Monday, March 23, 2009

Pardon me for Noticing: Nick Is Red Hot

There's been a spate of stories lately about how Nick Johnson is 'struggling' this fall. We have this from Chico Harlan's Sunday Post story:
Johnson's insistence to swing and swing some more came from two separate feelings -- gratitude, because his body finally feels good, and determination, because sometimes, his swing still doesn't.

"No, I wouldn't say my swing feels like I want it to," Johnson said. "But hopefully in these next couple weeks I can turn it up a notch. I'm just trying to get that feel, just to be ready when the bell rings."

Johnson arrived at Space Coast Stadium on Saturday morning with a .167 spring training average (5 for 30), not that he knew the numbers. He just knew the root cause: He was still searching for comfort. So at 10 a.m. he took batting practice on the main field, and then asked hitting coach Rick Eckstein to join him on a minor league field for another 15 minutes of work. On this day, the Washington Nationals had Johnson batting fourth, starting at first base. Still treated by those around him as a known commodity, Johnson intended to prove them right.

The great gap in Johnson's track record provides the context for this spring.
And this from today's Examiner, in a piece titled, "Teams hope spring struggles fall by the wayside":
Washington’s likely starting first baseman has missed almost the entire past two seasons combined. His timing reflects that absence as he had just five hits in his first 30 at-bats. The good news: Three of the hits were homers.
One problem with this thesis. Nick is having a pretty damn good spring, thank you very much.

Following today's game, he had an OBP of .363 and an SLG of .527. There were exactly eight players in the entire National League last year that could match both of those numbers: Albert Pujols, Chipper Jones, Lance Berkman, Ryan Ludwick, Matt Holliday, Hanley Ramirez, David Wright, and Chase Utley. "Spring troubles," my foot.

So what's the disconnect? It's the .222 batting average. It's a case study in why BA is a dumb stat. Any stat that ignores almost 20% of a guy's plate appearances, all of which end with him on first base, is not a very helpful stat for evaluating a guy's overall value.

So stop worrying about Nick. There is no "great gap" in his performance. He's our best player, and he's showing it this spring. We should be so lucky to have him keep it up once the regular season starts.


CoverageisLacking said...

If a guy continues to hit .220, pitchers will start going after him more and won't let him walk so frequently. Your point generally is a good one, but the problem with it is that it is highly unlikely that a BA/OBP spread like this could be sustained over the course of the season. BA is not a meaningless stat, it is just not as meaningful as some might suggest.

Dave Nichols said...

Steven, having witnessed all of Nick's at bats last week, and the extra hitting Chico mentioned in his piece, i can tell you that Johnson's swing is not right.

he is late on every good fastball thrown to him. while his eye and patience is his most valuable commodity, they cannot get him by alone. once the regular season starts, if he hasn't been able to adjust and can't catch up with the fastball, he won't be able to exploit his excellent on base tools as much, as hitters will figure it out and just go after him. i saw his strike out eight times last week--just once looking.

i hope that his tardiness on the fastball is due to rust and in the next two weeks he catches up to the heater, as i agree with you he is the Nats most valuable hitter when healthy.

but if the cumulative effect of multiple injury has reduced his capacity to catch up to a good fastball, he's as good as done. you don't survive as a mistake hitter in the bigs for very long, especially in the 3-4-5 holes.

Dave Nichols said...

i meant "pitchers will figure it out", obviously.

Will said...

CoverageisLacking, see: Adam Dunn

He has a career AVG/OBP difference of a whopping .134. But really, what Johnson is doing in Spring Training is nothing new. He too has had a large disparity between hitting for average and getting on base. Just add .040 to both his Spring AVG and OBP, and you're pretty much in line with his career averages (.269/.396). I'm not too concerned, it simply appears as if NJ is swinging for the fences a little more (hence the higher SLG).

JayB said...

I agree strongly with CIL and Dave. I too was in FL last week and his swing is long and slow. Once MLB Vet pithers see he is unable to catch up with fastballs his walks are going way down......unless he indeed gets his new swing moving faster over the next two weeks.

Will said...

