Jun 7, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Atlanta Braves third baseman Chris Johnson (23) fields the ball in the first inning of the game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Trading Post: Replacing Chris Johnson

The other day, I wrote the following:

Chris Johnson is actually a very highly ranked 3rd base threat… there’s truly no place to even find an upgrade for him.

Today, I’m going to explore this statement in further detail… and there’s a reason for doing so:  defense.

Chris Johnson has indeed been the surprise of the Justin Upton trade – hitting for average, hitting with some power, and even cutting down on his prior strikeout levels.  He’s 28 years old, and he’s on pace to exceed career highs in average, strikeout rates (in a good direction), walk rate,  and possibly runs scored – despite having shared time with Juan Francisco until this month.  He has been annihilating left hand pitching (.385; .441 when on the road) and beating most every other member of the team when facing RH pitching (.288).  Johnson is also hitting better on the road (.336 vs. .298), which the Braves sorely need.

But it’s the defense.    Bear with me a second:  this won’t be too painful:  Fangraphs calculates something called the RZR – Revised Zone Rating.  This represents the percentage of balls hit into the typical zone that a fielder should be able to cover that are converted into outs.  There’s another stat called the DRS – Defensive Runs Saved.  This represents the number of runs saved while on defense.  If that number is negative, then is represents runs that should have been saved.

Chris Johnson‘s RZR is 67.8%.  His DRS is -6… and which projects to -14 or -15 for the full year.

Think about these for a minute:

  • If a ball is hit in Johnson’s direction, there’s a 32.2% chance that the runner will reach base safely.  That’s like getting a .322 batting average for balls that should be outs.
  • The DRS number indicates that in the 46 games played this year at 3rd, Chris’s defensive play yields an extra run roughly at the rate of once every 8 games.
  • So no matter how good the offensive production is, you actually have to subtract the defensive liabilities to realize a player’s true worth.

Is there a worse third baseman in baseball?  Yes.  His name is Miguel Cabrera (-8 DRS).  I think he’s probably safe, though.  Other bad ones this year?  Aramis Ramirez (-8 DRS), Mark Reynolds (-8 DRS), Michael Young, Alberto Callaspo, Mark DeRosa, and a couple of others.  Don’t forget:  if CJ had been full-time, he would have a DRS of -8 or -9 by now.

Here’s a good contrast for you:  the best DRS number in the majors stands about 40 feet to Johnson’s left:  Andrelton Simmons (+22).  He has saved 22 runs this year – so far!


Early last year, the Braves replaced Tyler Pastornicky with Simmons at shortstop.  The reason?  Defense.  That literally replaced the worst DRS with the DRS.  Could they try to do this again?  Who could they try to go for?  Here are some of the better defenders that could be available:

  • Luis Valbuena (Cubs).  A good option.  .353 OBA, 6 HR, .242 avg is tolerable with huge walk rate (14%).  Super 2 player, on first Arbitration year.  The bad?  Cubs probably want to keep him (duh).
  • Conor Gillaspie (White Sox).  Similar to Valbuena in numbers, with normal (8.3% walk rate).  Should be gettable.
  • Nick Punto, Luis Cruz or Juan Uribe (Dodgers):
  • Punto is older – thus probably more attainable.  Hit well early; not so much since mid-May.  .332 OBA isn’t enough.
  • Uribe is expensive…and older… but producing better than Punto.  Whether either player can handle a full-time gig is up for debate.
  • Cruz?  Hit .297 in 2012.  .127 this year. Scary bad.  No thanks.
  • Miguel Tejada (KC).  Yes, 39-year-old Miguel Tejada.  I desperately want to say “____, no”, but he is hitting .288, so he made the list.  Still:  No.
  • Luis Jimenez (Angles). batting .232 in 24 games and a 33.3% strikeout rate.  Pass.
  • David Adams (NYY).  Worse than Jimenez, which is saying something.
  • Lonnie Chisenhall (Indians).  Pass.
  • Kyle Seager (Seattle).  If Seattle would be willing (not very likely), then this could be a nice solution.  He’s hitting a ton and provides average (think barely above Chipper Jones) defense.  He’s a lefty, but I doubt that you’d spend the prospects it would take just to platoon him with CJ… though the numbers kinda demand that.

Kind of an underwhelming list, eh?  Yeah – that’s exactly why I wrote what I quoted above.  It is actually hard to find an upgrade.

Other names you’ve heard… and the reasons they won’t work:

  • Will Middlebrooks.  Recently demoted because he isn’t hitting.  Turns out his defense isn’t that hot either.  Better than Johnson, but not by a lot.  Would nonetheless require a top prospect back to Boston.  No.
  • Chase Headley.  In case you hadn’t noticed, the Padres are tied for second place in the wild wild NL West.  They still have a more-than-decent shot.  So despite his contract situation, Headley isn’t going anywhere.
  • Aramis Ramirez.  Lost his power, and his defense is Chris-Johnson-bad.  This would be a downgrade.  I sure would not have said that last year.
  • Nick Castellanos (AAA, Detroit).  I would actually kill for him.  But Detroit wants a bona fide closer to justify giving him up.  Apparently, they are talking to Philly about Papelbon, which unfortunately makes entirely too much sense for both sides.
  • Mike Olt (AAA, Rangers).  The luster was fading from his rose, but a .205 AAA average 2013 is apparently the result of vision problems.  With that diagnosed, he is improving once again, but still not major league ready quite yet.  Oh, and the Rangers want something akin to Giancarlo Stanton for him.
  • Martin Prado (DBacks).  Just seeing if you’re paying attention.  No way Kevin Towers would go there.

