Rob Johnson’s Offense

Dave · July 20, 2009 at 9:14 am · Filed Under Mariners 

When the conversation turns to Rob Johnson, inevitably you can bet you’re about to have a discussion about the value of a catcher beyond the things that we’re currently able to quantify. Catcher ERA, belief systems, language barries… you know the drill by now. I’d imagine most of us cringe and turn away when someone says “let’s talk about Rob Johnson”, because the topic is getting old and boring, with neither side having much new to say.

So, why don’t we talk about his offense instead?

Johnson’s seasonal batting line isn’t good – .209/.278/.340 adds up to a .271 wOBA. Among catchers with at least 150 plate appearances, only Jeff Mathis and Dioner Navarro have been worse offensively this year. Over a full catcher season (~500 PA), Johnson’s offensive performance to date would be worth about 30 runs less than a league average hitter. That’s bad – for context, Russell Branyan’s current level of hitting would be worth about 35 runs above a league average hitter over a full season, so Johnson essentially cancels out Branyan at the plate.

Given his struggles at the plate, and the team’s inability to score runs on a consistent basis, it is easy to see why he’s become such a lightning rod for criticism among fans who don’t value the intangible “belief system” stuff as much as Wakamatsu does. However, if we take a closer look at his offense, perhaps there is more reason for hope than previously believed.

Of Johnson’s 32 hits this year, 16 of them have been for extra bases. When he makes contact, he has the ability to hit the ball hard. He doesn’t have much in the way of loft power, as he’s more of a ground ball/line drive guy whose fly balls are usually easy targets for the outfielders, but he has the ability to drive the ball into the gaps or down the lines. Particularly if he gets a fastball – there’s enough bat speed there for him to turn on it and get himself to second base.

His problems at the plate are an over-aggressive approach (he swings at 30% of pitches outside the strike zone), an inability to handle good breaking stuff, and some holes in his swing that make it tough for him to make contact on pitches inside. Early in the season, pitchers could pound him with fastballs in and sliders away, and he was an easy strikeout. Over the last few weeks, though, he’s made adjustments at the plate.

He’s not chasing those pitches he has problems with early in the count nearly as often anymore. In July, he’s swung at just 41% of the pitches he’s seen, a number comparable to a normal month for Franklin Gutierrez. By increasing his selectivity of what to swing at, he’s getting himself into better situations, and it’s paying off. From April through June, he drew 8 walks in 132 plate appearances – in July, he’s drawn six walks in 39 plate appearances. Perhaps more importantly, he’s only struck out six times this month, for a 15.3% K% – he was at 24%, 26%, and 29% the previous three months.

In comparable amounts of playing time, his monthly BB/K rates are as follows:

April: 1/11
May: 4/12
June: 3/12
July: 6/6

Obviously, the last one sticks out. For the last few weeks, he hasn’t been a chaser, and pitchers are finding that getting him out would require a good pitch. They can’t just throw pitches he can’t hit and let him get himself out, as he’s simply taking that option away from them with his more selective approach at the plate.

Pitchers will adjust, and they’ll start throwing Johnson better pitches in the strike zone. Just because he’s had a good few weeks doesn’t mean he’s now a good hittter – he still has those holes in his swing, and while he’s doing a better job of taking pitches, he still likes to swing the bat, so don’t expect his July performance to be sustainable going forward. But, he’s shown that he can adapt at the major league level, and he’s going to force pitchers to come up with a new game plan to get him out.

The gap power, the improved selectivity at the plate and better contact rates – these are encouraging signs. There’s a reason his ZIPS projection for the rest of the season is .254/.309/.347, a significantly better performance than what he’s put up to date. Even without getting too excited about a small sample hot streak in July, there are legitimate reasons to expect Johnson to be just a not-good hitter instead of a terrible one going forward.

And, realistically, if Johnson is capable of a .290 wOBA (which is what ZIPS projects), then he’s the best option the team has behind the plate. Rob Johnson might not be the kind of catcher that statistical analysts love, but there are worse things to have than a catcher who pitchers love while whacking a double or drawing a walk every now and then.


84 Responses to “Rob Johnson’s Offense”

  1. scotje on July 20th, 2009 3:22 pm

    From Churchill’s Prospect Insider article:

    “No, that’s legit,” said an NL club’s special assistant. “He’s been a guy I’ve liked since day one; he’s the one I’ve been trying to trade for. He’s not a special hitter, but in time he’ll be a special defensive and intangibles guy and is already getting a reputation as the type of leader and worker that championship organizations drool over.”

