COMMENTARY | When the Atlanta Braves' Chris Johnson became the heir apparent to Chipper Jones at the hot corner this season, most fans were just hoping the 28-year-old journeyman would not be the weakest part of an otherwise complete team.
Super-utility infielder Martin Prado was supposed to be the man stepping into Chipper's shoes at third, but, after an offseason trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks that brought Justin Upton to Hot-Lanta, the Braves' ship was suddenly without a third-base anchor. For all intents and purposes, Johnson was a throw-in player, content to play second fiddle to the headline-grabbing Upton.
Now, after 105 games of the 2013 season, it seems their roles have been reversed and it is actually Johnson who has turned out to be the most valuable player the Braves acquired in that deal.
After going 3-for-4 with three runs scored in the deciding victory in the Braves' three-game sweep over the St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday, Johnson has officially taken over first place in the National League batting title race (.338). Johnson has jumped three St. Louis players (Matt Carpenter, Allen Craig and Yadier Molina) to move ahead in the ranking, in no small part thanks to Atlanta pitching holding the Cards' trio to a 2-for-12 game.
Johnson is hitting .356 in the month of July and has arguably been the most consistent Atlanta hitter all season long; yet, no one would be able to tell simply by looking at manager Fredi Gonzalez's lineup card. Johnson has hit everywhere but leadoff for the Braves this season, but Gonzalez has routinely buried him in the No. 8 hole. On an Atlanta team whose biggest problems remain hitting for contact and hitting with runners on base, is the answer as simple as allowing Johnson to be featured in the middle of the order?
Although the Braves' bats came alive in this series, Atlanta is hitting just .248 with runners in scoring position this season. They also lead the entire National League in strikeouts. I was terrible on those cause-and-effect questions on the SATs, but even I can see that one may have something to do with the other. It's just wild speculation, but Atlanta may want to have the players who consistently put wood on the ball to be the ones hitting with runners on base.
Some will point to the misguided notion that certain players are just more comfortable only hitting in specific spots in the order. Moving Johnson up and putting more pressure on him to be counted on as a run-producer would certainly make him revert back to Chris Johnson the 8-year-old T-ball player who picked his nose in right field and regularly ran the wrong way around the bases, right? Wrong.
In 85 at-bats as the No. 5 or No. 6 hitter this season, Johnson carries a .318 batting average, which would still be good enough for the team lead. And in the one game in which Gonzalez tripped and accidentally penciled Johnson into the cleanup spot, all the much-maligned third baseman did was go 3-for-4 with one home run and two RBIs. The idea that Johnson would suddenly forget which end of the bat he was supposed to swing with just because he is hitting in a different spot in the order is a complete fallacy.
What is not a fallacy is the fact that Johnson is losing out on at-bats. By hitting him so low in the order, the Braves are stealing swings from him and giving them to less consistent hitters. Andrelton Simmons has 105 more ABs than Johnson, yet he has somehow managed three fewer hits than the new NL batting leader. Given Johnson's average, those 105 at-bats could have netted the Braves 35 more hits. How many more wins might those extra swings have given the Braves?
Everyone knows Atlanta is running away with the National League East division quicker than LeBron James' hairline is running away from his forehead, so one would hope that it shouldn't matter a great deal where Johnson hits in order for the Braves to wrap up the NL East title.
However, when the bright lights of October start shining, Gonzalez may suddenly think it time to make sure the hot-hitting Johnson is one of the players getting the extra at-bats bestowed upon those hitting higher in the order. If that time comes, it would be nice to know Johnson has had some extended time in those roles. Fans don't want to look back on this season and think, "What if Gonzalez would have just looked at the NL batting leaderboard once and realized what he had all along?"
Ironically enough, given Johnson's attempt to replace a Braves legend, the last Atlanta player to win the NL batting title was none other than Chipper Jones himself in 2008. Jones hit .364 that season and flirted with .400 until June 19.
Anthony Schreiber is a freelance sportswriter. He has penned articles for a variety of online publications and magazines.
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