and went hitless for the rest of the time he played, would he still be that valuable?

    • Dax J. says:

      The funny part? Both players A and B have a 0.1 WAR. Noteworthy is the fact that player B has only 98 PAs while player B has 411. Player A: Not helping his team at all.

    • bexarama says:

      And Player C has 21 HRs and 86 RBI so… yeah.

      (That’s Vlad.)

    • Accent Shallow says:

      Chan Ho Park

      You want to talk mistake signings — this guy. Cashman might as well have given that money to anyone here, they’d be about as likely to produce good relief pitching as him.

      And Matsui has definitely outproduced Johnson, no question. Unfortunately, Matsui hasn’t been particularly good, so I might take Johnson+his replacements over Matsui.

  15. Pete says:

    The choice was not made today, it was made in february.

    Johnson had two areas of injurious concern at the time – back and wrist. The leg and face injuries were not only freak accidents, but also ones which were unlikely to A) impair his game significantly, and B) come back in any way from playing baseball. Back injuries can be recurring situations, but it had been years since his back had bothered him, IIRC. Wrists can also be re-injured, but remember Johnson had just made it through a full season healthily and appeared to have recovered pretty completely from that one.

    Meanwhile, our other options were, at the time, similarly unattractive. Damon was asking for a two year commitment at a high AAV, considering his age and generally unspectacular (though solid) offensive skills (by DH standards). He was probably the most likely to get through a full season, but he probably would have underperformed his contract in 2010, and could have been a complete deadweight by 2011. Matsui was also probably entering a decline phase. With two bad knees, many years to his name, and Thames-like ineptitude in the field, the Yankees (rightly) felt that he, too, was unlikely to live up to any kind of performance standard befitting a Yankee DH. Guerraro was a similar situation to Matsui – declining for quite some time, statuesque, simply not a good bet to perform well enough offensively to merit a starting DH position on the Yankees, even if it came cheap.

    Johnson, meanwhile, was not only cheap like the other guys, but also a good bet to outperform all of them if he remained on the field. Remember, Vlad and Matsui were considerable health risks themselves. Johnson was a guy who I think most probably figured would hit the DL at some point, but certainly wasn’t a lock to miss the whole season as some people are pretending he was. A wrist that’s on its second year away from a successful surgery and a back that’s several years removed from serious problems do not a glass man make. I do believe that people were right to label him as half injury-prone, and half unlucky, the latter of which was due to correct itself. And that’s just the health side.

    Where pure hitting is concerned (where Yankees DHs are concerned), Johnson’s ability far outstripped any of the other candidates at this point in their careers. At age 32, Johnson was not liable the way the other options were to have his abilities simply drop off a cliff. So there’s that. But even more importantly, Johnson’s career wOBA – a mark amassed while playing around injuries and losing playing time (and, in 2009, power) to them – was .370. He was coming off a full season in which he amassed a 130 wRC+ despite being just one year removed from wrist surgery (imagine what he could have been another year removed AND playing 81 games in YSIII), and in ’05 and ’06 he put up marks of 139 and 152, respectively, in that category. Nick Johnson, when healthy, is an All-Star caliber DH. He’s what Guerrero and Matsui and Damon were before they passed their bicentennials. The chances of any other option producing the way Johnson could, if he remained healthy, were almost nothing.

    So, faced with a choice between three rickety 1983 oldsmobiles and a 2001 BMW that had been in the shop a bunch of times in the last decade, Cash went with the Beamer. I would still say that he made the right choice, even if it didn’t work out. He got unlucky, that’s all.

  16. Jeffrey says:

    Great post, Pete. People forget that Nick had a perfectly healthy 2009 season with astronomical OBP’s. His power numbers were off, but there was reason to believe that another year further from wrist surgery and Yankee Stadium would have taken care of that. Had he stayed healthy he would have given the Yankees offense more consistency by being on base so much. He was signed to a one year deal to limit the risk.

    It is too easy today to say that they should have known he would get hurt for so long. I still have hopes that he can come back and help out in the playoffs, although those are slim hopes.

  17. Bo says:

    The move was bad on multiple levels. Not only was NJ a rally killer way too often with the Nats even when he was gathering stats, but Posada was already showing last season and into the postseason that his clutch bat needed to be shifted either full-time or part-time to the DH slot.

    I remember watching him giving up two passed balls in WS Game 6 [and knowing that Philly could've eaten him alive on the base paths given the chance] and thinking that Cashman couldn’t miss the need to upgrading the arm behind home plate. Even if the average of his replacement wasn’t amazing, the team had enough offense to offset it. I mean, Posada’s declining skills behind the plate have been an issue in postseasons past (remember the ouster against Detroit?), and to watch Cash go after Johnson with his injuries and his rally killing ways when the perfect DH candidate in Jorge was there was disquieting then, and it’s downright painful now.

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