    Hmmmm….special assistant…..NL team…..intangibles….. say, isn’t that what Bill Bavasi…ohhhhh.

  2. bilbo27 on July 20th, 2009 3:28 pm

    “Do you think Kenji is a little like Lopez and has no power the opposite way.”

    Kenji’s first home run was actually an opposite field shot about 30 feet from the right field foul pole. Some of the fact that he only has shown power to left, possibly could just be that he pulls any outside pitches (usually for weak ground outs to third or short). Hard to hit for power to right, when you are pulling the outside pitches.

    The problem with Kenji his first two years is that he pulled pretty much everything, regardless of where it was pitched. It was amazing that he was able to keep his BA as high as he did doing that. But pitchers catch on pretty quick when he crushes inside pitches, but pulls weak flairs or ground outs on the outside pitches.

    Last year (as he saw his power drop off a bit his second year due to not getting pitched inside as much), he supposedly decided to work on hitting the ball the other way with relatively disastrous effects. Later in the year, he went back to pulling everything and his BA went back up for that last month.

    However, supposedly he worked more on hitting the ball the other way in the off season and he showed that in the WBC. Pitches away he used his inside out swing almost every time and pitches middle to inside he pulled. It worked out for him well. It looked like at the start of the season before getting injured he went back to pulling most everything. It’s only been in the last couple weeks I’ve personally noticed that he seems to be trying to use that inside out swing more for pitches away. If he can have success at that this year, it will force pitchers to work him inside more (something they just don’t do much anymore for obvious reasons). He’d be a much more complete hitter and some of that power would come back then.

    Moving away from Safeco would help him as well. Safeco’s built to punish right handed pull hitters in terms of their power numbers. 🙂

  3. John S. on July 20th, 2009 3:39 pm

    The biggest reason Kenji isn’t starting is because Felix, Washburn and Bedard don’t trust him behind the plate.
    When Rob calls a game, there is hardly any shaking off of signs and they can get in a rhythm. With Kenji you can tell it was a constant battle, long pauses, long decisions on what to throw. If you’re going into your windup and you’re still wondering if you’re throwing the right pitch, I can imagine it can be very wearing.
    I think if Rob can become a .240 hitter, he’ll be a starter in the majors for a long time. I just think pitchers enjoy being around him so much, and trust his feel for the game so much, that no matter what team he is on, he will be highly valued.
    The casual fan looks at a guy who can zip the ball down to second or hits .280 with 20 homers and wants that guy to catch. But I think the more educated (most managers and GMs) actually prefer guys like Johnson on their team because they think it means more wins for the team in the long run.
    If Johnson is a .210 hitter, he’ll still have a job. He hit .230, .260 and then .300 at AAA. It doesn’t mean he’ll follow the same progression in Seattle, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he shows marked improvement in two or three years.
    I definitely think he can become another Dan Wilson. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

  4. DMZ on July 20th, 2009 3:44 pm

    Why is Kenji shaken off more than Johnson if Wakamatsu is calling pitches?

  5. JH on July 20th, 2009 3:48 pm

    I definitely think he can become another Dan Wilson. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

    Wilson definitely had several seasons where he swung a weak bat, but he also had a 3-year offensive peak from ’95-’97 where he put up wOBA’s of .333, .334, and .331. I really don’t see the potential for Johnson to be a near-league-average hitter in any particular season, let alone 3 consecutive ones.

    I think a .315 wOBA and a Crash Davis-type city-wide fascination with a blue-collar catcher with intangibles is Johnson’s realistic upside.

  6. guschiggins on July 20th, 2009 3:59 pm

    Wak doesn’t call the pitches all the time… or maybe Kenji doesn’t go along with what Wak calls…

    It really seems like when Kenji catches Felix, that there are a lot more hittable 4 seam fastballs and when Rob catches him, he calls for a lot more 2 seamers

  7. Dave on July 20th, 2009 4:15 pm

    Hey, shocking, the conversation has turned back to defense.

    Rob Johnson fans are almost as annoying as Mike Morse fans.

  8. Breadbaker on July 20th, 2009 4:27 pm

    Dave, I appreciate the analysis, because since it’s pretty clear Johnson is going to be the main catcher on this club for the remainder of the season if not longer, it’s nice to have some reason for optimism. He has had some very interesting games recently, where in one at-bat he literally looks like he doesn’t quite know what that piece of wood in his hands is for and in the next one he hits a double into the gap. A catcher, particularly one in his first full season, has a lot to do during a game and I wonder if he sometimes just takes his focus off his at-bats, only to be dragged back to hitting by Wakamatsu or Alan Cockrell.

