If you’ve ever wondered what a professional baseball player does in his offseason, it’s probably a whole lot more than you think. Especially for someone like Chris Johnson, who struggled a bit last season (hitting .251 after a .308 average in 2010), going in and out of the lineup and even back to the minor leagues at one point.
Before he headed to Kissimmee, Fla. for spring training, I had the chance to sit down and chat with Johnson, the Houston Astros third baseman. Having just finished his five-hour morning strength and conditioning routine at Minute Maid Park with a few other guys (Bud Norris, Brett Wallace, Brian Bogasevic and Wandy Rodriquez to name a few), Johnson had just enough time to grab a shower and meet me for lunch.
In most clubhouses, Johnson would still be barely lurking past his rookie season, but here in Houston things are a bit different. Entering his third full season in the big leagues (with all of 212 career games played), he’s already forced to take more of a veteran role. Probably long before he’s ready.
“Last year was tough," Johnson says. "I came into the season thinking I was the shit. I had to get out of my own way.”
For most teams, a guy in his third season is nowhere near considered a vet, but here in Houston, with a team this young, Johnson understands he needs to think more in terms of leadership.
“I need to play that veteran role and be one of the guys thinking about the team, not just myself," he says. "I’m hoping that’ll be my role this year. Last year was hard for me because I felt I had to prove I deserved to be here.
"We don’t have guys like (Lance) Berkman to look up to anymore.”
Johnson recalls his own move up from Triple A Round Rock late in the 2009 season and his prominent and strategic locker placement next to All-Stars like Berkman and Roy Oswalt.
Despite spending part of his childhood around the big leagues (Johnson’s dad Ron has been a coach for more than 20 years, most notably with the Boston Red Sox), Johnson still soaked up all the advice he could manage from guys like Oswalt, Berkman and even Geoff Blum, his favorite guy on Twitter.
Enough With The Small Talk.
After a few minutes of polite small talk about Johnson's offseason workout regimen (where he’s focusing on speed and power) and in between bites of me shoving chicken fingers in my mouth, I blurted out rather unlady like, “People are taking bets how badly the Astros are going to suck this year. Did you know that?”
There’s no way anyone, especially one of the guys sporting the Astros uniform, can shake this question. Understandably, they hear it everyday since the rotten performance the team turned in last year ranks as the worst record in Astros history (56-106).
Laughing and shaking his head, Johnson gave a very athletically PC answer: “We have to keep it reasonable. We need to take it one game at a time. One season at a time. We have to do better than last season . . .”
He trails off trying to maintain the optimism the Astros PR team has undoubtedly instilled in each of the guys. Picking back up, he admits, “We’re a young team. There’s no denying that. As a team we need to stay away from super lofty goals and keep improving. We’re headed in a really good direction — there’s really only one way to go.
"I’m excited to get to Kissimmee and see what we can do at spring training.”
The Big Game Of Numbers.
If you read anything about Chris Johnson on the Internet or ask any sports reporter, you’re bound to hear about his near All-Star (.308, 11 HR and 52 RBI in just 341 at-bats, getting named Astros Rookie of the Year) stats from 2010 which quickly plummeted to a dismal downward spiral his sophomore season.
“Last year was tough. I came into the season thinking I was the shit. I had to get out of my own way,” Johnson admits. “Pitchers and teams started looking at me and they had a game plan of how to handle me at the plate. As a rookie, you aren’t on their radar as much.
"The aggressiveness to want that hit . . . to be a playmaker . . . . that hurts me. That’s probably the biggest thing I’m working on right now."
"I hit .160 my first month and it was definitely an adjustment both mentally and physically.”
Along with those declining numbers came talk about Johnson’s patience at the plate, or lack thereof. One article with some glaring stats courtesy of Bryan Curley pointed out that Johnson “struck out more than a quarter of the time (26.7 percent to be exact), walked only 15 times (4.1 percent) and swung at an astronomical 43.1 percent of pitches thrown outside the strike zone.”
