On January 24th of this year, a 6’3” 220 pound 28-year old from Naples, Florida was traded for the second time in six months. His last trade had sent him to the Arizona Diamondbacks where he finished the 2012 season relatively well. The second half of 2012 saw him play in half as many games and have half as many at-bats as the first half of the season, when he played for the Houston Astros. And in that second half his OPS increased 67 points and he hit only one home run less, while his K/BB ratio increased from 4-1 to 5-1, his OBP went down eight points, he hit less doubles, stole less often and his WAR fell .1 points. Not much change, but that was fine. He was a decent offensive third baseman. “Nothing to write home about,” as my father might say. And when he became a member of the Atlanta Braves in late January, expectations were not very high, and rightly so. Which is why Chris Johnson’s 2013 season has been nothing short of spectacular.
I surveyed three different 2013 season previews, one from Zachary D. Rymer at Bleacher Report written on February 15, another from Mike Axisa at CBS Sports written on March 10, and another from gondeee over at Talking Chop (SB Nation) written on March 28. In order:
– Rymer makes sure to include Johnson among the “Key Arrivals” and pencils him in at 3B, though he does note that Juan Francisco “will also see time at third base.” He goes on to discuss the two in tandem, hinting at a platoon. He talks about the lack of “certainty” with the two 3B, that they both have a history of “being high-strikeout, low-walk guys”, and saying that there is a “fair amount of power between them.” Rymer throws out “25-30” home runs as an estimate for the contribution from Francisco and Johnson combined, and also says that “The Braves are going to have average or above-average producers at every other position on the diamond beyond third base,” implying of course that third base would have below average production.
– Axisa doesn’t have Johnson as the starting Third Baseman, choosing Francisco instead, and including Johnson among his “Notable Bench Players.” Axisa even has a “Under-the-radar offseason transaction”, and of course it isn’t Chris Johnson. And in the rest of his piece, Johnson’s name is not mentioned once.
– Talking Chop’s preview only mentions Johnson in that it mentions Johnson and Francisco (promoting the platoon so much as to refer to them as “Juan Johnson”), and says that they “hit for power really well”.
Finally, Fangraphs provides five different sources for player projections at the beginning of the season; RotoChamp, Steamer, Bill James, Oliver, and ZiPS. To date, Johnson has already played in more games than Steamer had projected, and has more PA’s and AB’s than both RotoChamp and Steamer had projected for his season. Between the five projections, Johnson’s lowest projected batting average was .254, and his highest .280, both coming from estimates having him playing most the whole season as he has so far.
Here’s the thing. Entering Tuesday, Johnson is leading the National League in Batting Average. Johnson is batting .342. His OPS is up to .856, his K/BB ratio is back down to 3.5-1, and his WAR is up to 1.7. Many players perform better in the minor leagues, and in 2009, Johnson played 104 games in the very hitter friendly PCL with Round Rock, amassing 412 plate appearances but putting up only a .281 avg and a .784 OPS which frankly is not good enough for the PCL. And now, four years later, he’s leading the National League in batting average.
Who could have seen this coming? Certainly not the Arizona Diamondbacks, who gave him up in addition to Justin Upton, and whose starting Third Baseman, Martin Prado, is batting only .267 with a .710 OPS and a 1.5 WAR. With about two months left in the season, we’ll be keeping our eyes on Johnson and the National League hitting leaders, as Johnson and the Braves cruise into the playoffs, the inevitable NL East Champions.