Also, in case you're interested, Nick Johnson was the best player in the league last year in terms of plate discipline, meaning he swung at the fewest pitches outside the strike zone. So basically, the only option for pitchers is to go after him.

CoverageisLacking said...

Will, Nick Johnson is not Adam Dunn, and he's not Jason Giambi either. To the extent my earlier comment suggested that it's never possible to have a spread like that with a low BA (and I don't think "highly unlikely" means never), then I overstated. It is possible, but it is very rare, and usually the guy has scary power--which Nick does not.

Also, I don't see that a guy walking a lot is sufficient basis to describe him as "red hot," whatever the circumstances.

Will said...

Coverage, I agree, I think Steven is overstating the case for NJ. If anything, NJ is slumping. But either way, I'm putting very little stock into how a player has done over just 46 PA.

But your point that it would be difficult for NJ to sustain such a disparity is tough to argue, when he has done it his entire career.
2008 is a small sample size, I know, but his numbers are ridiculous: .220 AVG and a .410 OBP!
Over Johnson's career his OBP-AVG is .127, slightly less than Dunn's of .134.
You're right that the typically "three true outcome" hitters are the ones who normally possess such large disparities. However, NJ is a unique type of player. Because his plate discipline is so fantastic, he's able to maintain a high OBP without having to bat above average.

Steven said...

@CIL--Yeah, at some point pitchers will come after him. In other words, he'll get more pitches to hit. And he'll hit more of them. His BA and SLG will go up, and hopefully his OBP will stay about the same.

You gotta realize that sometimes the pitcher just makes good pitches, and outs happen. You can't get on base ALL the time.

You realize that if he was hitting let's say .270 with the same ISO patience and ISO power numbers he's showing now that his line would be .270 / .410 / .570? You know how good that is? Only 3 guys in all of baseball did it last year.

@Dave--You've been watching him and I haven't, so I defer to you on how his swing looks. Still, if he's this good when his swing is off, I'm pretty anxious to see what he's like when the rust is gone.

Of course, ST stats are to be taken with a grain of salt, but the point here is that if you look at a guy with a .363 OBP and .527 SLG is NOT struggling. He's raking. Period.

Steven said...

Oh, and Nick Johnson is a better hitter than Adam Dunn.

CoverageisLacking said...

Steven, here's the thing. This is what you said in your post:

"We should be so lucky to have him keep it up once the regular season starts."

That is what I responded to as unsustainable--he's not going to keep hitting .220 and preserve the high OBP and SLG at the same time. As I said earlier, it's not going to happen, because pitchers will come after him more if he keeps hitting .220. And then, either his AVG will go up (if he hasn't lost a step as Dave and JayB suggest), or his OBP will just go down.

If he raises his AVG to .270 and keeps even a semblance of those ISO patience and power numbers, then that would be awesome.

But I don't get your premise that if he "gets more pitches to hit" that his AVG will necessarily go up. If he is as selective as you say and as the numbers suggest, then he already is only hitting the good pitches. So who's to say that his AVG will go up if he gets more good pitches to hit? If he's already only hitting the good pitches, then it's more likely that his AVG will stay the same, but his OBP will go down because he is walking less.

Also, you just can't say that a guy hitting .220 is "raking." You just can't. He might be getting on base at a good clip, but he's not raking. You can't drive in 2 or 3 runs with a walk.

CoverageisLacking said...

Oh, and before this goes too far, let me just say that Nick is probably my favorite player on the Nats--has been since '05. I have great appreciation for what he does at the plate, and how good he can be. I hope he can put things back together. But I think, Steven, that you've overstated things here in this post about the promise that his Spring numbers might suggest. I'm not ripping on him here at all, I just think we should all be clear about his progress so far, and what we should expect this year.

Steven said...


I sure can say he's raking. Repeat after me: walks are good... walks are good... walks are good.... I hope this doesn't seem patronizing, but I just don't think you're understanding what constitutes valuable offense. The top most important thing a hitter must do at the plate to create runs is to avoid making an out.

