Projecting Chris Johnson’s 2014 Season

Oct 3, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves third baseman Chris Johnson (23) hits an RBI single against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the fourth inning of game one of the National League divisional series playoff baseball game at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

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.

 

Luck Alone?

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:

 

LD% GB% FB% IFFB% Pull% Center% Oppo%
Player A 27.0% 45.5% 27.5% 4.5% 32% 40% 28%
Player B 27.2% 43.7% 29.2% 0.8% 32% 32% 36%

 

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.

 

Chris Johnson’s Spray Chart – Lifetime

johnson spray lifetime

 

 

Chris Johnson’s Spray Chart – 2013 

johnson spray 2013

 

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.

 

Final Take

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!

 

Topics: Atlanta Braves, FanSided

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  • http://tomahawktake.com/ carpengui

    Chris Johnson schooled B.J. Upton in 2013… except that B.J. wasn’t paying attention to the lesson.

    On your prompting, Chris, I went back and looked at Upton’s spray charts for his “good” years vs. his “bad” years. The “good” years look a lot like Chris Johnson’s chart from above. Eerily so, in fact.

    In 2007/2008, BJ’s BABIP was .393 and .344, respectively (while averaging .300/.273). Lots of line drives were involved. He hasn’t approached those numbers since. He’s fallen in love with the long ball (more so the lazy fly ball), and Brooks’ now categorizes him as having a “disastrously high likelihood to swing and miss” on fastballs (29% whiffs) and curves (49%), never mind being “above average” for changeups (39%).

    But this is about Chris Johnson – not B.J. Upton. So who do you think has demonstrated the plate discipline to maintain what he’s found that is working? CJ or BJ? Interestingly enough, CJ has shown a “high likelihood” to swing and miss on off-speed and breaking pitches (45%/42%). But it’s pretty obvious that Chris is hammering fastballs (only 16% whiffs) despite a ‘very aggressive’ approach.

    So frankly, if anything, CJ has a chance to _improve_ on 2013 if he can (a) work counts into his favor; (b) recognize and adjust on off-speed pitches better; (c) lay off non-fastballs out of the zone. Even a 5% improvement in those latter 2 categories would make him scary-good in 2014.

    • http://www.tomahawktake.com/ Chris Headrick

      You are so correct about CJ’s potential to be scary good, and I so wanted to included some info on how Chris approaches different pitches. Thanks for helping with that with your comment. In short, I feel like Chris just has new life with Atlanta, and is taking the game more seriously than he has in the past. He’s always been lucky, always been pretty good, but I think he wants to elevate his game, and is taking a different approach to get that done.

      I’m sure readers may wonder why I didn’t touch on CJ’s defense, but I felt like there was really nothing new there. We all know that Chris is an average defender, and while he may have improved ever so slightly – I DO feel like if he is making attempts to change and elevate his offense, he’s working hard to do the same defensively. In short, I have no worries about CJ. Thanks Alan.

      • David Crowther

        It is pretty clear that CJ took a different approach to his swing this year, thanks to a new hitting coach and a new team. (Houston had to stink) The end result has identified CJ as to what type of offensive player he wanted to be and has become….HIt for Average. When we reflect upon his career numbers, and if we could take out his sophmore slumping numbers, we have a .300 plus hitter all day long. One problem in 2013 that held him back a bit was batting behind BJ and Uggla. Now that he has defined himself as the “real deal”, I’m quite sure Freddie wont make that mistake again. Look for extremely strong numbers from Johnson again in 2014 while showing some more improvements defensively. He may even make a strong run for this years all star team! .310/.350/.480

        • http://www.tomahawktake.com/ Chris Headrick

          Wow, .310! I’m not sure he’ll hit that high, but I have to say I like your enthusiasm bro. Hope it’s catching! :)

  • Brandon_Woodworth

    The data shows that CJ hits for better average when he doesn’t swing for the fences. So I doubt if he were to hit 15+ homers that he would hit anything better than .270.

    • http://www.tomahawktake.com/ Chris Headrick

      I think that depends on the changes he’s perhaps continuing to make to his approach. Yes, on paper he’s not going to hit 15 to 20 homers and maintain high average, but in reality he’s already making changes, and doing better than projected. I suspect he will continue to try and hit for average, not worry about the home runs, and he will hit better than .270. The biggest problem with CJ is that he is a touch too aggressive at times, and that may be some of that old “for the fences” mentality creeping in. If he can control that aggressiveness, and learn to hit pitches that he has some issues with, there’s every chance he will perform as good or better than 2013. I’m a fan, but then that should be obvious :)

      • Brandon_Woodworth

        .290/.340 with 10 homers sounds good to me. That’s where he needs to stay.

  • Sealift67

    When you drive the ball you get a lot of ‘luck’ added to your BABIP. Chart shows good
    spray. In interview he acknowledges having tried in the past to be a power 3B.
    Scouts had loved him earlier on and once again. He went from throw in to steal.
    He may not match 2013 numbers yet watching him he keeps the hands back
    and only FF has a prettier swing.

  • fireboss

    I have a gif of CH hitting a ball to right field to drive in a run towards the end of the season. he said in an interview that they had convinced him that he’d do better if he didn’t try to do so much. When it worked he was convinced. Cj won’t win a gold glove but he’s been improving and with Simba on his left it’s good enough packaged with his offense.

  • Lee Trocinski

    As Brandon mentioned, the BABIP was great, but the power went down. He shouldn’t expect to quite have Votto’s BABIP because he doesn’t have as much authority behind the swing. The Ks went down some, but the loss of power offsets that gain. He needs to have a .350 BABIP to be above-average at the plate, which is really a lot to ask. His below-average fielding and baserunning already lower him to an league-average projection, so any drop in BABIP makes him below-average overall.