Oh darling! Please believe me!
I’ll never do you no harm.

In 2013, Chris Johnson came to the Braves as an afterthought in the Justin Upton trade, but he soon drew plenty of attention to himself due to newfound offensive success. A .321 batting average (.358 OBP) will do that for a guy. Of course, a production spike like that brought out the skeptics, and this RotoGraphs article from November 2013 encapsulates the narrative that had coalesced around Johnson during his first year in Atlanta:

When we think of batting crown contenders, we have an image in our minds of a high contact line drive hitter who sprays the ball to all fields. Good power certainly helps as home runs are hits and don’t factor into BABIP [(batting average on balls in play)], so hitting home runs are an easy way to boost batting average without requiring an increase in BABIP. Speed also helps as it could lead to a greater rate of infield hits and even bunt hits. Chris Johnson isn’t exactly the picture of a batting average leader, and yet, he finished second in the National League with a .321 mark, which ranked fifth in baseball.

But, Johnson makes below average contact, as his Contact%, SwStk% and K% were all worse than the league average, what little speed he had completely disappeared (no steal attemps [sic] and no triples) and his power output was mediocre having posted just a .136 ISO. Despite the majority of his skills suggesting a lower batting average, he has now hit above .300 twice and sports a career .289 mark. How has he continued this magical act?

The obvious reason why he was able to record a career high in batting average was because of his .394 BABIP.

(Emphasis added.) In Johnson’s case, the article concluded, he presented as “the exact recipe for an inflated BABIP.”

Johnson’s breakout .321 batting average was enough to earn him a nice contract extension from the Braves that offseason, but the BABIP conventional wisdom prevailed on him in 2014, when he returned to Earth with a .263/.292/.361 line and provided the Braves sub-replacement-level value (-1.9 WARP, -1.3 bWAR, 0.2 fWAR). His BABIP in 2014, .345, was fifty points off his 2013 mark. Johnson skeptics likely felt vindicated by his 2014 offensive falloff (and we are focusing on offense here, as Johnson’s defensive marks range from below average to below “horrendous“) and likely closed the book on him.

Early in the 2015 season, though, this BABIP darling is asking us to believe again. Through ten games and thirty-five plate appearances, Johnson is hitting .300 (.371 OBP) with a .360 BABIP. For context, MLB-wide BABIP tends to hover around .300, although it’s down to .290 so far this season, as compared to .299 last year and .297 in 2013. (As an interesting aside, some preliminary research suggests that increased defensive shifting has not resulted in reductions in MLB-wide BABIP, although this conclusion may require revisiting in light of the continued upward trend in this relatively new defensive strategy. For a more recent and detailed analysis, read this, by the revered Ben Lindbergh.)

Acknowledging the sample-size caveats that necessarily attach to baseball conclusions and projections made in April, Johnson is making the case that we should view 2014 as his outlier season, not 2013.

More of AD’s work may be found at ALDLAND.

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2 Responses to “Chris Johnson, BABIP Darling: Can You Believe Again?”

  1. AD

    A BABIP/shift nugget from Ben Lindbergh’s latest:

    “Something else to keep an eye on: In the past, the shift has hardly affected leaguewide BABIP, but BABIP is down nine points thus far this season, only five points of which can be tied to the typical April penalty.”

    Reply

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