Occasionally lost in the Braves' 2013 season was the consistency of a hitter who emerged quicker and higher than anyone could have imagined.
Braves third baseman Chris Johnson was acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks in the trade that sent Justin Upton to Atlanta this past winter. Johnson was understandably overshadowed in the trade, seen as a throw-in piece to fill the hole left by Chipper Jones until the Braves could do better at the position.
Johnson's first season in Atlanta ended up a little better than stop-gap caliber.
Johnson hit .321/.358/.457 with a .354 wOBA and 127 wRC+. He hit 12 home runs and recorded a 5.3 walk percentage, finishing with a career-high 2.8 fWAR, more than a full win higher than his previous mark.
He also hit .438 with five RBI in 16 plate appearances this postseason.
Say what you will about him not being able to repeat these numbers and look to trade him this offseason, but Johnson deserves credit for how he performed this season.
Johnson's hit tool was off the charts this season, and he said before the playoffs began that 2013 is the first year he's been able to put it to use with a consistent approach. The result was a 27 line drive percentage, up 2 percent from last year and 4 percent from 2011. This is a huge reason for a .394 batting average on balls in play, as those line drives fell between infielders and outfielders at a consistent rate.
Taking a look at batted-ball numbers per pitch type reveals Johnson's line drive rate per balls in play increased dramatically on breaking balls and off-speed pitches. Map No. 1 charts this well. Johnson's plate discipline numbers say his contact rates were in line with his career norms; he simply made harder contact and squared the ball better.
It also helps when you see more fastballs, which Johnson did in 2013. He saw an increase in fastballs and decrease in breaking balls so, despite taking advantage of breaking balls and off-speed pitches by hitting them harder, he also got more fastballs to pound. Whether this is a direct cause of Johnson's ability to hit secondaries harder and pitchers trying adjust, I don't know.
Map No. 2 shows Johnson's plate coverage on breaking balls. When a pitcher made a mistake with a breaker on the plate, he covered it regardless of which half it was on. In his career, Johnson has covered the plate well on breaking balls, as the vast majority of his whiffs come on breaking pitches low and away.
Which leads to Map No. 3, perhaps the most intriguing of the bunch. Johnson's ability to cover the plate with an excellent hit tool that leads to consistently hard contact helped produce a spray chart that covers the field well. He doesn't try to pull the ball out of the park, or even in the gaps, he just takes what the pitcher gives him and shoots it past the infield by squaring it up very well.
Is Johnson capable of repeating his 2013 season? I think a .321 average is tough for anyone in baseball to repeat, even more so for a .289 career hitter. I do believe Johnson has turned a corner in his approach that will produce a higher level of play in future seasons than his career numbers indicate. He will never produce a ton of value because he doesn't produce pop and, combined with his below-average defense, his fWAR will never be among the best at third base in MLB.
But Johnson had the fifth-best wOBA among third basemen this season, and I don't think it's unreasonable to say he could be in that neighborhood again next season. Is that more valuable than whatever the Braves could get for him on the trade market by selling high? That's something I can't possibly answer.