The Cleveland Indians acquired corner infielder Chris Johnson from the Atlanta Braves this season, in exchange for veterans Michael Brantley and Nick Swisher shortly after the trade deadline. All three players had such enormous contracts that they were able to clear waivers without any teams trying to claim them.
Since coming to the Indians, Johnson has had limited playing time, due in part to a freak injury: a spider bite to the finger that became infected. Aside from that issue, he’s played in 20 games, accumulating 67 plate appearances and batting .344/.373/.453. Those numbers are far better than the ones he posted with the Braves, when he hit .235/.272/.320 in 162 plate appearances before the deal.
But can Johnson keep it up? The simple answer is that it’s impossible to tell. Johnson is two seasons removed from nearly winning the National League batting title, but he was one of the worst hitters in the game this season before he left Atlanta. His isolated slugging percentage, which subtracts his average from his slugging percentage to show how many of his hits went for extra-bases, was the lowest of his career at just .092. This is certainly down from his stellar 2012 season, when his ISO was .136.
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Besides a decrease in ISO, Johnson has other discrepancies that make him hard to predict. In 2015, he struck out 27.1 percent of the time, while walking just 4.4 percent of the time. He’s also hitting fewer line drives, and more grounders and fly balls than he did in 2013 – all signs that he cannot repeat that success. However, there’s no real reason for those numbers to have changed – he’s still seeing roughly the same types of pitches, just getting worse outcomes.
Johnson, who could be a terrific right-handed option next season, would be a gamble to put much faith in as an everyday first baseman. But the Indians don’t have any particularly stellar first base prospects, and for as much as Carlos Santana’s underlying numbers point towards greatness, the Tribe’s slugger just hasn’t been able to translate those into actual, tangible success on a consistent basis. Johnson’s defense is so good that it may make sense to take a risk on giving him the everyday job.
Johnson will be on the team in 2016 due to his contract, but can he actually have an impact? His short-term success with the Indians says yes, but it will take a much bigger sample size to make everyone a believer in Chris Johnson.