Is Chris Johnson All That Bad?

added 05/12/2012 by Bob Hulsey

Seemingly one of the favorite whipping boys among internet Astro watchers is third baseman Chris Johnson. He commits too many errors, they gripe. He has no range. He doesn't draw enough walks. He strikes out too much. To the critics, he seems almost to be a poster boy for the misplaced priorities of the Ed Wade regime.

But is Johnson really all that bad and does he deserve the derision he seems to get? In 2011, he probably did. He hit just .251 with a puny .291 on base percentage (anything below .300 is considered poor). His OPS was only .670; his home run rate and his walk rate both dropped.

By August, Johnson was sent back to the minors and Jimmy Paredes took over at third for most of the rest of the season.

The 27-year-old fourth-rounder from the 2006 draft got off to a slow start in 2012 after a hot spring and has returned to his 2010 form while showing more power and plate patience in the past couple of weeks.

Through Saturday, Johnson is batting .304 with four homers and an .817 OPS. He's drawn just five walks (one intentional) through 30 games but that would be on pace for 27 if he put in a full season. That's still not good but it would be an improvement.

While he's never posted 100 strikeouts in the majors, he did whiff over 90 times in each of the last two seasons and would have surely gone over 100 if he had played a full year. Through Saturday, he is on pace to strike out once a game, which is bad but not as bad as Jordan Schafer who leads the team by a good margin.

Defensively, Johnson is also making modest gains. His fielding percentage has slowly climbed each season. He'll never be mistaken for Ken Caminiti or Doug Rader at the hot corner but he also benefits from the lack of artificial turf in all these new ballparks. He doesn't have to be as quick as those two were in their day.

If you were to take a look at his three-year averages, (2010-present), he has put together a .282 batting average with a .750 OPS (that's about league average) and a 105 OPS+ (the last stat reflects performance against the league average when modified for park effects). That means that, even with his bad 2011 season, Chris Johnson is giving the Astros a league average performance over the past 2+ seasons at close to the minimum major league salary.

If the 2012 season resembles some improvement over 2010 and a vast improvement over 2011, he ought to be seen as at least an average National League third baseman or possibly better.

Is he a "keeper"? Maybe not when he reaches arbitration. But there's no reason to dump him right now while he is affordable and the Astros have holes all over the roster. Yes, he could draw more walks and yes, he could commit fewer errors but he is just now entering what most would expect to be his peak years and he is, for now, an average NL third baseman with a chance to get better.

With Paredes returning to second base in the minors, there is no true competition for Johnson within the organization. Brett Wallace is at Oklahoma City trying to re-learn third base but I don't expect him to be an upgrade defensively and he may not produce as much power as Johnson either. The farm system just doesn't have much material to work with presently at third base but that isn't all that uncommon around the majors. Once third base became a power position, finding guys with all the necessary skills becomes quite difficult.

So the Astros might look to upgrade the position in a few years but, for now, they can live with Chris Johnson at third base and not too uncomfortably either. Like a lot of other positions on the Astros roster, the ballclub doesn't have a star but they do have an adequate player until something batter comes along.

Johnson can help his case by raising his game to another level but, as long as he doesn't return to his 2011 form, his future should be safe for a couple more seasons.