Rob Johnson’s Offense
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:
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.