On Monday, 1996 Yankees draftee and free agent designated hitter Nick Johnson elected to retire. His announcement ended a career that spanned twelve big-league seasons, among which he played a big-league game in only ten, and more than 40 big-league games in only six.
So, yes, ultimately (at least in the short-term), Johnson’s career will be remembered more for the time he spent off the field than on it; he was probably the most injury-prone position player of his time, the Mark Prior of huge, unathletic first basemen. But as with Prior, that fact is interesting only because Johnson was incredibly talented, and it’s worth pausing to think for a second about what might have been.
From the beginning, it was clear that Johnson was a special hitting talent. He was one of relatively few pure first basemen selected as high as the third round of the draft (he was actually the seventh first baseman taken in that draft, but of the preceding six, only second overall pick Travis Lee actually made the majors, which might tell you why kids who already profile as first-base-only tend to be disfavored), and he never played in the field at any position but first base in his minor-league career. This despite being viewed (as Minor League Ball’s John Sickels notes) as an excellent defender for the position, and despite being athletic enough to steal 16 bases in 19 tries in low-A in his second year. You might expect to see someone like that get a try in left field or right, but the Yankees must have sensed that, given his size (and the injury history he quickly developed), if Johnson was going to make it, it’d be as first baseman -- or, more accurately, as a hitter.
And lord, could he hit -- or get on base, anyway. Johnson put up a .422 on-base percentage in his first 47 games in pro ball, for the Gulf Coast League Yankees; he didn’t turn 18 until a couple weeks after the season had ended. He had a similarly strong full-season debut in 1997 (.273/.398/.441), then absolutely exploded in high-A ball in 1998, batting .317/.446/.538. He also had his first real injury setback as a pro, though, missing the first six weeks of the season after shoulder surgery, which limited him to 393 plate appearances.
It was 1999 at double-A, though, when Johnson traveled to a different planet, putting together one of the most impressive and interesting minor-league seasons you’ll ever see. Johnson hit .345, which was terrific (his team collectively hit .264, only Alfonso Soriano and one other player topping .300 in more than 400 plate appearances, and both of them 40 or more points below Johnson). He hit 33 doubles in just 420 at-bats, which is pretty amazing. He slugged .548 despite hitting just 14 home runs.
But that’s not it, though. What made it so amazing was the middle part of that line: .345/.525/.548. He got on base fifty-two and one-half percent of the time. Minor league records are spotty, but in the whole history of the major leagues, only four men have done that or better, a total of eight times: Barry Bonds (three times), Ted Williams (twice), Babe Ruth (twice) and John McGraw (once). What might be even more interesting is how he did it; there was that impressive batting average, of course, but more than that, his 123 walks (all but six unintentional) and 37 hit-by-pitches in just 132 games. On average, for every five games, Johnson reached base six times without putting bat to ball, and on average, at least one of those six was a HBP. If it’d happened in the majors, that HBP total would be tied for sixth all-time. Johnson had already shown an uncanny ability to attract baseballs to his body -- he’d been plunked 18 times in 1997 and 19 in ‘98 -- but this was a whole new level. It might have raised some red flags about his future as a healthy and fully-functional professional athlete, but on base is on base, and when you can stay healthy as Johnson did in 1999 (and as Craig Biggio did for his whole career), that ability to get in the way of pitches is an awfully useful thing.
Of course, Johnson was kind of the anti-Craig Biggio, and for all anyone seems to know, it may have been one of those hit by pitches (or a collection of them) that led to the wrist injury that kept him out of baseball entirely in the year 2000. In any case, he came back and did well enough in Triple-A in 2001 (with a .402 OBP despite only batting .256) that he split time at first base and DH with Jason Giambi the following season, and you probably remember a lot of what happened from there: he was just okay in 2002, but brilliant in ‘03 (albeit in only 96 games), then was traded to the Expos with two other players, including once and future Yankee Juan Rivera, for Javy Vazquez (one of the better and more underrated pitchers in baseball at the time). After a miserable, injury-shortened final year in Montreal, Johnson was the star of the first two Washington Nationals teams, playing 131 and then 147 games, batting .290/.419/.501 (143 OPS+) and putting up between 8 and 10 wins above replacement, depending on where you look.
That was as good as it got. Johnson missed all of 2007 and most of 2008. He had one more season of over 130 games left, in 2009, split between the Nationals and Marlins, and it was a good one (.426 OBP, though the power was gone), but then came the ill-fated second tour in New York (though it’s awfully fun that he managed a .388 OBP with a .167 average that season, collecting more than twice as many walks and HBP as he did hits), and missing all of 2011, and the similarly ill-fated 2012 trip through Baltimore.
Johnson ends his career with a very strong .268/.399/.441 line. In eight games with Baltimore last April, Johnson went 0-for-26 with a walk and three hit by pitches; if he’d simply sat out all of April and picked up just where he did in May, he’d have ended his career with a neat .401 on-base percentage, just the 59th in all of history to hold a career mark over .400 (many ahead of him on that list are still active with time to fall off of it, and most of the others’ careers predated Jackie Robinson). It’s not .525, but it’s pretty fantastic.
Consider this: Nick Johnson was considered a first base-only prospect, and one without a ton of power, having never topped 20 homers or a .550 slugging percentage in the minors. And, he missed significant time in 1998, and missed all of 2000. Nonetheless, Baseball America ranked him among their top 20 prospects for four years running: #18 in 1999, #5 in 2000, #10 in 2001 and #13 in 2002. That’s the mark of what scouts saw as a really special player, and a special hitter. For comparison’s sake, Jeff Bagwell made the BA 100 just once, at #32 in 1992; Frank Thomas appeared at #29, in 1991. For Johnson to do that well on those lists, despite being limited to first base and despite having already proven a significant injury risk, is a testament to just how special his bat (or perhaps more accurately, his batting eye) was. He showed in the minors, and in 2005 and 2006, the superstar level of play he was capable of when he was fully healthy. Though, he really never was. It was an awe-inspiring level of talent, and it’s a shame we didn’t get to see more of it.