In terms of player performance, 2016 was the roughest year in memory on the Halos’ farm. Below is a chart showing the distribution of players accumulating two or more wins above replacement for the system over the last seven years (quick trivia: who was the six-WAR player back in 2011?).
There may be a few contextual reasons for why so few players in the system put up above average seasons last year—for example, Eppler and Co have tended to promote players to the next level the moment that they demonstrate mastery—but the fact remains that the list of performers is painfully thin.
17) Sherman Johnson: infielder, left-handed hitter. Age 26
2016 line, split between AA and AAA: .246/.354/.392 w 12 HRs and 18 SB’s.
Key Numbers: .280 BABIP, but still 2 WAR
Possible Future: Platoon utility infielder, if things break right, with an outside chance at a Ben Zobrist-like career year or two.
Yup, Sherman Johnson is still around. Everyone seems to have forgotten him, including other teams, who showed no interest when the Halos failed to protect him in the Rule 5 Draft. That was a bit of a shock to the sabermetric crowd, worthy of a stand-alone Fangraphs article. Why? Because even after his meager .226/.332/.345 line in the PCL, Johnson still showed up as the most projectable, available-but-unprotected infielder in all of baseball.
After earning a Triple A promotion with a hot .369/.481/.677 start, Johnson failed to find his footing in Salt Lake. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) tumbled to the anemic sub-.280 numbers that have plagued him for months at a time in the upper minors these past two years, despite the consistently sterling peripherals.
I want to be clear that no one, me included, is writing off the poor BABIP as bad luck. Consider the following: an experienced pitcher could spot a fastball for strike one, which uber-passive Johnson would inevitably take. With a little execution, the crafty moundsman could then offer something bendy over the plate, and Johnson would again nearly always take. With an 0-2 count, the pitcher had only to expand the zone and let Johnson tap himself out with weak contact (he rarely strikes out). It is a baseball truism that hitters run crappy BABIP’s with two strikes. Johnson, despite his upper-echelon contact skills and batting eye, is one of the most passive hitters in the game, and no doubt faced more 2 strike counts than just about anyone in the minor leagues. He ran crappy BABIP’s. It’s no coincidence.
But he’s still my favorite, so I’ll continue to list all of the reasons for believing in Sherman Johnson:
(1) He faced younger pitchers in almost half of his 2016 AB’s—you know, the fuzz-faced flame throwers who generally bring more stuff than execution--and slammed a .293/.387/.471 slash line against them. Johnson has no trouble barreling quality offerings. His problem is game plan, something he can presumably tweak more easily than less gifted peers can fix bat speed, contact rate, or distance pop.
(2) Despite the forgettable PCL stint, he still managed an encouraging .258/.368/.412 line overall against righties in 2016. The Halos aren’t exactly flush with lefty bats at the moment, which should keep the door open to Johnson as a bench piece.
(3) Apart from the whole BABIP thing, he’s average to above average at every other measurable baseball skill. He’s a stud glove at third, average at second, passable at short, and could likely excel in a corner outfield spot with a little work. He’s a fine base runner, capable of swiping a bag when necessary. And, what potentially sets him apart from other fringe utility types (I’m looking at you, Fontana), Johnson packs sneaky but consistent over-the-fence-pop: he’s averaged two HR’s a month in the upper minors, or essentially middle-of-the-road power numbers. The sum of the parts appeals far more than recent slash lines.
Johnson is in a similar position to where Matt Shoemaker found himself at the beginning of 2014, in that he’s a forgotten 26 year old whose value isn’t entirely captured by the go-to stats. It’s not entirely the same situation: Shoemaker’s numbers were depressed by the prevailing winds of his environment, whereas Johnson’s depressed BABIP runs counter to PCL trends. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that a fast start in 2017 would push Johnson into a platoon role on the major league club. If he’s able to adjust to the new level more quickly than he’s done in the past, he could become a key support piece in the next competitive Angels lineup.
Below are some graphs that I put together showing the very close relationship between BABIP and his overall production (wOBA). That correlation is stronger than most players because his walk and strikeout percentages are so consistent. Of the available data, line drive percentage and ground ball percentage minus “rollover” (ground balls fielded by second and first basement) are the key drivers to Johnson’s BABIP percentage. But again, I think those things are more symptom than cause; as stated, I’m certain that the real driver to his BABIP, and therefore his overall value, is contact in 0-2 and 1-2 counts versus contact in other counts. Regardless, they show up as things to look for in spring training.