There’s a good chance the Giants could use the FA market this offseason to upgrade at first base. The good news for the Giants is that the 1B market is cram-packed with options. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a first baseman looking for work. The market is full of guys like: Carlos Delgado, Nick Johnson, Russell Branyan, Adam LaRoche, Hank Blalock, Aubrey Huff, and Chad Tracy just to name a few. As usual, there’s some landmines mixed in there, but also some pretty interesting options for teams looking to add offense. The Giants have struggled to find even league average production from first base and, despite Ryan Garko being in the mix, the team might want to make a play on one of the many available free agents.
Which brings us to my topic for today’s post, Nick Johnson.
Ever since he made his MLB debut in 2001 with the Yankees, Johnson has shown a skill-set that’s tuned to getting on base. If you spent any amount of time watching the 2009 Giants then you would know that getting on base wasn’t one of the team’s strengths. Not making outs was a huge ding in the Giants’ offense. The ’09 squad ranked dead last in OBP in all of baseball. And, correspondingly, last in BB% — or the percentage of walks per plate appearance. The Giants were a team composed of free-swinging hackers who were unlikely to take a walk. If you’re thinking that they maybe made up for their lack of patience in other ways, namely hitting for power, you’d be wrong again. The Giants posted the 2nd worst ISO in baseball. So, it’s not hard to see what went wrong with the Giants last season when it came to hitting.
They didn’t get on base and they didn’t hit for any sort of power.
A deadly combination for any offense. But, Nick Johnson? What’s the deal? Isn’t he the guy that’s perpetually hurt? It’s true that Nick Johnson has spent quite a bit of time on the DL since he debuted in 2001. But, Johnson provides something that the Giants drastically need. A competent hitter that can get on base and someone that’s going to come on a small contract commitment. Pinning your hopes on an injury prone soon-to-be 31-year-old first baseman seems like crazy talk, but really, is it?
Before I make my case for Johnson, let’s check out his career since 2002 in regards to getting on base (BB%) and remaining in the lineup (PA).
Since 2002, Nick Johnson has averaged a staggering BB% of just a tick under 16%. He’s also average around 430 PA’s per season with a high of 628 in his excellent 2006 season. You can almost bank on two things with Johnson. First, he’s not going to play a full season of baseball. Somewhere, at some point, he’s going to spend some time on the DL. He missed all of 2007 and he’s usually dinged up. It’s something you have to plan for when you bring him on board. Second, he’s going to get on base. He’s nearly doubled the league average BB% every year since 2002 — sometimes surpassing it. He’s going to get on base for you.
If we wanted to conservatively project Nick Johnson for next season, he should look something like this:
Batting Wins Above Average (.360 wOBA, league wOBA .332): +1.6 wins
Defensive Wins Above Average: -.3 wins
1B Positional Adjustment: -1.25 wins
Replacement Level: +2 wins
= 2.1 wins * .57 (or about 400 PA’s for PT) = +1.2 WAR
And remember, I’m trying to stay conservative with this projection (ie: calling him a .360 wOBA hitter when he’s been closer to .370 over the past 2 seasons, calling him a -3 run defender when over his career he’s been above-average despite a slip in ’09). On the low end, Nick Johnson is a +2 win player. If he hits closer to .370, his fielding bounces back to average, and he’s healthy, he’s a total +3 win player. Of course, we’re going to guess that he’ll end up with something around 400 PA’s. That evens him out to a 1.2 win player in 400 PA’s. He’s essentially a league average first baseman with a chance to be above-average depending on a few factors.
The best part about Johnson should be his price. I can’t imagine any circumstance where he gets beyond a 2-year deal and there’s a pretty good chance he’s going to have to settle for 1-year deals with options for the rest of his career. His health is a major sticking point when it comes to bringing him into a new team, but with the risk you take with tendering Johnson a contract, there’s also a bit of reward. For every 100 PA’s he stays healthy past our 400 PA mark, he’s adding almost a half-win to his projected win total of 1.2 wins above replacement. And that’s with our conservative projection above. If he hits better, the reward is greater.
Just how does Nick Johnson manage to post such good BB%’s? The answer is pretty simple. He’s very selective and he doesn’t swing outside of the strike zone.
Here are two PFX plots for Nick Johnson’s 2009 season. The first is side-by-side look of his plate approach for pitches out of the strike zone broken down by swings and non-swings. The 2nd image is his swings and non-swings all in one image, in the zone and out.
(Click to enlarge)
The 2nd image could use a little tweaking but I think it makes a pretty good point about Johnson. He’s not very likely to expand himself outside of the strike zone when it comes to hitting.
If the Giants do decide to sign Nick Johnson they have some decent backup insurance for when he lands on the DL (because it will happen). Ryan Garko, if he’s still around, is good enough to fill in the gaps for Johnson between time on the DL and time off. Travis Ishikawa showed some good defense last year and as a stopgap option, he should be acceptable. Nick Johnson provides a good chance for a +2-3 win player on a small commitment. And, the idea that he’s not valuable in just 400 PA’s isn’t true. In Nick Johnson the Giants would get a patient hitter (something the team desperately needs) with a chance for average to above-average production. Signing Nick Johnson is taking a risk, but it’s one the Giants should take.