What do you have to say for yourself Chris?
“Being patient at the plate is something I have to and am working on," he says. "I have to learn that if I don’t get my pitch to just lay off and take a walk. The aggressiveness to want that hit . . . to be a playmaker . . . . that hurts me. That’s probably the biggest thing I’m working on right now.
"Laying off pitches is the mental side of hitting — you have to have discipline. Guys like Albert Pujols and Berkman have pretty much perfected it.”
Like a well thought out chess match, Johnson had the first move, then it was the opposing pitchers turn, and now in his third season, will it be Johnson’s turn for a rebuttal? Let’s hope so.
Comparing No. 9 to No. 23.
It’s as much a part of the game as sliding into second is: Comparing players. Whether it’s their batting stances, throwing mechanics, stats, defensive abilities or simply their place in the community, comparisons are made on the regular. It seems logical that when talking about Chris Johnson and his breakout rookie season, that he’s compared to none other than Hunter Pence.
On Sept. 24, 2010, Johnson became the 11th Astros rookie to reach 50 RBI in a season and the first since Pence (back in 2007). The last Astros rookie before Johnson with as many four-hit games in a single rookie season was Pence (who had four in 2007). Both Pence and Johnson posted a 14-game hitting streak in 2010. Both guys seemingly came out of the woodwork, found their spot on the Astros roster and put up alarming good numbers. Numbers so good even SportsCenter caught wind of it.
“He’s a great player," Johnson says of the now Philadelphia Phillie Pence. "I have no problem being compared to him — he’s a hardworker, you can’t argue that. I don’t look into comparisons too much. I just try to be me and get better everyday. The people of Houston loved Hunter. This is the only team I’ve played for, so being liked by the fans is important to me."
As sickening as the Pence pillow talk was, thankfully we managed to get on the topic of basketball, undoubtedly rubbing in a Duke loss to my Florida State Seminoles. Johnson professed his love (read obsession) for basketball, but admits he’s terrible at it. He’s a big Blue Devils fan and when it comes to NBA, he’s only got love for Kobe Bryant and the Lakers.
Of course we differ again as I’m a huge Miami Heat fan, which yes, includes LeBron James. Our talk of LeBron and the rest of the NBA world hating on him led Johnson to a little confession.
“I love being booed by opposing fans," he says. "I love playing where we’re hated. It may sound weird, but playing in Chicago or St. Louis really pumps me up. The louder the fans boo, the harder I play."
There's A New Sheriff in Town.
Since Johnson answered those other hot-button questions so well I decided to throw more at him, this time in the form of Jim Crane. I firmly believe it was nothing more than a PR stunt when Crane attempted to get Astros fans rioting about the thought of a name change, and for good reason. That was the first time we’ve seen Astros fans up off their seats in what seems like ages — something Drayton McLane never seemed to do.
While many Houstonians are still undecided about Crane as an owner, Johnson is so far, a big fan.
“I know some folks don’t like some of the things he’s (Crane) doing, but I think he’s genuinely trying to turn things around," Johnson says. "No matter what anyone says, he’s the boss and I listen.”
Back in November, Crane's ownership group finally officially purchased the Astros for a whopping $680 million from grocery store maven Drayton McLane, who had owned the team for the last 19 years.
While fans are seeing lots of changes (or at least getting worked up over the possibilities), the guys on the team are still unsure.
“It’s a little too early to tell how things will be different with Crane’s interactions with us in the clubhouse and on the field,” Johnson says. “He’s a very outspoken guy — you’ll never have to worry about what he’s thinking because he’ll say it. I appreciate that kind of direct approach."
Johnson is not only ready to excel at spring training and win the starting third base job for Opening Day. He’s ready to take on the Twitterverse as well. I believe he currently has thousands more followers than any other member of the Astros team (though he does have about 90,000 fewer followers than Pence).
Follow him for baseball (and of course basketball) related tweets at @cjastros23.