Nick Johnson vs Josh Willingham

As I often do, I decided to pester ESPN’s Keith Law with Nats questions during his chat on Thursday 2/19. The gist of my question was who should play among the OF/1B logjam, and what should Manny Acta to with Austin “Danger” Kearns to keep him useful during baseball games.

SportsNation Keith Law: (2:34 PM ET ) Jumping back to Charlie: Dukes, Milledge, Dunn in the OF, Willingham at first, Johnson on the bench or DL, Kearns told that home games are at RFK

I was kind of surprised that he thought Willingham should be playing over Johnson.NickJ Since Johnson is such an OBP machine, I figured he would be the one to be guaranteed a spot if healthy. Or at least the statistically dominating one. Now maybe Keith was suggesting that assuming his health is folly, and it probably is, but I thought it would be a good idea to compare their offensive values.

Using OPS+

When I looked at Nick Johnson and Austin Kearns, I used OPS+ as the main stat. So let’s start there. This Willingham info was included in that article, but let’s look re-examine. Here are their numbers, in descending order, of every OPS+:

Johnson – 149, 138, 137, 123, 99, 93, 64 – Career Average: 125
Willingham -121, 118, 115, 107, 68 – Career Average: 117

Just as with last time, 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 Willingham, in his first 2 seasons he had 25 ABs or less in each season. So those are relatively worthless. Excluding all those, we get:

Johnson- 149, 138, 137, 99, 93 – “Real Season” Average: 123
Willingham – 121, 118, 115 – “Real Season” Average: 118

Those numbers are closer, but 5 points is still a decent spread. So Nick Johnson wins the OPS+ award, but (and I didn’t mention this last time), there is one problem with OPS. While it is a great stat, it does overly favor those guys who walk a ton. And Johnson is one of those guys. You can have a really high OPS without great power if you walk all the time.

Runs Created

Runs created are a nice stat that looks at offense from a less OBP heavy perspectivewillingham. Check out the stats page to learn more about it, or OPS+ for that matter. Going with the good seasons only again, we have to normalize these numbers for a full season. It sounds complicated but it’s not. Runs created, like hits or HRs or runs, is cumulative. So in order to compare apples to apples, we gotta make sure these numbers were with the same number of Plate Appearances. I just extrapolated all of their numbers out to 610 PAs. Why? Well that was the most either of these guys had in any season, and since we’re not comparing it to the world, only each other, that will work just fine.

If that was too complicated for you, go with this: The higher the number, the more runs the player would add to the offense. Adding runs is a good thing.

Johnson- 110, 98, 95, 74, 70 – “Real Season” Average: 90
Willingham – 95, 88, 86 – “Real Season” Average: 90

Now that’s interesting. The same average, major swings though for Johnson while Willingham has been consistant. So with RC, you might think that you are almost as likely to get a much worse player than Willingham as you are to get a much better player, depending on the season.

These numbers show that Johnson isn’t necessarily head and shoulders above Willingham like I originally thought. If I could craft a batter out of either one, I’d probably take Johnson because of his peaks. But again, Johnson has been so hurt throughout his career, and Willingham doesn’t make a bad substitute.

Don Mattingly Played 2B Once

I also asked this question the same day to Will Carroll of Baseball Prospectus, and here’s what he said:

Will Carroll:  Ok, this is admittedly a crazy idea … I’d see which of those OFers could play 2B. Then when I had a fly ball pitcher on the mound, I’d play that guy. There’s a level at which the increased offense would offset the drop in defense, but I’m not sure whether any of them could make that balance or be an overall improvement over … well, who, Anderson Hernandez? That’s not a really high bar, is it?

This is one of the most creative ideas that I’ve heard. Maybe that is where Milledge should be? He’s at least built like a spry middle infielder. Oh, and Mattingly played 2B because he was an incredible fielder and because it was a resumption of the George Breatt pine tar game – Billy Martin put Mattingly there as a protest, he also put Ron Guidry in center field. Regardless, I’m gonna guess that Adam Dunn isn’t the one who can play second base.

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4 thoughts on “Nick Johnson vs Josh Willingham

  1. I too saw KLaw’s comment, and was happy to see him being forced to answer “real” questions about the Nationals instead of his typical venom spewed towards Bowden.

    You have to think the best team the Nats can put out there right now is with Dunn in left, Johnson at 1b batting 4-5. Willingham seems best served as our 4th outfielder, insurance for if/when Dukes gets hurt. But, as we found last year injuries can end up putting very odd lineups together. We almost have to play scenarios when putting together possible 25-man rosters right now:

    NJ isn’t ready to go: Dunn at 1B, Willingham-Milledge-Dukes, Kearns 4th OF, Pena DFA.

    Willingham back injury comes back: NJ at 1B, Dunn-Milledge-Dukes, Kearns 4th OF, Pena DFA.

    Dukes goes to Jail: NJ, Dunn-Milledge-Kearns

    Some combination of the above allows Pena to somehow make this team or Kearns to start.

  2. Nice comparison. FWIW. I always thought of Willingham as Nick’s replacement. While I hope NJ proves me wrong, I can’t imagine him playing more than, say, 50 games.

    Willingham, as Baseball Prospectus suggested, might be a bitter hitter than the numbers indicate: his 2006-2008 road numbers are .280/.373/.514. That’s close to NJ healthy levels, except that Willingham is much more likely to be healthy.

  3. I meant “better” not “bitter,” although if he is unjustly denied a job because of our emotional attachment to NJ he might also become bitter.

  4. While the offensive numbers may be close to equal, NJ dominates the equation when defense is factored in.

    In his best season, NJ was worth 12.7 runs (UZR/150)

    In his last “full” season, Willingham was worth -15.1 runs (UZR/150). Last year, he was a +.7!

    Still, given the nearly equal offense, the choice looks real easy to me.

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