Consider this a bit of a twist on what usually appears in this space. Rather than a player who is outproducing his expected value, today we have a player who is being rapidly added in leagues where he will probably cease to provide the kind of value for which his new owners are hoping. Especially in light of reports that Chris Johnson wouldn’t lose playing time now that Freddie Freeman has returned off the disabled list at the expense of former platoon-mate Juan Francisco, there seems to be a sense that he’s worth rostering in nearly 100 percent of leagues; in the last seven days, Johnson has been added in over 72 percent of ESPN leagues and the only reason he isn’t atop the Yahoo! trends is because he’s already owned in a majority of leagues at this point. While Johnson may well have more value than it appeared he would on draft day, he’s unlikely to finish as one of the 10-12 best third basemen this season.
The obvious red flag with Johnson is his .468 BABIP, which is so ripe for regression it has almost spoiled on the tree. Since 1995, just two players have finished a qualifying season with a BABIP over .400: Manny Ramirez, who had a .403 mark in 2000, and Jose Hernandez, who managed just a .288 batting average despite a .404 BABIP in 2002. So yes, regression is coming, but expecting Johnson to slide all the way down to .300 is probably a mistake for a couple of reasons.
First, as evidenced by the two players listed above – and myriad others in the same time span – freakish outlier seasons do happen and they don’t always happen to the players we expect. While it isn’t terribly surprising that Ichiro and Joe Mauer have had seasons with a BABIP over .370, Homer Bush and Jason Varitek feel a bit out of place on that same list. Second, Johnson has consistently posted high BABIP. His career mark is .353 in 364 career games and while that figure is inflated by the work he has done so far in 2013, he has never fallen under .317 in any season where he had more than 25 PAs. According to work by Eno Sarris and Jeff Zimmerman, Johnson’s BABIP should have been closer to .325 than the .354 he had last season, but the point stands: Even if he hits the skids for a while, Johnson isn’t likely to end up under .300.
So the question for owners, especially those in shallower leagues, is where Johnson will end up. He’s currently driving the ball well, boasting a line drive rate of over 24 percent, which is close to his career rate, but is also swinging and missing at an above-average rate and swinging at pitches out of the zone at an above-average rate as well. The huge caveat here is that very few stats have stabilized yet; if Johnson’s career had all occurred in one season instead of across five of them, his BABIP would have just now become stable, and also the season would have been some 360 games long (and people complain that football season never ends!).
Johnson’s xBABIP at this point in the season is .317, a figure I give precious little weight because of the caveats about sample size and stability above. If he ends up there at the end of the season, I’ll be amazed, but the reason I’m willing to note it at all is that it offers some sort of paradigm for where Johnson could finish this season that isn’t purely plucked from the mist. .317 is considerably lower than either the updated ZiPS projections (.349) or the updated Steamer projections (.357), yet despite the more bullish hope for his balls in play rates, neither has Johnson maintaining a batting average over .300.
Both of those projection systems do have Johnson hitting double digit home runs, so it isn’t as though he’s going to be bereft of value come August 1. If you went all-in on someone like Trevor Plouffe, perhaps Johnson’s guarantee of playing time is enough to make him a better option going forward, but I just don’t see him unseating any of the top-tier options.
As an injury replacement for Aramis Ramirez or a stopgap until Brett Lawrie gets his feet under him, Johnson is probably the best bet out there. He’s hotter than a two dollar pistol at a time when many of the top third baseman aren’t providing a lot of value, but this is probably as close to his peak value as he’ll get this season. Unless someone hitting .280 with 11 HR is going to be the difference between winning and losing this season, he’s not worth emptying the free agent coffers for, and if you can find decent value for him, trade him.
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