Nick Johnson Friday night dropped an easy pop foul that would have ended the eighth inning with the Nationals tied against the Rays 3-3. On the next pitch Ron Villone gave up the game-winning homer to Gabe Kapler.
In the Post gamer today, Chico Harlan laments the irony that Johnson, the team's "best fielder," would commit the error that cost the team yet another loss.
But Nick Johnson has been anything but our best fielder this year. Let's start with the basic, pre-millennial stats. Nick going into tonight's game was tied for absolute dead last in MLB first-basemen with a .989 fielding percentage.
Tonight, he committed another error in the first inning, giving him seven on the season, more than any batting title-qualified first-baseman in baseball.
For context, Dmitri Young in 2007 had just 10 errors all year and finished with a .990 fielding percentage. Ouch.
Let's look at the more advanced metrics. Johnson's Ultimate Zone Rating is -3.7, meaning that he's allowed 3.7 more runs than the average fielder would allow in the same playing time this season. He's on pace to allow 9.1 runs more than average for the season (measured by UZR/150). Only Prince Fielder's -9.7 and Justin Morneaus's -12.8 UZR/150 is worse.
UZR finds that although his errors have hurt, his range has been worse. UZR breaks out a first-baseman's defensive contributions by range, errors, and double plays turned. While Nick is at -0.9 runs for the year because of his errors, he's at -2.9 for his range.
What's going on? It's true that Johnson was a good fielder in the past. Even with this season included he's a +4.9 UZR fielder for his career. He hasn't had a below average year since 2003, when he was still in New York.
Some of it I'm sure is rust from the nearly two full seasons lost to injury since his disastrous collision with Austin Kearns in September 2006. But it may also be a loss of athleticism, as the injuries have accumulated and he's just gotten older. He might also be a little gunshy going back on balls since that injury. The pop fly in Tampa is one of a number similar plays I seem to remember this year, where he had an easy play on the ball in foul territory and just lost it. Is he afraid of the wall? Or another collision?
Who knows, but we're past the point where this can be written off as small sample size or a slump. Nick's playing a terrible first base, and it's giving back far too much of the value he offers at the plate.