Look, if the Braves were hitting more consistently OR if Ramiro Pena were healthy, then Johnson’s defensive woes could be tolerated.  But that’s not been the case, and the Braves haven’t exactly been running away with the NL East, despite getting all possible benefits from an unhealthy and non-productive Nationals team.  And with Bryce Harper starting his comeback, you have to assume that Washington will be better in the second half.  So it is definitely worth a look around to see what can be done.

But whether “better” can be found is an open question.

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Tags: Atlanta Braves Chris Johnson Ramiro Pena

  • cheadrick

    I agree with everything you said. I’m just not sure of the value of CJ in trade to get much of an upgrade, except perhaps defensively, which I realize is your point. Although perhaps an anomaly, CJ’s offense this year has been refreshing. Despite the defensive hiccups, will they want to lose that? If so, based on the organizations I know really looking to deal, you mentioned Conor Gillaspie, and I think he might indeed be a good pick.

    • cheadrick

      Editorial comment on my own comment: I don’t like Conor either, but I think he might be the best (if not so good) option, considering who’s dealing and what the Braves’ can do. Agree with Lee though, that pickens’ are slim when you get right down to it. My guess? They won’t go anywhere this year at 3rd, and will keep Janish up to platoon. We’ll see.

  • Lee Trocinski

    You don’t provide any RZR context. The league average RZR for 3B this year is .728, which means Johnson has made about 5 less plays than the average 3B. That being said, RZR makes UZR and DRS seem near-perfect. Doesn’t change the evaluation, but they are better measures than RZR.

    Offensively, Johnson won’t sustain a .400 BABIP, though .340-.350 has been his norm. He’s hit .282/.323/.423 (~.325 wOBA) since April 18, his career marks, so that’s all I expect here-on-out. Also, at least use OPS for offensive evaluation. AVG is such a small part of the offensive spectrum that is shows very little.

    As far as available players, Valbuena is a good sell-high candidate for the Cubs and a fit for the Braves. Gillaspie is barely above replacement level offensively and adds a bit of defense, but not enough to replace CJ. Punto is a great utility guy, but not worth giving anything up for. Uribe can still D it up, but his OBP will be lucky to exceed .300 for the rest of the season.

    If money wasn’t a factor, I’d take Aramis, bum knee and all, but he’s got $16M coming next year and at least a $4M buyout after next year. Trevor Plouffe is probably worse than CJ defensively at third, so he’s out. Alberto Callaspo is a possibility, a decent OBP guy.

    It’s tough to replace a normally marginal starter playing well during the season, which is why these names seem underwhelming. I don’t see any need to give up minor leaguers for a slight improvement at a position.

    • http://tomahawktake.com/ carpengui

      Agree – there was some risk into extending an already-too-long analysis (and I did talk about some of his other offense ranks in the previous piece on trades), so I cut out a bunch of detail. You are correct, of course.

      I do tend to discount BABIP a bit: I believe that hitters making great contact will make their own ‘luck’ more often. Those making poor contact will have more ‘bad luck’ when it’s easier for the fielders to get to the ball. That said… yeah, he’s 80 pts. above his avg. while the norm seems to be 40-50. I’m *hoping* that’s a factor of his higher K-rate than it is luck.

  • http://tomahawktake.com/ carpengui

    I should add this real quick: the inspiration for this post was Pena’s possible surgery (and now a reality – out for the year). I actually think that makes the need for a 3B more necessary… and while I would hate to lose the offense, it’s mostly for defensive reasons.

  • fireboss

    I have never been enamored with CJ, nice guy fields like a statue and has been a very streaky hitter until this year.
    Conor Gillaspie’s number and scouting say he’d strike out if a lefty threw him batting practice. The Sox have let him face one 33 times this year and he has fit hits, 10 ks an no walks. Pass.

    Valbuena isn’t likely to provide much more than backup infielder numbers and while the Braves replaced Rev last year because of defense it was with a gold glove caliber SS. Valbuena doesn’t look like that at third and projects to hit like a second baseman. If Uggla was hitting like a 3B that would be fine but he isn’t. Hands up all those who think he will again. . . We already carry BJ and Dan, Jason has not yet put it together, JUP is slumping hard (injury or feeling his brother’s pain and knowing he made it look worse when he was hot, I dunno probably both) Mac is not at full strength yet. I see this guy as a sideways move with less power and a little more OBP..

    I’d love to have Arenado but short of Alex Wood have no idea how you’d pry him from Colorado.

    Mike Olt will hit again now that he can see and is excess but the Rangers want things we don’t have except maybe Bettencourt. But he would be a piece and not the package.

    I predicted before the season started that Papelbon would end up in Detroit for Castellanos and Garcia, sticking with that but he’d be superb

    Oddly enough Will Middlebrooks could be the easiest to get if we wangtto give up a pitching prospect. I’d offer Gilmartin, wait for the laughter to die down then see what they wanted.

    The Braves won;t however break up the major league roster while we are leading the division unless Johnson falls off a cliff. He seems to be in that career year also known as the one year wonder, or buy now regret later. My fear is that the Braves will do something really silly like give him a three year deal buying out arbitration for way too much money. His numbers so far would give him 5M next year easily and that would project out to 3 @ 18 or 4 @ 22 both are too much and as I said I expect him to be back to his 250/290/390 140+ K self next year if not before.

    I wish there were more out there…

    I must sleep I’m in Leeds Alabama… I think.. long day :)