Nick Johnson Retires, FanGraphs Weeps

Eight times on base. Had Nick Johnson reached base just eight more times in his ten-year career, he would have become just the 41st player in history to leave the game with a .400+ OBP (min. 3,000 PA). Eight times on base in ten years. I say we blame the Orioles, because it was with them that he reached base just 33 times in 102 PA last season (.326 OBP). He went into the season with a career .401 OBP.

Johnson, 34, retired from baseball earlier this week according to WFAN’s Sweeny Murti. He leaves the game as a favorite of statheads everywhere thanks to pure hitting ability — career .268/.399/.441 (126 wRC+) — that never quite received the respect in deserved. Quotes, like this one said to our own David Laurila last summer, stand out as well…

“[Having a high OBP] means that I’m helping the team out. That’s how you score runs. You get on base and the next thing you know someone pops one, or hits one in the gap, and you put a couple of runs on the board. You have to be on base in order to score runs. I think [OBP] is big.”

Johnson’s best season as a big leaguer came back in 2006 with the Nationals, when he managed a .290/.428/.520 (147 wRC+) batting line in 147 games. Only five qualified players had a better OBP that season, only ten a better wRC+. Johnson’s most jaw-dropping years came back when he was a minor leaguer, such as the .345/.525/.548 batting line he posted with Double-A Norwich in 1999. He struck out just 88 times that year while drawing 123 walks and getting hit by 37 (!) pitches. From 1998-1999, he reached base in 488 of his 974 plate appearances, or 50.1%. That’s astonishing even for the minor leagues.

Of course, there are two sides to Johnson’s story. As prolific as he was at reaching base, he also racked up quite the injury history. By my unofficial calculation, he missed 946 total regular season days due to injury during his career, which is outrageous. That’s more than five seasons worth. The most serious injury was a fluke — the fractured right femur he suffered in a collision with Austin Kearns back in September 2006. The injury required multiple surgeries and he missed the entire 2007 season.

As bad as that was, the series of right wrist injuries was the far bigger issue. The problems started back during his minor league days, when the wrist forced him to miss the entire 2000 season following that monster 1999 effort. He had his first surgery on the joint in June 2008, soon after returning from the fractured femur. That procedure repaired the UCL (in his wrist, not elbow) and tendon sheath. Johnson had two debridement surgeries in 2010, then in February 2011 he had a tendon removed. Last season with the Orioles, his final year in the show, wrist inflammation kept him on the shelf for nearly 100 games. “It’s time to hang them up … My wrist can’t take it any longer,” said Johnson to Murti earlier this week.

Johnson is going to go down as the guy who couldn’t stay healthy in the eyes of casual fans when he really should go down as one of baseball’s great what could have beens. His on-base ability was elite and his often overlooked defense at first base was solidly above-average. We’re never going to know how the time lost to the leg injury and all the wrist problems impacted his ability to drive the ball, but we can wonder if the injuries stopped him from being another John Olerud. Maybe another Mark Grace. Who knows? Regardless of what could have been, Johnson still had a pretty awesome ten-year career that was unfortunately cut way too short.

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Mike writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues and baseball in general at CBS Sports.

22 Responses to “Nick Johnson Retires, FanGraphs Weeps”

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  1. Jaack says:

    Headlines also considered:
    Johnson pulls out due to recurring pain.
    Johnson finishes, wrists now very sore.

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  2. Andrew says:

    Dude should’ve had some Keds endorsement for how much he walked.

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  3. Phantom Stranger says:

    You would think walking a lot would be easier on the body, than say stealing bases. The Mr. Glass of baseball…

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    • John C. says:

      The walking probably wasn’t the issue – getting hit by pitches all the time may well have damaged the wrist (as a LH hitter, his right wrist is more vulnerable) and made it more susceptible to injury.

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  4. MrKnowNothing says:

    what do we need a johnson for, dude?

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  5. TKDC says:

    I’ll always remember Johnson for his strong resemblance to Officer Rod Farva.

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  6. Angelsjunky says:

    To me Johnson is in a similar category with Kal Daniels, another What Could Have Been player. Or Austin Kearns, for that matter, although in hindsight it looks more like Kearns’ 2002 was a fluke than the rest of his career was riddled by injury. Remember when Kearns and Dunn came up around the same time and no one knew who would be better?

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  7. Hurtlockertwo says:

    Eddie Stanky, Eddie Yost he is not.

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  8. David K says:

    Well, it took the baseball world long enough to realize the value of OBP. When I was in Jr High school in the late 70s playing Strat-O-Matic baseball, I always wondered why they didn’t put OBP or SLG stats at the bottom of the card. I just did a Google search and it appears they do now. I guess I was better off w/o those stats on the card, because I basically did a rough estimate of what was essentially OPS before we held our drafts, and my fellow players didn’t have that information. My teams always kicked butt, partly because I looked beyond just the batting average and HRs. I remember I always drafted a Butch Wynegar card circa 1977 because he had a ridiculous number of walks, but not a great BA or counting stats. Nick Johnson would have been the type of player I would have drafted. Sorry to see him retire with his career under-appreciated by many.

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  9. nolan says:

    I wonder if all those HBPs Johnson racked up in Norwich contributed to his subsequent wrist injuries. Getting on base has value only if it doesn’t keep you from being on the field to begin with.

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    • NBH says:

      Same is true on defense. Guys like Utley get praised for the HBPs and going all out in the field, but every HBP or dive into the stands can lead to a DL stint or major injury. Hustling and being gritty isn’t always awesome – there is a time and a place. Being on the field 150+ games per season is awesome.

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  10. NATS Fan says:

    I honestly believe if NJ had stayed on the field for a couple of seasons in a row post 2006 he would have won an MVP vote or at least gotten very close..

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  11. adrian_brody says:

    Tell me when the next “I love walks” circle jerk is and I’ll bring the lube and an autographed NJ cleanup rag

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