Monday, March 13, 2006

The Walking Stick

Nick Johnson has long been one of my favorite players. As most of you
who've been reading for more than a week know, in a previous life, I was a
fan of a certain team which used to have NJ's rights. With the advent
of the internet, my awareness of stats, and my fervor towards said
team, it was easier to follow Mssr Johnson.

And I liked what I saw.

His 1999 season is jaw-dropping. As a 21-year-old, he tore through
Double-A, hitting an amazing .345/ .525(!)/ .548. Yes, his on-base
percentage was above .500. He drew 123 walks that year, and showed a
propensity for being hit by pitches ala Biggio. For good measure, he
chipped in 52 extra-base hits. While not a homerun slugger, he had a
great line-drive swing and was capable of spraying the ball all over
the park.

Then came the injuries.

He missed the entire 2000 season with a wrist injury. It first started hurting him in that 1999 season, but they were never really able to find a cause, or even diagnose what was wrong. All he knew was that he couldn't swing the bat. There was
some concern that it might linger, but he seems to have avoided THAT particular injury again.

In 2001, he spent most of the season at Columbus. While he still
showed plate discipline (walking 81 times in just 110 games), he lost
a bunch of his batting average, which was probably a combo of rust
from the injury and him dealing with a more difficult league. He got a callup in
September, and couldn't hit for average, but showed patience -- no
surprise there.

Since then, he hasn't really lived up to the heights of that double-A
season. And that's mostly because of injuries:
02 -- Separate wrist injury (sprain)
03 -- Stress Fracture in hand
04 -- Lower Back Strain; Tweaked Knee; Broken Face
05 -- Soft Tissue Damage in The Heel.

Until last year, only his 2003 season showed a glimmer of his potential.

But really, if you look at his stats, 2004 was the injury-caused outlier. His 2003 wasn't all that different from his 2005. And his 2005 was on pace to be better than it was until that heel injury.

Remember that at the All Star Break, a legitimate case could've been made that Nick Johnson was an All Star. He batted .320/ .444/ .508 in that magical first half. Those numbers, especially when we think about what we now know about the effect of RFK, are scary good. Johnson's August was poor, but when he played in September, he hit the same way he did in the first half, .297/ .423/ .531. (SPLIT STATS)

Nick Johnson, even when healthy, isn't going to hit more than 25 or so homers. Despite that, he's as valuable as some of the game's biggest slugging first basemen. Here are the stats for the 4 MLB first basemen immediately above and below NJ in terms of OPS (on-base + slugging).

               OPS+  EQA   WARP
Nick Johnson 139 308 7.2
Adam Dunn 135 311 6.9
Chad Tracy 131 298 5.4
Richie Sexson 140 305 6.5
Paul Konerko 136 298 7.5
Mike Sweeney 127 292 3.9
Lyle Overbay 113 282 6.4
Dmitri Young 111 271 2.8
Sean Casey 104 287 5.3
(OPS+ is adjusted for league and park and presented as a percentage compared to average. EQA is Prospectus' overall measure of player value which they express in terms of a batting average to make it more identifiable with conventional stats. WARP stands for 'wins above replacement player', essentially trying to convert their stats into runs and into wins. This stat tries to quantify how many wins better a player is than the typical kind of scrapheap AAA player that would be freely available (In NJ's case, think Larry Broadway).

Yes, Nick Johnson's performance is in the same class as Richie Sexson (4 years, $50 million), Adam Dunn (2 years, $18.5 million), Paul Konerko (5 years, $60 million) and Mike Sweeney (5 years, $55 million). He doesn't hit for the power they do, but the man gets on base, cranks out doubles, and plays excellent defense.

Add it all up, and there's no doubt, NONE, that he's worth $5.5 million a year, even if he's broken 2/3 of the time. If he's healthy though? The Nationals have one of the biggest bargains in baseball. And if Jim Bowden's rebuilding plan (Plan? What plan?) doesn't work, it's the kind of contract that would net a slew of young talent in return.

So thumbs up all around! (Except for yours Nick... we don't want you to strain yourself).