Recently, with the acquisition of Josh Willingham, I’ve seen some debate as to who should be starting for the Nats. The premise goes that if you put Willingham in LF, Milledge stays in CF, Dukes moves to LF and then Johnson plays 1B. The other theory is that Willingham starts at 1B, so that the outfield can be Dukes, Lastings and Kearns, left to right. The debate will often be rendered moot by injuries. We are talking about Nick Johnson here. But this comparison is worth looking at, and unlike the last showdown between these two, nobody ends up with a shattered leg.
They both play excellent defense, so I’m not going to compare that. In terms of offense, the easiest way to look at this is with OPS+. Looking at AVG/OBP/SLG splits would be better, but that isn’t easy to do quickly over a number of years. Remember, OPS+ is just the players percentage of OPS above or below the league average, league average being 100, every point above 100 is a percentage above the avergae. So quickly here are their numbers, in descending order, of every OPS+:
Nick – 149, 138, 137, 123, 99, 93, 64 – Career Average: 125
Austin – 134, 117, 112, 104, 103, 92, 65 – Career Average: 105
OK so the first thing worth mentioning here is that a few years probably shouldn’t be considered. For Johnson, last year was a very good number, but he only played in 38 games, so the 123 is gone. As is the 64 from his 23 game rookie year. For Kearns, his 92 was from only 1/3 of a season, so I have no problem throwing that one away. Then you get something that looks like this:
Nick – 149, 138, 137, 99, 93
Austin – 134, 117, 112, 104, 103, 65
This is an indication that at his peak, Kearns hasn’t been as good as Johnson’s best 3 seasons. Additionally, Kearns’ 134 OPS+ occured his rookie year, playing in Cincinatti. In fact, when you take them in order of time, still leaving out the short seasons, another picture emerges:
Nick – 99, 138, 93, 137, 149
Austin – 134, 117, 104, 112, 103, 65
It appears that Austin was best in his first two years. Since then he has had one good season, the rest are not so good. Keep in mind that an OPS+ of 100 is league average. For a right fielder or first baseman, just above it isn’t good enough. For example, his 2007 OPS+ of 103 ranked him 19th out of the 22 qualified RFs. The 112 is fine, but the other three are not as good as a typical RF. Johnson’s numbers are almost always the kind of numbers you would want out of his position. His 99 was his first full season and his 93 was his first year in the NL. Neither of those reasons excuse having those bad years, I’m just providing color.
In the end, this little comparison shows me a couple of things. Their career averages (125 for Nick, 105 for Kearns) also give a hint as to how well they can hit. Secondly, if I have the choice between Kearns and Johnson, I’m going to choose Nick every time. Third, Kearns hasn’t shown that he can hit as well as an average right fielder, and his last 2 seasons have been his worst 2. Fourth, Nick is never healthy, so this may be nothing more than a thought experiment.
Finally, a look at Willingham:
Willingham -121, 118, 115, 107, 68 – Career Average: 117
Willingham – 121, 118, 115 (without his first 2 seasons, 25 ABs or less in each season)
Willingham – 121, 115, 118 (chronological order)