Deep Thoughts: Dan Johnson

As Opening Day slowly creeps towards us - 15 days (!) and counting - we're going to start focusing in on key players and answering some of the important questions facing them this season. One person will take the pro side of the debate while the other takes the con.

First up we have Dan Johnson, who in his short time with the Rays has endeared himself to many fans for life with his late inning heroics, specifically against Boston and New York. There are a couple major questions facing the Great Pumpkin this seasons - both stemming from the debate about his playing time - but we want to start off with his preseason projections and an Over/Under debate.

Which projection system best approximates how DanJo will perform this season?

PA

HR

RBI

BB%

K%

ISO

wOBA

Bill James

372

18

59

14.5%

19.5%

0.220

0.369

Marcel

270

10

35

11.9%

22.0%

0.181

0.327

Erik: Let's start off by saying that the Bill James projections are notoriously optimistic for nearly every player while Marcel tends to be a bit harsher. That being said, I think he falls somewhere in the middle. He's never had an ISO of .220 in any season where he saw substantial action, so expecting him to do it in his age 32 season is asking a bit much. Conversely, if he has a .327 wOBA like Marcels suggests then I hope DanJo likes the feel of the bench, because he'd be seeing a lot of it. What say you, Steve?

Steve: The Marcels system does tend to underrate players that have a limited amount of major league playing time, so you could definitely make the case that he's a much better player than a .327 wOBA. The Oliver projection system, which is the best at forecasting minor league players, rates Johnson as much higher, somewhere closer to the Bill James forecast. But at the same time, I'm very hesitant to project Johnson as one of the top players in the Rays' lineup without seeing more from him first. Longoria posted a .376 wOBA last season, so I simply don't see Johnson coming that close to him. 

Yes, Johnson had a low BABIP last season, but he's not an especially speedy runner and probably has a true talent BABIP level around the .270 range. If he were to perform like last season yet also have his BABIP bounce back, he would still only put him around the .350 wOBA level. That's certainly good, but it's also probably the peak production that I'd expect from Johnson in 2011. I don't want to get my expectations too high based on small bits of data, so I'd say he's closer to the .340-.350 wOBA range.

Erik: So we're agreed, if Bill James and Marcels got together and had a projection-baby of Dan Johnson statistics that is where we expect he'll land. Moving on...

Should he face left handed pitching?

Steve: I know I'm supposed to pick a definite side so this can be a more fun debate, but man, this is a tough one to draw a line in the sand on. It depends - if Johnson ends up hitting like the Oliver system projects, then he should be in the lineup every single day. However, if he ends up somewhere in that .340-.350 wOBA range, then things start to get complicated. He doesn't have an extreme split for his career, but he also doesn't have many major league at bats. As a lefty, you have to assume that he's going to be worse against left-handed pitchers than right-handed pitcher - and probably a decent bit worse. Will he be bad enough to warrant putting Zobrist at first base in his stead? That I don't know.

Erik: As you mentioned, his career major league splits aren't too different. In 387PAs against LHP Johnson has a .331 wOBA, compared with a .335 wOBA in 886 PAs vs RHP. Obviously since he doesn't even have a full seasons worth of appearances against LHP it's not safe to make any definitive assessments, but if we expect him to be a ~.350 wOBA hitter against RHP then what is the number that allows him to play full time and face LHP? Is it .310? .320? Where is the line drawn between himself and Ben Zobrist? It's an interesting debate and one I'm sure Joe Maddon and the Baseball Ops department know the answer to already.

Will Ben Zobrist relegate Johnson to pinch hitting and spot starting duty?

Steve: Well, the question doesn't entirely focus on Johnson or Zobrist: it really comes down to who would need to be added to the lineup if Johnson is taken out of it. Zobrist is already slated to start against left-handed pitchers, since he's a strong hitter against both hands, so he'd simply be sliding from right field over to first base. Matt Joyce would be the logical person to slide into right field (or Sam Fuld), but Joyce has his own issues with lefties. He doesn't look particularly good at the plate when he faces a lefty (although he has had some encouraging at bats this spring), and he has a huge split in his major league career so far - .237 wOBA versus lefties, .372 wOBA versus righties. But of course, take that with a grain of salt; Joyce also only has 60 plate appearances against lefties in the majors.

Joyce is projected to be a good hitter, posting around a .350-.360 wOBA depending on which projection system you believe, so he could be a better hitter against lefties this season than Johnson. It's tough to tell for certain at this point, though.

Erik: All that about Joyce is fine and dandy, but what happens if Joyce starts to hit well enough against LHP to remain in the game full time AND Sean Rodriguez shows he can hit RHP like he did in the minors? Then what becomes of Zobrist? I think it's more likely that Zobrist does well at the plate than Johnson, and we already know his glove plays well anywhere, so that too would leave Johnson on the bench. Strangely enough, Rodriguez has more major league plate appearances against RHP than LHP - 393 to 201, with wOBA's of .285 and .319 respectively. The .319 against LHP is misleading as he only really came into his own last season, crushing southpaws to the tune of a .360 wOBA. 

I think the best case scenario for the team would be if Joyce and Rodriguez were productive enough to be full time players, which would slide Zobrist to first base and Johnson to the bench. Having a pinch hitter like Johnson is a pretty valuable asset, something Jonathon Papelbon found out the hard way in 2008. That's not a good scenario if you're Dan Johnson, however. There are so many variables in play with the Johnson/Zobrist/Joyce/Rodriguez group that any situation we laid out is totally plausable. It's the storyline I'll be more interested in to start the season.

Steve: Personally, I'm rooting for DanJo to dominate for the first couple weeks and lock down the starting gig. I like his power potential a lot and - I've got to admit - he's made it tough for me to root against him. Only a bit over two weeks until Opening Day!

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