Most of the attention surrounding the first base position on the Rays blogosphere has focused on the sustainability of Casey Kotchman‘s results based on the larger sample size of inferior numbers for his career. What at first glance appeared to be a splitting of duties with the incumbent Dan Johnson quickly turned into a full time platoon when Kotchman started hitting in an effective fashion. Despite the appearance of being fairly split-neutral based on his career OPS numbers being just one point apart (742 vs. 741), it is reasonable to expect Johnson to hit right-handed pitching better going forward as no players truly exhibit completely neutral splits over their career. A hitter fitting into a platoon against pitchers of the same hand? If that sounds familiar, this was the same role Pat Burrell filled shortly before being exiled by the ball club. Did the Rays pull the rug too soon from the Dan Johnson experiment?
With a season in Japan in between, Dan Johnson led the International League in wOBA in 2008 and 2010 with the Durham Bulls. The fact that these seasons occurred during his age 28 and 30 seasons should raise some doubts to how well this ability should translate to the major league level. With Johnson’s patience, he would be able to work himself into hitters counts and feast on Triple-A fastballs. However, prior to his International League domination Johnson had already established himself as a slightly above-average hitter with poor batting average skills, good on-base abilities, and plenty of power during his stay in Oakland. Oakland features a pitcher’s park and many of his plate appearances during his stay with the Athletics came at the designated hitter slot where you would expect him to under-perform his true talent at the plate based on research found in The Book.
Johnson lived up to his reputation with the Rays in 2010 providing a solution desperately needed at the void Rays fans call the designated hitter slot. Johnson only hit for a .198 average but his patient approach allowed him to walk in nearly 18% of his plate appearances. When the Great Pumpkin did get a hit, he made them count with seven of his twenty-two hits leaving the yard in just 111 at-bats.
With the exodus of Carlos Pena, the Rays seemed to be counting on Dan Johnson to don the mitt and man first base. Johnson did that and did it fairly well, but his plate appearances were not Dan Johnson like one bit. For example look at the following numbers from his 76 2011 plate appearances versus his major league career rates:
Johnson is swinging far more frequently out of the zone, and his fly balls are all too often directed vertically instead of toward the fences. He’s still not hitting for average, but the on-base skills and power have not shown up. Last season, the Rays showed a willingness to have a quick hook on both Hank Blalock (69 PA in 2010, $925k salary) and Pat Burrell (96 PA in 2010, $9M salary) when they exhibited similar characteristics. The Rays also suffered through Carlos Pena struggling last year. What do these men have in common? Burrell (32), Blalock (29), Pena (32), and Johnson (31) are on the wrong end of their peak years. In the post-PED era the Rays have had a first hand taste of the results of diminishing bat speed or power.
Yet, Dan Johnson’s 2011 sample size simply isn’t large enough for me to be satisfied that this is the case for him. Why? Observe Johnson’s career monthly slash line in the month of April: .168/.261/.252. An OPS of 513 is his lowest of any month by nearly 200 points (September, 700). One might suppose that 2011′s OPS of 383 is dragging this down, but prior to 2011 he still only posted an OPS of 588 in April. Maybe Johnson is simply a slow starter. The pumpkin haters might argue I’m referencing a split of 161 plate appearances and there is little value to be derived from such a sample. But then again, that’s more than twice the sample the critics are using to declare the pumpkin cooked.