By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, September 16, 2006
For five frustrating seasons, everywhere Nick Johnson went, from New York to Montreal to Washington, those who admired his game wondered what kind of season he could produce if he didn't get hurt and could play a full year. Now, everybody knows. Johnson, who turns 28 on Tuesday, has emerged this summer as one of the game's best all-around hitters, perhaps in the top 20.
This season, most of Washington's attention has been focused, quite properly, on Alfonso Soriano's pursuit of the fourth 40-homer, 40-steal season in history and rookie Ryan Zimmerman's chance to drive in 100 runs, contend for a Gold Glove and be rookie of the year. However, Johnson -- who's missed only seven games -- has quietly improved every aspect of his offensive game. Those who thought a healthy Johnson might be a very good hitter turned out to be quite wrong. He's much better than that.
The single most eye-catching stat that captures Johnson's current status is the trendy but valuable OPS -- on-base-percentage plus slugging average. Heading into last night's 5-2 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers at RFK Stadium, Soriano ranked 18th in baseball at .944. Johnson was even higher: 15th at .955.
In this case, stats fib a bit. Johnson hasn't been as exceptional as Soriano. But the gap between their true offensive values is not terribly great. Because Soriano's long homers and steals grab attention, he has gotten far more credit than Johnson, who's on pace for 50 doubles, 24 homers, 104 runs and 115 walks while slugging .527.
"Nick's had an absolutely remarkable year at the plate," said General Manager Jim Bowden, who took a chance on Johnson's injury-plagued reputation last winter by signing him to a three-year, $16.5 million contract extension through '09. Now, it's a bargain.
"I've spent a long time waiting, just to get to go out there every day," said Johnson, who's lived a baseball-saturated life as the nephew of former Phillies shortstop and manager Larry Bowa. "I play hard and sometimes things happen, freak things."
Every time the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Johnson tries one of his heart-stopping attempts at an exotic slide, the Nats hold their breath. When the Braves' 220-pound Jeff Francoeur accidentally crashed full speed into an unsuspecting Johnson in the base path late last month as the first baseman looked in the sky for a routine popup, the dream of a full Johnson season seemed in danger. Instead, after one game off to rest his bruised shoulder, Johnson has hit .344 and slugged almost .700 in September.
Only five hitters in baseball are harder to get out than Johnson with his .430 on-base percentage, and only Barry Bonds has walked more often. Johnson is also sixth in baseball in doubles and 29th in slugging.
Many players can talk about hitting, repeating all the classic lessons of the last century. But the high-on-base average Johnson actually walks the walk, so to speak. "The most important thing is that you've got to get a good pitch to hit. So, you have to be patient and you can't be afraid to hit with two strikes," Johnson said last night. "When you get the pitch you're looking for, you can't miss it. If you do miss it, you have to keep battling."
When he's in the batter's box, having studied videotape of the pitcher and compared notes with other Nats, Johnson tries to keep a few key thoughts in mind. "Don't get anxious. I try to look for the ball right down the middle, then work out from there. I don't [anticipate] location as much as the type of pitch I may see," said Johnson, who is hitting .294 after going 1 for 4 last night.
Some hitters look for high or low pitches, or guess "inside" or "outside." However, Johnson's sense of the strike zone is so acute that he doesn't need this popular "zoning" technique. So, he has the luxury of looking for a particular kind of pitch.
"I know I'm hitting well when I don't drift -- when I don't slide forward with my weight too early in the swing," Johnson said. "Then, when I stay back, I can hit the off-speed pitches and I don't chase pitches in the dirt."
What Johnson brings to the plate -- patience, high on-base percentage, enough power and even some speed (10 steals) -- is typical of all of the first five hitters in a Washington order.
However, in the onslaught of poor pitching performances -- the Nats have had the third-worst ERA in baseball (5.07) -- the current Nats' attack has been largely overlooked, just like Johnson's breakout season. You doubt it? Since the All-Star Game, which team leads the majors in steals per game? The Nats. See, got your attention. Since the trade for Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez , the Nationals have had the fourth-best on-base percentage, trailing the No. 1 Yankees by only .368 to .357. As any "Moneyball" geek can attest, having the bases full of runners is the first step to building a premier offense. It's not an illusion that Washington constantly seems to have a rally going.
Unfortunately, Manager Frank Robinson is correct when he moans about poor clutch hitting. Like Johnson, who is only on pace for a modest 83 RBI, the Nats must learn the last key element of offense -- finishing the job once the pitcher is frazzled and the bases are loaded. And, believe it or not, no team in baseball, not even the Yanks or Red Sox, wears out starting pitchers the way the Nats have, especially since Kearns and Lopez arrived.
Baseball actually counts the number of pitches that each hitter sees in a season. If you have an entire lineup of patient, disciplined quality hitters, it drives pitchers crazy. The Yankees of the late '90s as well as recent Red Sox and A's teams have used the technique successfully. This season, the Phillies have three hitters in the top 30 in "most pitches seen." Nobody else has more than two such hitters, even the Yanks and BoSox.
Except the Nats. They have five.
And they are the first five hitters in the lineup: Soriano (eighth), Lopez (third), Zimmerman (28th), Johnson (10th) and Kearns (26th). On a per-at-bat basis, Johnson is actually the second most patient hitter in the game behind Boston's Kevin Youkilis. When the Nats debate the free agent value of keeping Soriano, they should remember that he perfectly complements the style of attack they have already assembled.
Luckily, when the Nats contemplate all of their many offseason needs, they don't have to worry about Johnson. Their cleanup man is anchored in place for three more seasons, "protecting" Zimmerman in the No. 3 spot and giving Kearns plenty of RBI chances. So what's next for Nick, besides staying in one piece again next year?
"I've had an awful year defensively," he says of his 15 errors. "I need to get back to the level I've always been at."
If the Johnson glove from his first five years, and the bat of '06, show up in tandem next season, then there'll be few greater bargains in baseball than the Nats' first baseman. Who knows, someone may even notice.