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.