The first in a non-alphabetical and irregularly updated series of review pieces for each(?) of the players we predicted last spring.
LL/USSM Community: .283/.325/.433
Actual Line: .227/.277/.332
Sweet baby Jesus did we ever blow that one.
In many ways, 2008 couldn't possibly have gone more wrong for Kenji Johjima. Among catchers who came to the plate at least 300 times, Kenji's OBP ranked second-last, and his SLG was only two slots better. He followed up two consecutive solid offensive campaigns with one unmitigated disaster, and at the end of the year the guy many people had been calling the Japanese Jason Varitek showed that perhaps the label is only all too appropriate. While a lot of the focus will go to Erik Bedard and a disappointing pitching staff, Kenji Johjima's inability to produce any runs was one of the biggest unforeseen factors behind the Mariners' collapse.
It's not that there weren't highlights and flashes of promise. It's that they were too far between, too infrequent for a guy the team was counting on to help keep an unspectacular offense consistent. Johjima waited until May 12th to hit his first homer. He only had eleven games in which he drove in more than one run. The most extra-base hits he had in any single month was seven, and he only had 13 through the entire first half, compared to 25 the season before. While he was able to pick it up in September to push his OPS over .600, for the majority of the year he was the definition of a black hole, one of a number of guys on the team whose numbers wouldn't have belonged anywhere close to a competitive roster.
As if the offensive struggles weren't enough, Kenji started catching flak for his defense as well. His caught stealing percentage dropped from an incredible 46.5% to a modest 32.5%, but more importantly, his game-calling was coming into question, and at one point both Jarrod Washburn and Erik Bedard were using Jamie Burke as a personal catcher because they didn't like pitching to Johjima. Whether or not Kenji's game-calling is a problem, I can't be sure - and I must stress that there's no reliable evidence either way - but once the word gets out that a guy can't call a game, that's a label that tends to stick. Even if it isn't true, people start to believe it, to the point at which they're so convinced that they just start looking for mistakes to verify a subjective hypothesis. Kenji may not have deserved the label, but he got stuck with it, and his reputation suffered as a result.
Nichols' Law of Catcher Defense states that "a catcher's defensive reputation is inversely proportional to his offensive abilities." So a guy like Brad Ausmus, who's never been able to hit, is considered to be one of the better defensive catchers of his generation, whereas Jorge Posada's been so good for so long at the plate that people have always been bearish on his glovework. For Kenji, though, the relationship worked in the inverse of the inverse: as his offensive productivity dropped, so did people's opinions of him as a catcher. He was an exception to the rule, and all that meant was that people looked at him and assumed that he was an all-around nightmare. Which, who knows, he might have really been.
The only thing that went Kenji's way in 2008 was the three-year extension he signed towards the end of April, although now that I think about that, it may have worked against him, in that the contract caused a great deal of resentment among teammates who thought that Kenji was getting preferential treatment from the owners (the same owners who were responsible for the deal). I'll say this: while the extension announcement was met with shock and disappointment, there was a case to be made for it at the time, as no one could have foreseen that Kenji would remain so feeble with the bat. But the timing was just beyond lousy. Kenji was batting .200 with a .514 OPS when word spread that the team had just committed to him another $24m over three years. .200 and .514, while Jeff Clement was busy flipping out in Tacoma. No matter what your in-season Marcel projections might tell you, you can't give an extension like that when a player is struggling so bad. At least wait until he shows some signs of getting back on track. Kenji's price wasn't going to skyrocket. Ownership had time to wait, but they acted too fast, and now what they've been left with is another three years of a catcher who got statistically out-hit by Jose Vidro. While it's good to take risks, they're only worth taking when you have a specific window of opportunity. There was no reason to push for a new contract at the time, but they did anyway, and got badly burned.
For whatever it's worth, it's not all bad news. Yes, Kenji Johjima is coming off a .227 BA over 112 games. Yes, he's 32 years old, and yes, his power disappeared. But he also posted a 19% line drive rate that was right by his 06/07 average. So while his BABIP dropped from .290 to a paltry .231, it wasn't necessarily supported by any apparent underlying decline in ability. He was still hitting the ball fairly hard; it just wasn't finding the holes. And as you should all be able to tell me by now, that isn't the sort of thing we should expect to continue. We should see more of those balls find the grass than we did last year, and as a result, his numbers should climb higher up towards respectability.
If you regress Kenji's 2008 batting line to his now-career BABIP mark of .275, his BA jumps from .227 to .264. That improvement, in turn, pushes his OPS up near .700, which isn't a bad place to be when you consider that the league-average catcher last year came in at .715. A little BABIP regression along with a Safeco park adjustment turns Kenji's nightmare 2008 into a season of average offense. So that's something. It's not at all what he looked like a year or two ago, but it's a hell of a lot better than a lot of frustrated Mariner fans would have you believe.
Kenji Johjima is an aging catcher, and it's entirely possible that he'll never again reach a home run total in the double digits. But while the three-year extension looks horrible, there's reason to believe that he may still be perfectly useful in 2009, even in a regular role. Marcel projects a .699 OPS. Bill James projects .727. Those don't seem very good, but then that's kind of par for the course, because catchers aren't world-renowned for their ability to hit. They just have to hit well enough to not cripple the offense, and provided that Kenji gets some better luck, next year he should be able to fulfill whichever responsibilities he's given, whether that be as a starter or a backup.
Jose Vidro is finished. Richie Sexson is finished. But Kenji Johjima, I think, still has a little life left in his bones. While some nights I wish to the high heavens that I could go back in time and prevent the owners from mandating that extension, I feel like Kenji's still capable of earning a good bit of that money before eventually going away. Just so long as Jarrod Washburn lets him.