  9. Marinerz51 on July 20th, 2009 4:30 pm

    The title of this thread should be “No offense” Rob Johnson, but if we all had our way you’re not starting ever again.

  10. henryv on July 20th, 2009 4:31 pm

    From what I have heard, Johnson has opened his stance up a little bit, with his front foot being further back, and he’s less on top of the plate.

    It seems like this change is likely to lead to him being able to hit inside fastballs better. Additionally, this stance gives you a better view of the pitch’s left to right movement, so that he should be less likely to swing at sliders, 2-seemers, and slurves low and away.

    And supposedly, this change occurred during June, which might explain his hitting surge late into June and into July.

    Now, pitchers will adjust, but maybe, just maybe, this could stick.

  11. DMZ on July 20th, 2009 4:37 pm

    The title of this thread should be

    No, it shouldn’t.

  12. henryv on July 20th, 2009 4:41 pm

    If you go to you can see Rob Johnson’s hitting technique in mid-June and mid-July. The June 12th and July 12th home run are good comparisons.

    On June 12th he appears to be closer to the plate, and his stance is a little more closed. Additionally, as he swings he keeps his hips closed later. On the July 12th home run, he is more open, further off the plate, and a little more open. Its especially evident if you pause it right as he begins his swing.

    Both pitches go to center-left field, and actually both travel a similar distance.

  13. bilbo27 on July 20th, 2009 4:44 pm

    “It really seems like when Kenji catches Felix, that there are a lot more hittable 4 seam fastballs and when Rob catches him,”

    This is pre-“i’m going to pitch” Felix (Joh hasn’t caught him since he decided he should use all his pitches). A case-in-point to show that this isn’t Joh’s fault, is when Joh caught Felix against Anaheim and Felix decided to throw 19 consecutive fastballs to start the game and got lit up. Joh did not even remotely call 19 consecutive fastballs (and this was commented on after the game). It was just every time Joh called something not a fastball, Felix shook him off. So once again, we come back to the fact that it’s the pitcher who’s in control, not the catcher as so many Johnson fan-boys seem to like to indicate.

    Personally, at this point in the season, I don’t really care who’s catching. However, I do wish somehow-someway Johnson was no longer in the picture (do a Yuni-like trade with Johnson JZ :-). This is solely because I’m tired of the Johnson fan-boys and their inevitable idiotic rational as to why Johnson is the best catcher in the history of baseball.

  14. henryv on July 20th, 2009 4:45 pm

    You can also observe Johnson’s new stance on the July 3rd double against Boston. The camera angle in Boston, however, is a far more to the left than the cameras in Colorado and Seattle, so it looks a little different.

  15. nathaniel dawson on July 20th, 2009 4:52 pm

    I’mm not sure why the Brad Ausmaus comparison. Ausmus for his career had an OPS+ of 75. When Ausmus came up as a 24 YO, his first 3 years (playing more or less part-time), his OPS+ were 83, 77, 104. He was as good as a hitter when he came as he ever was in his career.

  16. coasty141 on July 20th, 2009 5:09 pm

    In 2007 AAA Rob put up an 268/331/372 line for a 311 wOBA. I’d have to think if he continues to improve and make some adjustments, a .311wOBA has to be within his reach. If he’s going to be behind the dish I’d sure love it if he wasn’t an automatic out.

  17. currcoug on July 20th, 2009 5:17 pm

    On the other hand, Rob Johnson has come a long ways from the days when most people believed this:

    “…What does matter is that he can’t hit, and the Mariners aren’t in a position where they can afford to be giving regular at-bats to a guy with no bat and a question mark surrounding his defensive contributions…”

  18. Wolfman on July 20th, 2009 5:44 pm

    Dave, can we have a separate post some time on Rob’s catching mechanics? I’d be curious to know if his coverage of the plate is really as limited as it seems to my amateur eye. I trust it wouldn’t devolve into intangibles as well …

    It would probably devolve into a discussion about Rob Johnson’s hitting getting better. 😉

    BTW Dave, it doesn’t surprise me to read this. I don’t dread him coming up near as much lately. He gave an interview after his homer a few games ago and talked about how hard he’s been working on his swing. Personally, I’m rooting for the guy. Just a little better offense to go along with his trust from the pitchers would be gravy, imo.

  19. Jeff Nye on July 20th, 2009 6:05 pm

    You honestly think that Rob Johnson’s defense hasn’t been discussed enough already?

