Yesterday, I wrote an article that was more positively received than I expected about why I empathize with Melvin Upton. While there were a few comments along the lines of Upton makes a ton of money therefore he gets zero sympathy, most people seemed to get where I was coming from.
One comment in particular though made what I thought was a very good point — why does Upton get so much sympathy while the better and less highly paid Chris Johnson is such a frequent punching bag from me and other Talking Chop writers?
This seemed like a fair question and, while I can only speak for myself, I do think I have a good handle on the perspective that many people in this Braves community have on CJ 2.0. First, there is the obvious point that the reason Johnson faces as much snide ridicule as he does from me and those like me is because we are flawed human beings. Johnson, just like Upton, is an Atlanta Braves player who has never disgraced the city of Atlanta by being a criminal, cheating, bringing the game into disrepute or doing anything that makes him morally repugnant.
In short, every bit of the empathy I have for Upton should also be allocated to Johnson as well. Johnson is the better player and his contract is less of a burden than Upton's. As a Braves player Johnson is worthy of our support as long as he wears the tomahawk and my ridicule of him says more about my inability to uniformly distribute my support as it does Johnson's play. The person who made this argument is right, I have supported Upton more than Johnson because I am flawed. Tomorrow is a new day, and I will once again endeavor to improve myself.
While this mea culpa is appropriate, it is incomplete in the sense that it doesn't explain why Johnson is the player for whom my ideal to fully support all Braves players has fallen short. Melvin Upton has been the Braves' worst player since he arrived in Atlanta, while over the same period of time Johnson has paired one good season with one poor season. What is it that makes this mostly average third baseman such a lightning rod for sneering sarcasm on twitter and Talking Chop, while for me at least Upton elicits sympathy?
Johnson is one of the more recent battlefields in a very old war among baseball fans. Johnson is the classic player who is overrated by traditional fans, while underrated by sabermetrics-minded fans. For anyone versed in the canon of sabermetrics, Johnson's flaws will be familiar: his primary value is derived from his batting average, he doesn't walk enough, he is bad defensively, he is a bad baserunner, he gets extra credit from his supporters for being gritty and tough. These arguments are ancient at this point and there is nothing really new about Johnson in this regard. Johnson challenged for batting title in his first year for the Braves, therefore old school fans love him. Meanwhile, the type of sabermetrics fan that I identify with can't appreciate Johnson for what he is because they are too focused on what he isn't. This sort of divide existed among baseball fans long before I ever heard the term "Moneyball" for the first time on Around the Horn.
Photo credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
It isn't retreading this sodden ground which brings out the knives from me when I am at my most caustic. Johnson aggravates me in a way that speaks to my social limitations and intellectual insecurity. What Johnson is that is so offensive is he is overrated. For me, it is not enough to share my perspective on the Braves; I have this compelling need for others to agree with me. It is not enough for me to form my own judgement of Johnson and disseminate it — I am driven to legitimate anger when others have a different perspective.
This is embarrassing immaturity. I can be secure in my feelings about Melvin Upton because nobody really disagrees about him. Upton is terrible. The only questions is just how much happiness 75 million dollars can buy a human and whether or not a gloriously wealthy person is ever worthy of our pity.
With Johnson it is very different. When we argue about Johnson we are arguing about the core fundamentals of what matters in terms of a baseball player's value. To disagree about how good a player Chris Johnson is means disagreeing about very elemental ideas like how important batting average is. When I see people extolling Johnson's virtues as a player or praising his fiery nature I feel legitimate anger mixed with intellectual superiority to a person backwards enough to have such a perspective.
I think Johnson is a mostly terrible baseball player. His first season in Atlanta represented the peak of the value he could ever have and his total value was only around league average. Johnson hits for a good average but he doesn't walk, he can't play defense, he is a lumbering mess running the bases, he should be only used in a platoon, he doesn't hit for enough power, he is signed to a bad contract and he is prone to fits of childish rage. It infuriated me when Braves fans complained about the team's strikeouts but often gave a pass to Johnson while chastising Jason Heyward. This was despite Johnson being a high-strikeout batter and Heyward being above league average at making contact.
If I were to design the ideal baseball player, he would be the opposite of Chris Johnson. Whenever anyone says anything positive about Johnson it bothers me. So in my pettiness and my insecurity I have to tear him down. I have to do it at every opportunity because I cannot let incorrect ideas persist. If I can just speak with a little more clarity, improve my wording just a bit, I will finally break through and make the world see reason. I am right and the world should listen to me.
This is the sort of attitude that drives the dislike of Johnson. It isn't that he is bad; it is that many Braves fans have the wrong idea about him. Sabermetrics inclined baseball fans speak about the sport with the fervor and conviction of the converted and for that sort of fan praising Chris Johnson is heresy of the highest order. Sabermetrics fans are not Orthodox Jews content with their status as God's chosen people with zero desire to increase their ranks. We are born again evangelists, we will not be rest until we have brought the entire world into our ranks by either the preaching of the Word or by the sword. It is not enough that we be right, we must be acknowledged as such.
The big difference between someone preaching the gospel of Bill James as opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ, is there is no scriptural basis for evangelizing. There is no religious imperative to make others see what we see about baseball. The need to bring all thought into line on these issues is driven by insecurity and a visceral rage at people with the temerity to be wrong. I am extremely confident in my assessment of Johnson but that isn't enough. So I poke, I sneer, I harp on his every failure hoping this is the one that finally makes people see what I have been saying all along. There is nothing laudable about such an approach.
Yesterday, when I wrote about Melvin Upton I asked for empathy for the Braves' centerfielder. I ended that piece by making the point all I was asking for was the level of empathy we would all want for ourselves. Well now I am here to ask for that empathy again but this time for myself.
I should identify with and feel for every Braves player who represents the team on the field with honor. I have not done so and I will continue to be uneven and arbitrary on those Braves I fully support and those I tear down when I get the chance. My treatment of Johnson has been unfair and in all likelihood it will continue to be unfair. I just hope it can be understood that the reason for my venomous attitude is that I am a flawed person who fails to live up to his ideals on a daily basis.
There are few things as lame as a fan of a team trashing the players he is supposed to support. In my writing I endeavor to speak the truth even when the truth is unwelcome. That being said, there is no excuse for wishing failure on any Braves player, or overly emphasizing a player's faults in order to prove some personal point. I don't think Chris Johnson is a very good baseball player and I wish the Braves had not given him the extension that they did. But I need to do better when writing about him and other players like him. There is no need to force the entire world to my way of thinking and it is never acceptable to make anyone my whipping boy to show my intellectual superiority. I am a flawed person. Here is to doing better tomorrow.