Howard Johnson is currently the hitting coach for the Seattle Mariners. He was given the job after the conclusion of the 2013 season when the Mariners overhauled their entire coaching staff. Johnson is tasked with helping the Mariners hit baseballs better (i.e., further, harder, and not at defenders). It's possible that he's pretty good at his job; the Mariners did win 87 games last year, which was 16 more than 2013. Wow! Of course, the Mariners weren't actually appreciably better at the plate in '14 (their team wRC+ and OPS actually ticked down a little), so it's hard to say for sure... But Lloyd seems to like him and so do the players, and as long as the M's are winning we should all be happy.
However, the purpose of this article isn't so much to critique Johnson's coaching style as it is to better introduce him to the denizens of Lookout Landing. With that in mind, lets take a brief look at Johnson's past as a baseball player and coach.
- - -
Johnson was a switch-hitting third baseman who played major league baseball for 14 seasons between 1982 and 1995. If you're at least ~32-years-old, you're probably familiar with "HoJo" and his propensity for inexplicably mashing home runs. Despite being listed as 5'11" and 178 pounds, between 1987 and 1991 Johnson hit 157 dingers; only Mark McGwire, Darryl Strawberry, and Jose Canseco hit more HRs during that period. Dude could definitely swing the bat. During this five-year run, Johnson was elected as an All-Star twice, received two Silver Slugger awards, and finished in the top-10 in MVP voting three times. HoJo at his peak was absolutely a hitter to be feared and respected.
Unfortunately for Johnson, he dropped off sharply once he passed the age of 30. Over his last four seasons (~1200 PA), he posted an fWAR of -1.7. This occurred between 1992 and 1995, a time when his batting line of .219/.332/.366 didn't even come close to cutting it for a player who was paid to be an offensive force (the average SLG% in MLB during this period was above .400). He bounced around from the Mets to the Rockies to the Cubs over the final three seasons of his career, but he was unable to regain his pop and retired from professional baseball at the age of 34.
Once his playing days were over, Johnson pursued a career in coaching. Between 2001 and 2006 he steadily worked his way up the Mets minor league organization, serving as:
- Hitting coach for the Brooklyn Cyclones (Short-Season A) in 2001
- Manager for the Cyclones in 2002
- Hitting coach for the St. Lucie Mets (Advanced-A) in 2003
- Hitting coach for the Binghamton Mets (AA) in 2004
- Hitting coach for the Norfolk Tide (AAA) in 2005 and 2006.
In 2007, he finally got a shot to be on a big league coaching staff, joining the Mets as their first base coach; however, midway through the year, he was promoted and became the team's hitting coach. During his ~4 years with the Mets, New York managed a better-than-league-average hitting line of .265/.333/.408. However, for the 2011 season (when the Mets hired Terry Collins to replace Jerry Manuel), Johnson was let go. Finally, in 2013, he was hired to be the hitting coach for the Tacoma Rainiers.
Here are also a few bulletpoints of things that I found to be particularly interesting:
- According to baseball-reference's Similarity Scores, Howard Johnson and Kyle Seager are ranked as being very similar to one another through their age-26 seasons. Looking at their offensive numbers it's easy to see why (although Seager is clearly the better defender).
- Howard Johnson belongs to the fairly illustrious 30-30 club (30 HR and 30 SB in a single season), which currently contains just 38 players. He actually did this three times during his career. Only Bobby Bonds, Barry Bonds, and Alfonso Soriano put up more 30-30 seasons.
- In 1992, at the age of 31, after having started 77% of his previous games at 3B, Johnson got his first career start in CF. He went on to start 82 games in center for the Mets that season. Although he certainly wasn't the least athletic guy on the field (he did start almost 200 games at shortstop over his career), his Def value of -24.4 in '92 reflects how maybe this wasn't the best idea. (For reference, that's a Raul Ibanez-level of bad defense.)
- For a little more perspective re: Johnson's career numbers:
- He hit his 228 career home runs at a rate of one HR every 25.1 PA. That's the same as Matt Holliday and a bit better than Carlos Beltran, Adrian Beltre, or Eddie Murray.
- His career wRC+ (117) is the same as Justin Morneau's and Dustin Pedroia's. Also, the wRC+ he put up in 1989 (166!) is better than the single-season wRC+ of any Mariner not named Edgar Martinez.
- His career fWAR (23.5) is higher than Jay Buhner's, Bret Boone's, or Danny Tartabull's.
- Multiple times throughout his career Howard Johnson was accused of corking his bat. Basically, people seemed to be confused about how a guy with HoJo's stature could blast almost 40 homers in a season. You can read about these accusations and incidences, if you feel like it. Although he was never actually found guilty, Johnson maybe-sorta-kinda confessed to doing something shady when he was interviewed during spring training in '97. Johnson was quoted saying, "All I've ever said is that when they X-rayed my bats, they came up clean. But I know a few good carpenters, yeah."
- Unlike a few of the juggernauts on the last couple of HOF ballots, namely J.T. Snow and Aaron Boone (who each received multiple votes), Howard Johnson was shut-out and received just as many HOF votes as I did.
- If you go to Johnson's minor league stats page on baseball-reference, you'll see that he played for the Evansville Triplets (the AAA affiliate of Detroit, at the time) in 1983 at the age of 22. After '83, he stuck around on big league rosters until he retired. HOWEVER, you'll also notice that in 2011, at the Julio Franco-esque age of 50, he appeared in two games for the Rockland Boulders. This "comeback" was driven by the fact that his son was playing for the Boulders at the time and somebody somewhere thought it would be neat if Howard came out and played with his kid... and it did seem pretty cool. Although he didn't get a hit, HoJo was able to get on base with a walk in his final plate appearance.
- - -
Before writing this, I admit that I was only tangentially aware of Howard Johnson's career as a baseball player. His was a name that I'd heard, but I'd failed to realize just how good he was during that five-year stretch. Hopefully this post has learned you somethin' and you're able to better relate to Seattle's hitting coach in 2015, which should allow you to become even more invested in Seattle Mariners baseball.