The BA will go up when pitchers come after him because this is what good hitting is. Wait for a good pitch to hit, and then hit it. First, you avoid swinging at bad pitches (those out of the zone). That forces pitchers to throw more pitches in the zone. Very, very few pitchers have good enough stuff to be forced to come into the zone and still get outs. Mariano Rivera is one. Can't think of any others right off the top of my head.

BTW, Nick has an 18% K-rate this spring that exactly the NL league average in 2008 and also matches that of his best offensive season ever, 2006. Doesn't sound like a guy with a long, slow swing.

CoverageisLacking said...

Steven, I too hope this doesn't seem patronizing, but your response to me shows the hole in your knowledge due to the fact that you didn't play the game and learned about baseball by reading books. "Raking" is not a sabermetric concept, it doesn't mean just getting on base, or "creating runs by avoiding making an out." Raking is a term that actual ballplayers use, and it means hitting the hell out of the ball. Which is not happening when a guy is hitting .220 but drawing lots of walks. So yes, I understand, that "the most important thing a hitter must do at the plate to create runs is to avoid making an out," but doing that is not the same thing as raking.

And thanks, also, for your pitch selection and batting tips. I greatly hope Nick's average goes up during the regular season. I just don't think you can draw any conclusions so far based on this Spring that it actually will. The guy himself has said that he is not happy with where his swing is--do you think he would describe himself as "raking"? I highly doubt it. Just don't overstate things, which is what you did here in this post.

Steven said...

He's slugging .527. He has 3 homers and 3 doubles in 44 PA, which would over the course of a full season translate into about 48 home runs.

I think I read in a book somewhere that that's a lot.

Steven said...

I'll give you this much: Nick is not nearly has hot as the average hitter against Scott Olsen, who sucks. He's giving up a .410 OBP and .595 SLG.

Steven said...

Let's put it this way: if just 2 of his 8 walks were bloop singles, his BA would be .280, and every other stat on his line would most likely be the same. And everyone would be jizzing over his unbelievable start. Why? He's getting plenty of extra base hits, evidenced by his SLG. So why are a couple singles so preferable to a couple walks? Not because it's a repeatable skill. Drawing walks, making contact, and ISO power are repeatable, and Nick's numbers there are very strong.

80 years ago some asshole invented the batting average stat, and ever since casual baseball fans have been confused about what makes for good hitting.

CoverageisLacking said...

If Nick this season turned in to a post-roids version of Jason Giambi, I would take it. I'd say the odds of that happening once the bell rings and he is facing real big-league pitching every day are pretty low, but who knows?

How about we agree that Scott Olsen sucks, and call it even. It looks like starting pitching could be seriously grim this season.....

CoverageisLacking said...

Oh, Steven, I was all set to end this back-and-forth, and then I saw your 11:09 post, after I posted. I'm not sure about the "casual baseball fan" comment and who that was directed to, but anyway...

Either you are trying to be dramatic and overstate things in defense of "new stats" and sabermetrics (viz, your "some asshole" remark), or else you really don't get it. No one here is talking about a subset of less than 50 PAs and what that might indicate. Of course when you are dealing with a sample that low, luck can have a disproportionate impact that, if we draw conclusions from it, can be misleading with respect to "good hitting."

But again, I'll take you back to your initial post, which talked about us "being so lucky" to have Nick sustain a .220 BA--to go along with high ISO on-base and slugging--over the season. That is entirely different than a small subset of plate appearances. Over the course of a season, bloops are not going to take a .220 hitter to .280. And .280 is preferable to .220, any day. Batting average is meaningful.

sid bluntley said...

A .220 average would be almost leading the team on the 2008 Nationals ...

NatsGuy said...

Steven, you are absolutely correct. Its all about getting on base. Why don't we leave the swing to the experts and wait for the results.

I see JayB has taken his expert negativity to other blogs.

Steve Shoup said...

The problem is that this is WAY to small of a sample size. Yes his OBP and slugging are good but in spring training they are as great as they are made out to be. Look at the White Sox, Wilson Betemit has a .391 OBP and .714 slugging percentage, and amazingly he is still being out slugged and getting on base less than his 3B competion Josh Fields ( .478 and .732). Lets not forget that Austin Kearns has a .455 OBP and a .593 SLUG, albeit in a few less at bats.

