But when you have a philosophy degree, like I do, you try to shoehorn as many obtuse images into as many topics as possible. Please bear with me.
In Greek mythology, Atlas has the world hoisted upon his shoulders, and, as such, he is responsible for one of the most utilized images in sports journalism. LeBron James has frequently carried teams on his shoulders during the playoffs. Carlos Beltran carried the Astros on his back deep into the 2004 postseason. See? It's easy. But in the original mythology, Atlas finds himself in his position as a condemnation from the gods, rather than the middle of a triumphant or heroic act. This aspect of the legend does not play nearly as well, editorially speaking.
Fortunately, Atlas is also the titan of astronomy and navigation. In this sense, for the Braves in 2013, Johnson has been an ancient sailor, relying on the fates, gods and Atlas to navigate the choppy seas of a 162-game season. Like the earliest seafarers, Johnson has relied on a huge pile of luck for his success. However, his performance this year has been unique enough that it might be folly to make too many negative conclusions. Braves fans would do best to be content with the wins he has helped bank during this great run.
I'm a late adopter of sabermetrics, not really caring about it until I got out of college and into graduate school. I think the basic principles are too difficult to grasp without some experience in calculus, probability, and even economics.
For myself and many others, the most difficult sabermetric concept to accept is that there is an enormous luck component for a batted ball in play. BABIP, or batting average on balls in play, measures a hitter's success during those plate appearances that do not result in a walk, strikeout, or a home run. Complicated analyses of huge amounts of data have shown that the batter has very little control over this. Think of it this way: Neither a hitter nor the pitcher he is facing can control the quality of the defense in the field, good or bad hops the ball might take, or even if a fluky short-term spike in productivity is in the works.
To use rough numbers, the league average BABIP hovers right around .300. If a player's BABIP creeps too much higher than .300, he's probably been somewhat lucky (bloop hits, facing bad defense, playing a lot of day games with high skies). If it slips too much lower than .300, a batter has probably been unlucky (the bats he's ordering have a bunch of imperfections, he keeps hitting line drives right at outfielders, or maybe he keeps hitting ground balls within a zip code of Andrelton Simmons or Manny Machado).
As of August 13, Johnson is leading the National League in batting average, and has a BABIP of .420. This is the highest BABIP in baseball by a wide margin.
So, the sabermetrically inclined, myself included, quickly jump to say that Johnson has been incredibly lucky this year. And to an extent, this is most likely true. But there are also signals of an improving hitter, and certainly an evolution into much more than a throw-in to the Justin Upton blockbuster trade.
Compared to his earlier big-league seasons, Johnson's walk rate has improved (though still pretty terrible) and his strikeout rate has dipped (again, still awful). The big improvements have been in the types of balls he is hitting. He's hitting far more line drives and flyballs compared to his career averages, and a greater percentage of these are turning into extra-base hits. Looking at weighted runs created (wRC), an advanced statistic intended to compile a batter's total contribution to his team, Johnson is having an elite year. This advanced data helps illustrate Johnson's real hitting ability much more accurately than his league leading batting average.
All told, there probably is not much to be learned about Johnson's long-term prospects from this great offensive year. But the fact of the matter is that he has gone from Juan Francisco's platoon split in April to the capable place holder for Chipper Jones' Hall of Fame third base production. Much of his and the Braves' success is probably due to an abundance of favorable bounces and lucky breaks.
But I picture Johnson as holding on to the ship's wheel, steadily enduring the waves, hydras and sirens, singing an incantation to Atlas. Or else taping his mouth shut and stoically reserving a slap on the butt and an 'attaboy for his supernatural guardians.
Patrick Richardson is a 22-year follower of the Atlanta Braves who started playing t-ball right as Atlanta's record-setting run of division titles began. He imitated Terry Pendleton and John Smoltz on the kindergarten playground. His first baseball memory is the gut-wrenching Jack Morris World Series game. He is an amateur but enthusiastic sabermetrician.
- Sports & Recreation
- Atlanta Braves