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Nick Johnson, The Nearly Perfect Baseball Player, Retires

Illustration for article titled Nick Johnson, The Nearly Perfect Baseball Player, Retires

Nick Johnson announced his retirement today after playing portions of 10 major league seasons due to an infuriating inability to stay healthy. It's impossible to read an article about Johnson without coming across the phrase "oft-injured." It will be the book on him until they close it: "Nick Johnson died today in his home, having asphyxiated on an enormous piece of chaw. The oft-injured former major leaguer is survived by his wife and two dogs."


It's cruel to be so good at one of the most important things in baseball—"see the ball" always comes before "hit the ball"—and be physically incapable of doing it. In his worst (and first) season in the major leagues, Johnson posted a .194/.308/.313 slash line. He only had 78 plate appearances in 23 games that year but it would not be long before he was posting .400+ on base percentages.

The guy just got on base. And, after his rookie season, he actually got on base by seeing the ball and hitting the ball. He was this close to being the perfect baseball player. Except for that one, tiny thing: in only four of his 10 seasons did he ever play over 100 games and he never played a full season. In 2006 he played his career high—147 games—with a .290/.428/.520 slashline and 149 OPS+. It was, no surprise, his best season.


The second great tragedy of Nick Johnson's career is that while he was championed by the SABR community, he was the kind of player the gritty old press box should have loved, too. He had that hacking, battling, dirtied-uniform, never give an at-bat away kind of mentality and was actually good at it. Everyone could have gotten on board with Nick Johnson. He was David Eckstein with some discernible skill.

But where Eckstein and his kind only metaphorically sacrificed their bodies for the game, Nick Johnson actually sacrificed his. Johnson was injured throughout his career, but the wheels fell off the wagon at the tail end of 2006 and he missed all of 2007 and most of 2008 with a broken leg. In 2011 he spent the year with the Indians—in AAA—as he recovered from wrist surgery for what felt like the 16th time. He then played 33 games for the Orioles last year before that god damned wrist acted up again. With an OBP and the sheer desire to play baseball like his, he could have singlehandedly brokered détente between the stats and anti-stats crowds.

It never happened, obviously. Like everything else in Johnson's career, it never really got a chance to be more than hypothetical. And now he's retiring because his body, and major league teams, finally gave up on him. At a certain point, it doesn't matter how well you see it, you still have to be able to hit it.

Oft-injured Nick Johnson elects to retire [MLB]

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