My first year covering baseball in New York was 2002 and that also happened be Nick Johnson’s rookie year.
As one of the Yankees top young talents, Johnson – like many of the Yankees prospects in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s – existed in a world of uncertainty. His role was murky (Jason Giambi was the primary first baseman); he batted all over the lineup (literally every spot from second to ninth); and he lived in perpetual fear of being sent back to the minors or, more likely, being traded (which he eventually was, in a package for Javier Vazquez).
Even back then, though, Johnson’s exceptional plate discipline was noticeable. It probably helped that the other young Yankee at the time was Alfonso Soriano (who swung at everything), but Johnson’s pitch-recognition and bat-control drew raves both within and outside the organization (Omar Minaya, who was the Expos GM at the time, was particularly enamored with it). Johnson may have been – and still is – a pretty laid-back guy, but he was flat-out tenacious at the plate.
One game that I remember is a Yankees-Red Sox game at Fenway in August of 2003, Johnson’s second full season. The Yankees were facing Pedro Martinez and Johnson came up in the fourth inning of a tie game. Johnson worked the count to 3-and-2 and then proceeded to foul off four straight pitches as the Fenway crowd got all amped up only to give a collective “ohhhhhh” each time Johnson spoiled another one.
Finally Martinez tried to beat Johnson with a breaking ball and Johnson singled to left to give the Yankees a lead they’d hold the rest of the way. Johnson, who was 24 at the time, finished the day a career-best 4-for-5 with four RBI.
Seeing Martinez get visibly frustrated during that at-bat is exactly what Johnson is hoping for whenever he goes to the plate. “Just touch it,” he said when asked about his gameplan that day. “That’s all I want. Just to touch it.”
Johnson only played 96 games that year (and 73 the following year), but even as he’s worked through a career dotted with injuries, his style of hitting hasn’t changed. Last year, playing for Washington and Florida, Johnson saw an average of 4.38 pitches per plate appearance, third highest-in the majors. He simply refuses to be rushed.
Now that Johnson is set to return to the Bronx, the Yankees are hoping to see more of the same from Johnson. Pedro may be long gone, but the approach Johnson took to the plate that day seven years ago – and every at-bat since – hasn’t changed at all.