Friday, June 27, 2014

Chris Johnson's Historically Bad Plate Discipline

One of the strangest numbers this season comes from Chris Johnson. With seven walks compared to a ridiculous 78 strikeouts, Johnson has a 0.09 BB/K ratio. Before I show you how odd of a number that truly is, let me first say that yes, Johnson has never walked much. In 2012, he walked a career-best 5.9% of the time and in his first season with the Braves, that number fell to 5.3%. His strikeout percentage this season is not that abnormal. Johnson's K% of 21.2% last season was a new career low for him, but ignore that year and his K% has been above at least 24%.

However, a 2.3 BB%? A 0.09 BB/K rate? How rare is that?

Over the last ten years (2005-2014), Johnson's 0.09 BB/K rate is slightly percentage-points ahead (or worse?) of Ivan Rodriguez's 2007 season with the Tigers. But that doesn't really show how historic this number is. Fangraphs does a wonderful job of allowing you to easily investigate this particular rate and you can research it back to 1913. So, in a staggering 102 seasons of major league baseball, here is your top ten from tenth to first. I'm using their BB/K ratio to the fourth decimal point to better show the difference.

10 Shawon Dunston 1995 Cubs 0.1333
9 Alex Gonzalez 1999 Marlins 0.1327
8 Tony Pena 2007 Royals 0.1282
7 Junior Lake 2014 Cubs 0.1266
6 Todd Cruz 1982 Mariners 0.1263
5 Juan Encarnacion 1999 Tigers 0.1239
4 Ivan Rodriguez 2005 Tigers 0.1183
3 Shawon Dunston 1997 Cubs/Pirates 0.1067
2 Ivan Rodriguez 2007 Tigers 0.0938
1 Chris Johnson 2014 Braves 0.0897

Now, you have some kind of perspective on how rare this lack of discipline really is. Here's something else you should know. Of the 30 lowest BB/K rates since 1913, only six have had a RC+ above 100. To put that simply, only six times has someone had this poor of a walk-to-strikeout ratio and still produced AT LEAST a league average offense. Of the ten I just mentioned, only Dunston's 1995 season, which ranked as the tenth lowest BB/K rate since 1913, had at least a 100 wRC+. In fact, that season by the Cubs shortstop was the only one of the lowest 16 BB/K rates that was able to accomplish a league-average offensive season. For the record, Andres Thomas's 1988 ranks as the 22nd lowest BB/K rate and the lowest by a Brave. Thomas had a career OBP of .255 and a -4.6 fWAR during his six year career long-time Braves fans still think lasted six seasons too long.

In Johnson's case, we know if he's not hitting, he's not productive in any way because he's a below-average defender and has no speed. Now, it should be noted that Johnson has shown a few positives signs lately. He's hit .323 this month with a 110 wRC+. So, he's at least been hitting recently. But if you're curious, his BB/K rate hasn't improved this month. Actually, it's the reverse. He has 24 strikeouts to two walks and it should be added that one of those walks was intentional.

Can he continue to build upon this month and despite a ridiculous BB/K rate, produce a similar fWAR to last year (2.8)? After all, those of us that stared long and hard at his BABIP last season were convinced it would eventually free fall. We were wrong in that case.

Even if he doesn't produce with the bat, sheer averages should work in his favor to push up his BB%. I'm not saying it absolutely will, but it should. After all, while not as historic, Johnson's current walk rate is the 38th lowest since 1913. Again, that walk rate is also about 2% worse than his career average and 3% worse than his last two seasons. So we should see Johnson walk more this season. Should.

But this is a problem and this kind of hyper-hacktastic approach is making it easy on pitchers facing the Atlanta Braves this season. Throw them junk and they'll swing. Johnson has swung at about 44% of pitches outside the strikezone. He's making contact on Ball 1 or 2 or 3 or 4 on 52% of those swings on pitches that probably won't be called a strike. And while he's not the only Brave who does that (I'm looking at you, Evan Gattis), he sure isn't hitting those balls with much authority (again, that's you, Gattis).

I wouldn't put money on Johnson setting a new low walk-to-strikeout rate this season. Too many variables and too much history to indicate he will likely walk more. But you make it much harder on yourself to produce when you hack at literally anything the pitcher throws at you. For Johnson to be productive, he has to hit. It might be a bit easier if he hit balls he can actually drive.

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