While its nice to know that Johnson is doing some things well we need to put his numbers in perspective and remember that even Johnson admits that his swing is off. To me thats not a good sign, it is gonna be easy in spring training to pad some stats like HR's or walks when you are facing so many inferior pitchers but when we get to the regular season he's not gonna have that advantage.

Steven said...

Steve--Yes, the sample size is small. But it seems to me that this is besides the point. The point is, in 44 PA in spring training, Nick is NOT struggling. I'm not drawing any conclusions whatsoever about whether this will continue or about his repeatable skill set. All I'm saying is that his spring performance has been very very good, not struggling.

If Nick hits 4 home runs on opening day, I would say that he had a pretty great day. The sample size is irrelevant. In the sample in question, he did well. That's all I'm saying is taht he's hitting well this spring, while the MSM is insisting that he's struggling based on a dumb stat that obscures his value.

Steven said...

@CIL--I'm not sure why this post is so controversial for you. I'm looking at 44 PAs, and he has 8 walks, 3 homers, 2 doubles, 3 singles, and 8 strikeouts. That's a very good rate of production, one matched by only 8 players in the NL this season, measured by OBP and SLG. That's all I'm saying, that he's done well in this snapshot of 44 PAs, and anyone who disagrees (eg Harlan, the Examiner) I don't think is looking at the stat line very intelligently.

When I say, "We should be so lucky to have him keep it up once the regular season starts," all I'm saying is that it would be great, not bad, for him to maintain this overall rate of production all year, which is more of a comment about his injury prone-ness than hitting. I doubt anyone disagrees that if he put up 47 home runs (which is his ST pace) that we'd be pretty happy with that.

Now, you in the comments engaged a different question, which is about projection. My post has nothing to do with projection, but you raised it, so I said that I actually think that the skills he's showing--high raw power, high plate discipline, good contact rate--are all very projectable. BA fluctuates a TON so I don't think there's cause to worry.

But my post is not about projection. It's about setting the record straight that Nick's 44 PAs in ST have been good, not bad, that's all. OK?

CoverageisLacking said...

But Steven, you weren't disagreeing only with Harlan and the Examiner about what the stat line for this limited number of PAs might mean. You were also disagreeing with the player himself--Nick says he's not comfortable with how he's swinging the bat, and your response is "don't worry, the stats show that he is red hot.". That's when I think you are taking the reliance on stats too far, and that was the basis for my reaction. It was also the basis for my point that it would be unsustainable--that if he's lost something on his swing, he won't be able to sustain that kind of a stat line. My point is that you can take stats too far--which I think you did here when you used stats from a very small sample to conclude that the player himself essentially doesn't know what he's talking about.

Steven said...

Nick may feel like he's still rusty. Heck, he might be rusty--probably is. But if you can do this when you're rusty, that means you're a great fucking player.

The only point I made is that in this 44 PAs, he's provided a very high level of production. Measured by OBP and SLG, it's a level of production that would have put him in the top ten hitters in the NL last year. That's not an opinion, it's just stating a fact.

Also, my view of Nick is that he's the kind of guy who could be hitting 1.000 and he would say he still feels like he's "skating" a bit.

Steve Shoup said...

Steven its not just the sample size that concerned me it was the quality of the sample size. Now unfortunately I can't/won't look up who Nick got his hits and walks off of. I know he got two hits off of Carpenter but my guess is most of his at bats have come up against inferior competition. Especially with all the top pitchers who were in the WBC this doesn't seem like that outrageous of a claim. For me I worry what happens to that HR that was hit off a 87MPH fastball up in the zone when it turns into a 95MPH fastball low and away? And what happens to those walks when Jamie Moyer is painting the black with his pitches?

And my worry is compounded because Johnson himself is saying his swing is off. To me if thats the case then i'm worried. Also while I didn't read the Examiner Article but the Chico article's point was about Johnson fixing his swing, and I think its valid to talk about his lack of making solid as evidenced by his BA. No its not the end all be all stat but it does show some struggles at the plate.

Michael said...

By the logic of those worried about Nick Johnson's start, we should expect Austin Kearns to compete for the batting title, so let's call it wash.

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