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Cody Johnson: Baseball's Strangest Prospect

If you’re not a Braves fan or a prospect hound, chances are you’ve never heard of Yankees prospect Cody Johnson before. Let’s fix that, because in his own way, he’s one of the most compelling prospects in baseball.

Cody Johnson is one of the biggest busts in Braves prospect history, which, really, is quite an accomplishment for a guy who’s still 23. He was the 24th overall pick way back in 2006, a strapping Florida high school left fielder with 80-grade power potential. Most saw the pick as a reach, but an understandable one given Johnson’s ability to send the ball flying far over the outfield fences with alarming regularity.

That ability failed to materialize in his pro debut, where he hit .184/.260/.284 with a sole home run and 49 strikeouts in 32 games. Already, the naysayers were out, and Johnson was the rare first-round pick who had to repeat Rookie ball.

However, the difference between his 2006 and 2007 performances in Danville was beyond stark, as Johnson pummeled Appalachian League hurlers for a .305/.374/.630 line in his second trip through the circuit, smashing 17 homers in 63 games while cutting his strikeouts to a more reasonable 26.7% clip.

Finally given a shot in Low-A in 2008, Johnson ended up somewhere in between his 2006 and 2007 extremes, launching 26 bombs but also striking out a horrific 177 times in 127 games (34.4%). Unlike many high-K guys, he didn’t even walk much, taking just 40 free passes. He was just 19 for the season, though, so hope remained the power would stay and the strikeouts wouldn’t get worse.

At least for one year, they didn’t. In 2009, Johnson launched 32 home runs while keeping the Ks stable at 34.7% and upping his walk rate to 13%. The 32 homers and his .242/.345/.517 line are made all the more impressive when one considers his home park that year was High-A Myrtle Beach, an infamously difficult environment. Johnson broke the Myrtle Beach single-season homer record that year…in July.

With that success under his belt, Johnson started to win followers, projecting as a Mark Reynolds type with huge power that made up for his horrendous strikeouts and minimal defensive contributions. Instead, he would barely last another year in the Braves organization.

Double-A is known as the biggest hurdle for prospects, separating the proverbial men from the proverbial boys. Johnson’s High-A hitting environment was certainly challenging, but he saw the same low-velocity fastballs, mediocre offspeed pitches, and shoddy command all High-A hitters did, and he was unprepared to face the better arsenals of Double-A hurlers. As a result, his prospect star quickly descended from emanating effulgence to lacking luminosity in a matter of months. A 43.8% strikeout rate will do that.

Seriously, 43.8%. You don’t see numbers that bad very often, so let’s put that in context. This year, major league pitchers—who, mind you, bat against major league pitchers, not Double-A ones—have struck out at a 37.2% clip. Part of that is that they often are squaring to bunt, but if you’re going to strike out 43.8% of the time, maybe you ought to think about bunting, no matter how much power you have*.

*Yes, I know this would obviously be a terrible strategy for Cody Johnson. Just making a point.

The Braves sent Johnson back to High-A toward the end of the year, where he rebounded some, but that was it for them. After all, if a guy strikes out almost half the time in Double-A at 21, it just seems beyond impossible he’ll ever hit enough to play in the majors. It would be one thing if Johnson was a dominant defensive player, but he’s barely good enough to hold his own in left field, and he’s a nonfactor in the running game.

So the Braves traded him to the Yankees following the 2010 season for…nothing, as far as I can tell. One of those nebulous "considerations" that basically amounts to "just take this guy off our hands." It was a remarkably early juncture to cut bait on a first-round pick, especially one who had done some very impressive things at times.

The Yankees put Johnson in Double-A for a second try and he cut his strikeout rate…all the way to 43.0%. Progress! Actually, he did improve from .189/.269/.343 at the level in 2010 to .226/.277/.438 in 2011, though his walk rate fell from 9.6% to 6.2%.

I know a .226/.277/.438 line is really bad, especially from a crappy defensive player, but just think about that for a second. This guy struck out forty-three percent of the time and still slugged .438. It kind of begs the question: What is the highest strikeout rate a batter can have and still be effective?

It’s one of those fun questions, isn’t it? "Baseball breaking point" questions are interesting. How slow can a pitcher throw while being above replacement level? For a knuckleball guy? For a traditional guy? How hard would you need to throw to survive as a starter with just one pitch? How high can a pitcher’s walk rate get before it’s impossible for him to succeed?

Fun to think about, yes? But back to Cody Johnson. Like the Braves before them, the Yankees ultimately deemed Johnson unfit for Double-A and demoted him to High-A, where he somehow managed to hit .326/.387/.548. You see that line and go "Wait, did he fix the strikeouts?!" like a kid listening to his bedtime story waiting for the happy ending twist.

But no, he didn’t fix the strikeouts. He struck out 37.3% of the time, actually, his worst mark in three High-A seasons. No, Cody Johnson hit .326/.387/.548 because he put up a .514 BABIP. That’s disheartening, because a lot of that is luck, but it also speaks to his ability to hit the ball damn hard on the rare occasions he does make contact. Which raises another question: How is it that a guy can miss on so many of his swings, and yet when he hits the ball, he usually squares it up? Food for thought, you guys! I’m meta! Or something.

I just crossed the thousand-word mark in that last paragraph, which means we’re at the point where you ask me why the hell I just had you read a thousand words on Cody Johnson. That reason is that the Yankees stuck with him and gave him a third try in Double-A this year, and he’s hitting...

Wait for it…

.276/.351/.594 with 14 homers in 45 games.

He’s struck out 61 times, of course, but that’s a 31.9% rate that’s the lowest he’s had at a full stop since Rookie ball. He’s also walked 20 times, giving him a 61/20 K/BB that…gulp…approaches respectability.

And approaching respectability is really all Cody Johnson needs to do to be effective, isn’t it? The guy slugged .438 while striking out 43% of the time, and hit .326/.387/.548 while whiffing at a 37.3% clip. Put that K rate at 30%, and you have a guy who’s going to launch enough homers and get enough walks and BABIP-helped hits to put up some big numbers.

Which begs yet another question—and I really hesitate to ask it, but—could this guy somehow find a way to be an effective MLB player? Imagine him taking aim at the short porch in Yankee Stadium’s right field—he might strike out 35% of the time, but he also might clear the fence on 35% of his fly balls. And that’s not even that big of an exaggeration.

I’m far from ready to answer that question with a "yes," let alone a strong one, but it gives me pause, which is a heck of a lot to say for someone who struck out at a 43% clip in not one, but two chances in Double-A. If somehow things did work out, would there be a single player who overcame as much statistical adversity to make it? The only thing that could possibly trump it would be a Jason Neighborgall triumphant return to the mound, I would think.

Johnson is a fascinating study in extremes—what happens when you give a guy 80 grade power and 20 grade contact? Which wins out in the end? Can the contact be improved without sacrificing the power? Can it be improved at all? How can plate discipline factor in? You couldn’t create a better test case if you tried, really.

A year in, he looked like a lost cause. The next three provided plenty of hope. The two following that seemed to simply end the discussion. And now, improbable as it is, that discussion just may be reopening. He may never turn into anything, but I can’t think of many minor leaguers who are more intriguing to follow.