It seems that every year I find a player that I get super bullish on and this year that player is Chris Johnson. When Yonder Alonso hears about this, I'm sure he'll be heartbroken but I think a clean break is best and the only way to do that is to write about Johnson. Johnson has moved around a lot over the past two seasons but he seems to have found a home in Atlanta. Traded from Houston to Arizona in 2012, Johnson came to the Braves along with Justin Upton last offseason. It felt like he was kind of a throw in - someone to try and help replace the loss of Martin Prado - but he turned out to be much more. While he's not a particularly good third baseman, Johnson showed that his bat is legit and finished the year 5th in the majors in batting average.
Chris Johnson isn't a flashy player and, at a position filled with talent, he sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. Batting average is often overlooked in fantasy baseball unless it's used to knock a player down. We always seem to focus on a player who does a lot of good things and add the caveat "but the batting average will kill you" (or some derivation thereof). What we seem to forget is that batting average is accounts for 20% of stats in most leagues and it's a skill just like hitting home runs and stealing bases. There is a push from a lot of analysts who don't believe batting average is a good indicator of a player's talent level because of the effects of luck and some other aspects but it's what many leagues use and players are able to control it somewhat (as much as runs and RBIs, if nothing else).
Johnson is a career .289 hitter who has shown the ability to post BABIPs that are consistently higher than league average. Last season, Johnson's BABIP was a career high .394 and while I wouldn't expect him to repeat that, his career BABIP is .361. An important note about BABIP and regression is to remember that player's don't necessarily regress to league average, rather to their own career average. According to Russell Carleton at Baseball Prospectus, BABIP stabilizes around 820 plate appearances. Chris Johnson has over 1800 career plate appearances so we can assume that he will continue to post high BABIP figures.
Johnson's high BABIPs are buoyed by a consistently strong batted ball profile. He has a career 24.9% line drive rate and it has increased each of the last three years, peaking at 27% in 2013. He also hits about a league average number of ground balls and while he's not a burner, ground balls are more likely to turn into hits than fly balls. In addition, Johnson does a nice job of using the whole field. His pull-center-opposite line is 38%/37%/24% for his career and last season was even more evenly distributed at 35%/36%/31%. Scouting departments do an amazing job and defenses are better positioned than ever before. It might not have a huge effect (I don't know the research), but I would assume a player like Johnson is difficult to plan against in this regard.
Last year, Chris Johnson showed a lot of improvement in his strikeout rate, slashing almost 4% off of his K%. Johnson is below average in terms of walk rate so it's important for him to limit strikeouts. I'm a little skeptical about the decrease in Ks as his swinging strike percentage actually increased and his contact rate decreased. One would think this would point to an improved batting eye but Johnson swung at more pitches out of the strike zone in 2013 than he did in 2012. While I believe Johnson will continue to hit for high averages, I could see his strikeout percentage coming back up a little.
Beyond his batting average, Johnson won't "wow" you with his other statistics but they are solid. He hit a career high 15 home runs in 2012 none of which were hit at Chase Field in Arizona. Despite adding about 10 feet to his home run and fly ball distance, Johnson's HR/FB rate dipped a little last year and he hit fewer fly balls than in 2012 leading to 12 home runs last season. Turner Field is a below average park for right handed power so we need to take into account but an uptick in his HR/FB could be in store and if he hits a few more fly balls, it's not out of the realm of possibility that he hits 20 home runs. I'm not betting on that, but I think 15 dingers is likely and I'd feel comfortable projecting him around 17.
The Braves lineup should be pretty strong again this year in terms of scoring runs but Johnson will bat down in the order and, with so many of the hitters in the lineup taking an all-or-nothing approach, he may not have as many opportunities for RBIs as we'd hope. There is a chance that he will bat 5th or 6th depending on what the team does with BJ Upton so if that's the case, I'd expect a few more ribbies from Johnson. He won't score many runs regardless of where he's hitting and he didn't steal a base last year.
I think a .280 average with 15-17 home runs, 70 RBIs and 50 runs is very doable for Johnson this season and will provide a nice return on investment for owners that draft him. He's currently being ranked around 20-22 among third baseman by most sites. I don't necessarily disagree with this ranking but I think there's a strong chance that Johnson outperforms it. If you're waiting to draft a third baseman in a deep league or play with corner infielders, Johnson is definitely a guy to keep in your back pocket. Also, I love him in NL only leagues because of his safety and potential.
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You can follow Zack on Twitter at @FantasyNinja8.