Friday, June 5, 2009

Why Nick Johnson fits

(Note: Buster Olney explores this same idea on today.)

An interesting name popped up while we were going through hitters' swinging-at-pitches-out-of-the-strike-zone rates. The Red Sox are a team that preaches plate discipline and driving up pitch counts, and there's no better way to drive up pitch counts than by refusing to swing at pitches out of the strike zone.

Check out the big-league leaderboard in "out-of-the-strike-zone swing percentage" category so far this season:

1. Marco Scutaro, 11 percent
2. Luis Castillo, 11.8 percent
3. Akinori Iwamura, 12.7 percent
4. Brian Giles, 13.0 percent
5. Kosuke Fukudome, 13.5 percent
6. Mike Cameron, 14.3 percent
7. Nick Johnson, 14.4 percent
8. Bobby Abreu, 14.5 percent
9. Chipper Jones, 16.1 percent
10. B.J. Upton, 16.2 percent
11. Orlando Hudson, 16.9 percent
12. Jason Bay, 16.9 percent

A couple of names on that list stick out: Bay, of course, and Brian Giles, the outfielder for whom the Red Sox tried to trade last August before he turned them down.

But the name that's most relevant now is Nick Johnson, the Washington Nationals' first baseman who's been connected to the Red Sox in numerous trade rumors. The Nationals reportedly even offered Johnson to the Red Sox straight up for Manny Delcarmen, and the Red Sox turned them down.

Johnson has a career .274 batting average but a career .399 on-base percentage. So far this season, he's hitting .330 with an on-base percentage of .434. He's not a guy who's going to hit 30 home runs a year, but he'll hit his share of doubles and walk quite a bit and strike out at a rate below the big-league average.

Injuries have been a problem for him throughout his career -- he missed most of last season with a torn tendon sheath in his right wrist last season, and he missed all of 2007 with a broken leg he suffered in a freak collision in the outfield.

Doesn't that sound a little like someone you know?

Doesn't that sound a little like J.D. Drew?

As the Red Sox work to build a lineup that grinds out at-bats and demoralizes opposing pitchers, Johnson appears to be a perfect fit. He's not a David Ortiz-type hitter -- but the more Kevin Youkilis develops, the more the Red Sox don't need a David Ortiz-type hitter. In fact, if Youkilis can do what Ortiz used to do and Johnson can do what Youkilis used to do, that's a lineup that looks an awful lot like the lineup that won the World Series two years ago.

(This is an important point: The Red Sox don't have to replace the numbers of Ortiz from 2007. Youkilis already has done that. All the Red Sox have to do is replace the numbers of Youkilis from 2007 -- and Youkilis, in 2007, hit just 16 home runs but doubled 35 times and OBP'ed .390.)

The Red Sox turned down a Johnson-for-Delcarmen swap. But it might be worth considering a Johnson-for-Michael Bowden swap. The Nationals would get a big-league-ready starter for their rotation, and the Red Sox would get a competent defensive first baseman who could allow Youkilis to move to third base and Mike Lowell, whose defensive woes this season have been well-documented, to spend more time as a designated hitter.

Plugging in Johnson in the No. 2 spot also would allow the Red Sox to move J.D. Drew back into the middle of their lineup and would set up a batting order that would drive opponents' pitch counts sky-high. Here's one potential batting order:

(The big-league average is 3.82 pitches per plate appearance.)
R: Dustin Pedroia (.415 OBP): 3.80 pitches
L: Nick Johnson (.429 OBP): 4.12 pitches
R: Kevin Youkilis (.482 OBP): 4.45 pitches
R: Jason Bay (.410 OBP): 4.01 pitches
L: J.D. Drew (.363 OBP): 4.11 pitches
(David Ortiz, for what it's worth, is seeing 4.07 pitches per plate appearance.)

Johnson would do exactly what David Ortiz does to pitch counts -- but he'd get on base at far better than a .281 clip. He'd give the Red Sox far more defensive flexibility in their infield than someone like Adam Dunn would. He'd also give the Red Sox a lineup with seven hitters with an OPS of .800 or better. (The Yankees currently have nine .800-or-better hitters.)

This isn't to say the Red Sox are going to make a move. If they do make the move, though, they'd be getting far more than a guy who just hits 20 home runs a year.

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