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Split Squad: Chris Johnson: Lucky or Good?

Conan Hines

Conan Hines

Conan Hines writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

Justin Green

Justin Green

Justin Green writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

Itís always fun to see pure hitters emerge in what is now an athletic manís game. Chris Johnson has burst onto the scene and been a huge help for those who were lucky enough to find a place for him in their lineup a few weeks ago. Johnsonís peripherals are scary, but does he have the skill and upside to be a fantasy regular from here on out?

Mirage Johnson (by Justin Green)

Johnson has put up some impressive fantasy numbers since being called up on June 22nd. In 198 plate appearances Johnson has hit six home runs, scored 25 times, and knocked in 35 runs, all while hitting .357. These are good numbers, no doubt, but the question is, will Johnson keep it up? I say no.

The biggest red flag for Johnson is his inflated BABIP. He has a .414 BABIP, which is currently 116 points higher than the league average of .298. That is a huge difference, which will result in a not-so-subtle correction. To Johnsonís credit, he has been hitting a lot of line drives (24%), and while that makes his BABIP a bit more believable, itís still a number that is difficult to maintain. Johnsonís fantasy stats will suffer when his numbers correct.

When Johnsonís BABIP does correct, his .367 OBP will decrease dramatically. Compare that to his batting average of .340, and you can see Johnson is getting on base via the hit, and basically only the hit. Johnson sports a 4.5 BB%, good for 12th worst in the league among qualifiers. Once his BABIP comes back to earth, his average will soon follow and the bottom will fall out of his OBP and OPS.

Why does Johnson walk so rarely? Well, he swings at pitches out of the zone at a 41% clip. Compared to the 29% O-swing league average, Johnson looks pretty sloppy at the plate. He has struck out 43 times and walked just nine times in his 203 plate appearances. Once major league pitchers realize they donít have to throw Johnson strikes, he wonít see nearly as many hittable pitches.

Johnson will turn 26 in October, and there is no doubt his major league playing time this season will help him in the future. 2011 will be a pivotal year for Johnson Ė he will need to improve his eye at the plate and make further adjustments to his swing. In non-keeper leagues Iíd say leave Johnson alone. He just wonít be able to maintain these numbers. In keeper leagues, track Johnsonís progress and maybe take a late flier on him.

Magic Johnson (by Conan Hines)

I take a look at a .414 BABIP and match it with average foot speed and I agree - a .340 average is not sustainable. However, it brings us to the dilemma of whether some guys have certain hitting skills that allow for a higher BABIP. Iíd say absolutely. But the bigger question is, does Johnson possess these skills? I would say yes, so letís see why.

The last three seasons Johnson has been a BABIP machine. In 2008, in 330 Double-A at-bats, he posted a .370 BABIP. The following year in Triple-A, with 384 ABs, he posted a .338 clip. This year, between Triple-A and the big club, he has posted a .347 and .414 BABIP respectively. So maybe the guy doesnít have the keenest eye (Johnson has approximately a 1:5 BB:K rate in his career), but when he squares the ball up, he puts it where they ainít.

Manny Ramirez hasnít posted a BABIP lower than .332 since 2006. Iím not saying Johnson is Manny, but there are slow-footed hitters that can find holes in the defense. At only 25, Johnson is not an old-timer living on luck. A fourth rounder out of Stetson, Johnson does not possess the skill set that leaves scouts in awe, but he just has the look of a pure hitter. Even if Johnsonís BABIP drops down to .330, he could still be a .260 hitter, and as he continues to get stronger, it wouldnít be a surprise to see him pop 20 over the wall. At a thin position such as third base, you could fare much worse. The fact is, the guy has had major league success, is still young enough to develop power, and plays one of the shallowest positions in fantasy baseball.

Donít believe Johnson is a .300+ hitter, but certainly believe this kid can hit. If he can improve his eye a bit, one could reasonably expect a .280 hitter to emerge. Hitting in Houston, with the opportunity to bat in the middle of the lineup, will be an advantage he wouldnít have received with most clubs. I think the upside is there, and if heís filling in at 3B for you right now, Iíd be hesitant to release him. Keep him for now and target him in the middle to later rounds in next yearís draft.