Nick Johnson would so walk around this field. (Image: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports)

Nick Johnson changed the game

The recent news of Nick Johnson retiring marks the end of an era. Well, the end of the beginning of an era.” Nick Johnson is publicly known for his time on the disabled list. We all know that he has spent a significant amount of time there throughout his career. However, what many don’t know is he really helped changed the game. In our new era of baseball statistics and thinking, Johnson is perhaps a poster boy. He won’t give you a 7 WAR season, but he’d get your team nice value in his peak years. If you want to call them that.

The object of the game of baseball is to score runs. Well, how do you score runs? You get on base any way possible. It’s hard to say who did that better than Nick Johnson. Johnson finished his career with a .399 OBP. From 2005-2009 Johnson finished with an OBP above .400. Which is really incredible because his batting average never exceeded .300. His ability to walk was vastly underrated. I know, it sounds ridiculous to say that walking is a special ability, but it is. I mean it’s literally watching four pitches go by right? Not really. It’s much more than that. It’s being selective at the plate and most of the time you have to foul off a few difficult pitches to get the right count. It’s not an easy task and Johnson was the king of it.

Like I said above, the object of baseball is to create runs. What better stat to bring up than recently previewed wRC+ by our very own Jimmy Kraft. Johnson posted a wRC+ of 126 plus in five seasons. Just by walking Johnson brought more runs to whatever team he joined. Maybe I’m crediting walking a little too much because he did hit for a solid .268 batting average over his career. However, he had to walk in order to get his OBP to nearly .400. Anyway the presence of a dominant on base player is needed in any lineup.

Preferably that guy is at the top of the lineup. Johnson would never get the opportunity to be a regular lead off man because of his lack of speed, which is a really overrated aspect of the lead off spot in an order. You want the guy who’s getting on base the most in that spot whether he’s fast or not. I believe any team that would have batted Johnson first would probably have scored more runs at the end of the season.

Johnson’s career will probably be looked at as injury ridden. That won’t be the case for me. For me Johnson will be the man that helped revolutionize the game. Remember when Jonah Hill in Money Ball calls Kevin Youkilis the Greek God of walks? Well they should have called Johnson the Zeus of walks or something. Johnson is one of my favorite players of all-time because of his game’s simplicity. He wasn’t the guy with all the power as shown by his .173 ISO. He took the basic approach to the game by making it his goal to get on base.

So if you must remember him as the injury ridden player he was I suggest you also remember how he changed the game. A walk is just as good as a single.

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  • Matt Hunter

    Nice piece Joe. It’s sad that Johnson never got to reach his potential, but I like the fact that you are looking at the positive aspects of his game rather than focusing on the negative. He really was a remarkable on-base guy.

    • Joe

      Thanks Matt. For me at least Johnson was a guy who made me look at the game differently.

  • Bill B

    Mr. F I had my eyes opened also to Nick Johnson by your well written article. Yet I think I have to be educated by your quote”Johnson would never get the opportunity to be a regular lead off man because of his lack of speed, which is a really overrated aspect of the lead off spot in an order. You want the guy who’s getting on base the most in that spot whether he’s fast or not.” This goes against many things I was taught as a player and as a spectator now I have to ask how is speed over rated. I noticed Prince Fielder has a .393 OBP. I don’t want a player with little speed leading off. Most times unless a team is stacked with speed a slow runner may lead off. Never the less a person with no speed that gets on has obvious disadvantages. He can’t steal. He doesn’t have to be held on, which closes the right side of the infield. A slow runner puts the second baseman and the shortstop at ease. Takes pressure off of the outfielders and normally can not get to third on a single unless put into motion. It is difficult for a slow man to score from second on a single also. Also a fly ball needs to be deep enough to tag. I realize you know these fundamentals very well so may I ask how speed in the one spot (more at bats than any other player per game) is over rated? Thanks

    • Matt Hunter

      If I may respond, Bill, it’s not that those factors that you mention are not important. They are. However, the advantage of the steal and the other factors you mention don’t help a team quite as much as simply getting the lead-off man on base. Think of it this way: the speed of the lead-off man is useless if he can’t get to first base. When the leadoff man gets on, he continues the inning, and even if he can’t advance to the other bases very well, he has given the rest of the team an opportunity to drive him in.

      Obviously, the ideal situation would be for your leadoff man to get on base often AND be speedy. That’s why Brett Gardner is the perfect leadoff guy. He can get on base and put pressure on the defense with his amazing speed. But if you have to choose between OBP skills and speed, it’s better to choose OBP.

      In case you’re interested, another blog I write for, Beyond the Box Score, has a great guide to the ideal lineup based on analyzing past data and doing simulations and the like:

    • Joe

      Prince is a different story. His power allows him to bat fourth and drive in more potential runs. Nick Johnson wasn’t a power hitter. He was a table setter in that he got on base and waited for his teammates to knock him in. Matt explains it very well.

  • Bill B

    Scoring from first on a double is also difficult. Can’t leave that out. Thanks

  • Bill B

    I appreciate your opinion. I am not sure yet if you are correct. That will take a little time to think about. It is great to be a passionate Yankee fan. My hat is off to you and your colleagues. I will visit the other site. Thanks.

  • Matt Hunter

    A fun fact about Nick Johnson that I just saw: in his very brief time (98 PAs) with the Yankees in 2010, Johnson had a 105 wRC+ (5% better hitter than average) despite hitting only .167 with 2 home runs. That’s pretty hilarious and awesome.

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