November 7, 2017
Nick Johnson, who came to Washington with the Expos in 2005, was an on-base machine. In his four seasons with the Nats, his on-base percentage was .418, which remains the Nationals’ record (Bryce Harper’s, in comparison, stood at .388 at the end of the 2018 season.)
Johnson would have ended his career with an OBP of better than .400, had he not tried a brief comeback with Baltimore in 2012. As it is, he finished at .399.
Of course, what’s most sad about Nick’s career was his inability to avoid serious injury, the most gruesome of which — the horrible collision on September 23, 2006, with Nats right fielder Austin Kearns — cost him the entire 2007 season, rehabbing a broken leg. A serious wrist injury ended his 2008 season after 38 games. but not before he had driven in the first run ever at Nationals Park.
The 2008 injury was one of several to the left-handed batter’s right wrist. He didn’t crowd the plate more than many left-hand batters, but he hung in there against lefties. Johnson hit .288 lifetime against left-hand pitchers. In his three seasons when he managed to stay on the field regularly for the Nats, he hit .328, .303 and .316 against southpaws. But he also was hit by 35 pitches as a National, ranking in the top 10 in the league in 2005, ’06 and ’09.
After a solid 2005 debut in Washington, Johnson had his best season in 2006. His .290 batting average plus 110 walks produced a .428 on-base percentage. His 46 doubles and 23 homers gave him a .520 slugging percentage (.948 OPS). His WAR was 5.0.
Johnson was back to full health in 2009, but with the Nats going nowhere, he was traded to the Marlins at the deadline. When he left, he was hitting .295.
He signed a contract to return to the Yankees, the team that drafted him, in 2010. Again, a serious wrist injury ended his season after just 24 games. Still rehabilitating from surgery in 2011, he played for AAA Columbus after signing a minor league deal with the Indians. He won a bench job in 2012 spring training with the Orioles, but his wrist did not hold up. He was placed in the disabled list in late June and that winter, decided to retire to his home in California.
In 414 games and 1,746 plate appearances with Washington, Johnson hit .286. Although the concept of clutch hitting has its detractors, Johnson seemed at his best in such situations. He had a .370 average with the bases loaded in his career with a .444 OBP. In 2005, his OBP with runners in scoring position was .478.
In March 2016, at the invitation of Dusty Baker, Johnson spent a week in Nationals’ camp as a special instructor. He offered tips on playing first base to Ryan Zimmerman and marveled at how quickly Harper recognized pitches out the pitcher’s hand.
Nick Johnson never made an all-star team, although he did play in a World Series in 2003 with the Yankees. He was not even the top player on the Nationals in his two best seasons (think Chad Cordero’s 47 saves in ’05 and Alfonso Soriano’s 46 homers in ’06). But in my mind, he was the guy you would want up when the chips were down. I’m not alone in wondering what might have been.