Chris “BABIP” Johnson
Last season, Chris Johnson and the BABIP stat were used so much in the same sentences by multiple writers and commenters, you’d think BABIP must be Johnson’s nick name. Put another way, you often hear that the success Johnson had in 2013 (high average) was largely based on luck. That’s true to some degree, but when we talk about how Johnson could perform in 2014, BABIP has to be used with care. Why? Because it can be inherently flaky at times, and is not so much a determinant of future success as it is simply a tool to help us measure what could be going on with a player in the present. Luck has something to do with it for sure, but skill is a possible factor as well, at least to a degree.
Chris Johnson had what many consider to be a successful 2013 season. Outside of the luck question, the central question is whether or not Johnson can replicate what he did last season, and be effective offensively. I think he can, but we do need to factor in his high BABIP from last season.
For those of you not familiar with the BABIP stat, a short primer may help. Rather than try and explain the stat myself, I’ll just quote the fine folks over at Fangraphs, who eat this stat for breakfast. According to their primer, BABIP is:
Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) measures how many of a batter’s balls in play go for hits. While typically around 30% of all balls in play fall for hits, there are three main variables that can affect BABIP rates for individual players:
I encourage you to read the entire primer, but the three main variables that can affect BABIP rates for an individual player are defense, luck, and changes in talent level.
With Chris Johnson, I maintain that while luck had something to do with how well he hit for the Braves in 2013 (it always does with every player to one degree or another), it was a change in his talent level, specifically his approach at the plate, that accounts for his being runner-up for last year’s NL batting title. No, I’m not discounting the luck factor, or the opponent’s defense, but neither should anyone discount a change in Johnson’s talent level either.
Johnson finished the 2013 season with a .321 batting average (2nd in the NL), and many analysts hold that his .394 BABIP (highest in baseball) and the luck portion of that stat account for his high average. Because they believe that Johnson’s high average was based primarily on luck, they also believe we’ll see quite a regression for Johnson in 2014. I believe we will see a lower BABIP simply because it’s nearly impossible to sustain that high a number for very long, but that doesn’t mean Johnson will be less effective, or that because his BABIP is likely to drop, his average will drop significantly as well.
ZiPS projects Johnson to record a .338 BABIP in 2014. Oliver projects a BABIP for Johnson around .345 and Steamer projects a BABIP in the neighborhood of .342. Most of these projections don’t have Johnson being much more valuable than Dan Uggla was last year, and contend that all of his success in 2014, if he has any, will be based on the luck factor in his BABIP.
It’s true that Johnson’s BABIP was extremely high in 2013, but Johnson has a high career BABIP as well! That would seem to some to mean he’s always been pretty lucky, but has it been luck alone? Mike Podhorzer wrote an interesting article back in November of this year, trying to answer that very question.
Mike points out that Johnson’s Contact%, SwStk%, and K% were all worse than league average, but that he has now hit above .300 twice and sports a career .289 mark. He goes on to compare Joey Votto with Johnson, and notes the following chart:
These are very similar batted ball profiles. Without any additional information, it would appear that Player B’s is a bit more attractive as he hits fewer pop-ups and has a slightly more balanced batted ball direction mix. Player B is in fact Mr. Votto. But Johnson isn’t far behind as he goes up the middle frequently and alternates hitting it to the pull field with going the opposite way.
This type of batted ball mix is the exact recipe for an inflated BABIP. Johnson’s xBABIP (which remember, does not include batted ball direction yet) was .343, which although is a far cry from .394, likely ranks as one of the highest in baseball. It is important to remember that formulas like xBABIP factor in lots of regression and so they will usually miss on the extremes. Obviously no one should expect another .390+ BABIP, but he clearly has the swing to produce a consistently high mark.
I think Mike makes a good argument that while Johnson is certainly anomalous, he also has a good swing, and the talent level needed to continue to produce at a reasonably high level for the Braves. Watching Johnson through the 2013 season, I have to agree. Beyond the simplistic factor of luck, there is something that has changed in his swing (talent level) that accounts for his high average.
Batted Ball Mix
If we look at his spray charts from last year (thanks to Alan Carpenter for helping with this Brooks Baseball research) and compare them to his lifetime spray charts, there seems to be a difference in where he’s hitting the ball.
A comparison of these charts indicates that Johnson is not trying to hit as much for power and distance as simply hitting for average (which was high last year), and taking what he’s given. His line drives are falling shorter, and his batted ball mix (ability to hit to all fields) is pretty substantial.
In the end, none of us can know what type of season Chris will have in 2014. I believe like most that his high BABIP cannot be sustained, and so it’s fair to say he may not have as high an average as 2013. Let’s not forget as well that Johnson often had to make plate appearances surrounded by a slumping B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla. That didn’t help his OBP cause much.
As we’ve already pointed out, however, Johnson has hit over .300 twice, has seemed to change the way he approaches his at-bats, and certainly could surprise us all.
While it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility that Johnson could hit as high as, say, .300 with around 20 homers, I think it more likely Johnson will hit on a line of about 280/.325/.450 (Fred Owen’s projected line, which I agree with), with not quite 20 homers. Only time will tell, but I’m putting my money on Chris Johnson!