  20. mln on July 20th, 2009 6:30 pm

    One can never have enough discussion of cERA.

    cERA is better than religion!

  21. msb on July 20th, 2009 6:56 pm

    I was more interested in the mechanics of catching — and it doesn’t have to be just Rob, or just the Mariners catchers — we’ve heard comments about Joh’s glove placement when catching, and the way Rob does or doesn’t cover the plate when runner is approaching … I’d like to have a better idea about what is good catcher defense.

    oh, and from Baker, during the Morrow/curveball aftermath:

    “Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu was disappointed by the comments because he’s preached since spring training that he wants his pitchers to be determined about what they throw and to take charge and make some decisions if they feel the game plan is getting away from them.”

  22. Double Suicide Squeeze on July 20th, 2009 6:59 pm


  23. diderot on July 20th, 2009 7:06 pm

    On the other hand, Rob Johnson has come a long ways from the days when most people believed this:
    “…What does matter is that he can’t hit, and the Mariners aren’t in a position where they can afford to be giving regular at-bats to a guy with no bat and a question mark surrounding his defensive contributions…”

    Actually, every word of that analysis remains true.

  24. henryv on July 20th, 2009 7:37 pm


  25. cdowley on July 20th, 2009 9:02 pm

    DSS – No. Just no. For one, Martinez is playing a fair amount of first lately because his knees are going. For another, he’s a butcher behind the plate.

    On the main topic, I’ve rather enjoyed seeing Sara (my nickname for Rob) grow as a hitter of late. He’s been tweaking his mechanics the last month or so, as has been noted, and it’s really paying off.

    Has anyone noticed that his body placement has changed behind the plate, too? It looks like he’s trying to get better plate coverage to better avoid passed balls. I approve.

  26. TranquilPsychosis on July 20th, 2009 11:12 pm

    [response to ot]

  27. Jeff Nye on July 20th, 2009 11:31 pm

    No more rosterbation in this thread.

  28. TranquilPsychosis on July 20th, 2009 11:46 pm

    No more rosterbation in this thread.

    Ok, I’ll try to contain my creative juices.

    So I haven’t seen what the thought is on how Rob Johnson might project as a hitter if he keeps this track.

    I’m thinking mostly along the lines of a .300 wOBA kind of hitter at best. Am I missing something in not being all that excited by him?

  29. JMHawkins on July 21st, 2009 12:03 am

    In 2007 AAA Rob put up an 268/331/372 line for a 311 wOBA. I’d have to think if he continues to improve and make some adjustments, a .311wOBA has to be within his reach.

    In 2008 he posted a AAA wOBA of .351 in nearly 500 PA, so he’s shown some ability to hit (though that seemed to be built on a pretty high BABIP, so maybe it was luck). I’m glad Dave posted this because it does seem like he’s been a little better at the plate lately. Nice to see the confirmation in the numbers.

    As far as defense goes, I’m pretty appalled at Johnson’s defense. From my POV, he’d need to carry a .351 Major League wOBA to make up for his glove, but I’m just a fan. The guys who run the team seem to be more than happy with him.

    Wednesday he will be 26. Kenji is 33 and his knees seem to be going on 95. If nothing else, maybe fewer starts for Johjima will help his hitting too.

  30. Marinerz51 on July 21st, 2009 12:57 am


  31. The Ancient Mariner on July 21st, 2009 9:37 am

    TranquilPsychosis: I don’t think the point is that we should be excited by Johnson (please, no more “RJ” — that’s taken), but rather that we don’t need to dread him (as much, at least), and that there’s reason to think that he really is the better of our two MLB catchers. Granted, that may say more about what’s happened to Kenji’s career than it does about Rob Johnson, but it also (and more importantly) says a lot about the validity of Wakamatsu’s judgment in giving Johnson the preponderance of starts.

  32. currcoug on July 21st, 2009 11:39 am

    “Actually, every word of that analysis remains true.”

    Fortunately, Wak doesn’t think so and Rob’s July numbers do not support your statement:

  33. diderot on July 21st, 2009 11:59 am

    July numbers do not support your statement

    And with the small sample size of July so far, his OPS is still 618 on the year. I think that pretty much tells the story.

  34. currcoug on July 21st, 2009 12:16 pm

    Kenji’s OPS last year was .609, so I have to assume you want the Mariners to make a trade for another catcher? The Mariners’ position is that Adam Moore isn’t ready to handle a MLB pitching staff, and it appears Clement has no future as a catcher for the M’s. I rather doubt the M’s are going to make such a trade, so I wish Rob Johnson success in his quest to improve as a hitter.

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