Chris Johnson was big on superstitions anyway. Then he goes out and has a career season in his first with the Braves, making a run at the National League batting title. So what now?
For starters, the Florida native decided to stay in Atlanta this winter because that’s what he did last winter. He and his fiancee, Tia Garavuso, are renting a home in Druid Hills.
“I came here last offseason as soon as I got traded and worked out for the last couple of weeks here, so I’m trying to stay on that path as much as possible,” said Johnson, who turned out to be the surprise piece of the seven-player trade that sent Martin Prado to Arizona and brought Justin Upton to Atlanta in return.
Johnson was back at Turner Field hitting Friday morning, like he has much of the winter. He went through his usual routine: dry swings, tee work, flips, and pretending that Juan Francisco lurks around a corner.
This time last year Johnson was heading into spring training trying to win a full-time job at third base, left open by Chipper Jones’ retirement. He started out in a platoon, but that lasted only as long as it took for him to prove it didn’t really matter if the pitcher was left-handed or right; he was going to hit them all.
Johnson hit .418 the first three weeks of the season, with multihit games in seven of 11 games, before manager Fredi Gonzalez was thinking about giving him the job outright. By the end of May, Francisco had been designated for assignment and ultimately traded to Milwaukee.
“I’m coming into camp trying to win a job. That’s my mentality just because I want to continue to progress and have another good year,” Johnson said. “… I think it works. I think guys coming into camp having that competition, it just pushes guys a little bit harder and gets you ready. And knowing that if you don’t do the work, somebody else is going to take your job — that’s the nature of our business. And that’s the mindset I’m trying to keep.”
Johnson said competing for a job last year helped him handle expectations that came with taking over Jones’ old position.
“The guy is a god around here, so playing well definitely helped that,” Johnson said. “It helped also coming into camp platooning with Juan because it wasn’t all on me. It was him and I, and we kind of shouldered it together.”
Now, where superstitions fall short, Johnson focuses on the thought process he honed last spring training in daily conversations with Braves hitting coaches Greg Walker and Scott Fletcher. They talked about identifying what kind of hitter he wants to be.
“I shouldn’t be a guy that’s going up there trying to hit 30 home runs,” Johnson said. “I need to take my hits. I’m good at going the other way, taking the ball to right field. So that’s the kind of guy I want to be. I want to be around .300, and if those other power numbers come later, that’s fine.”
That mindset worked to the tune of a .321 batting average and 12 home runs. His batting average was 13 points higher than his previous career best of .308 in his first full season with the Astros. Johnson hit right around .280 in each of his three previous seasons before coming to Atlanta.
Johnson kept the Rockies’ Michael Cuddyer in his sights until the final week of the regular season, ultimately finishing 10 points behind the two-time All-Star’s .331.
“I’m really proud of how last year went,” Johnson said. “It’s something I’ll never forget. I’ve taken screen shots of my batting average and stuff like that, so I don’t forget.”
Something Johnson said he’ll cherish more than any memento is a conversation he had with his father the day after the Braves lost to the Dodgers in the division series. Ron Johnson is a minor league baseball lifer and currently the manager for the Orioles’ Triple-A affiliate in Norfolk, Va. Johnson said his father hasn’t always been quick to compliment, but that was different last October.
“He called me and said, ‘Hey, amazing season, so proud of you,’” Johnson said. “That was definitely a phone call that’ll be in the back of my head forever. It was pretty cool.”
Not that he’s dwelling, though. That’s not good luck.
“It was definitely something I don’t want to forget, but it’s a new season,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to move on quick. If you don’t, it’s going to leave you behind pretty quick.”