Johnson adjusting to life as Yanks' DH
Consistent health hopefully one of the benefits of new duties
TAMPA, Fla. -- When your most important job assignment is getting into the batter's box, there can be a lot of down time. That's something that Nick Johnson is trying to get used to.
Back with the Yankees primarily as a designated hitter, Johnson can glance at the first baseman's glove in his locker and know it probably won't be seeing too many summer afternoons in the Bronx. But he just can't stow it away.
"I'll always take my ground balls," Johnson said. "I love going out there, but I know I won't be. I'll just get in a routine DHing, embrace it and get comfortable with it, and get four or five quality at-bats, whatever it is."
The decision to bring Johnson in as a free-agent DH was a calculated gamble for the Yankees, who are betting that reduced time in the field will help him remain fresh and keep his left-handed bat in the lineup for 400 to 500 at-bats.
When on the field, Johnson's numbers speak volumes. The Yankees are smitten with his on-base percentage, which was a gaudy .477 in 2009 with the Nationals and Marlins -- only Joe Mauer of the Twins and Albert Pujols of the Cardinals were on base more regularly, and they brought home their respective leagues' MVP Awards.
The issue has been Johnson's repeated visits to the disabled list, something that has plagued his career since he debuted with the Yankees in 2001. Yankees manager Joe Girardi said that "some of it is fluke stuff," but allowed that it is "real important" that Johnson stay healthy and adapt to the DH duties.
"It's something that we're going to work on getting him used to in [Spring Training]," Girardi said. "Physically, you would think that it's a little easier to stay healthier. It's something that he's going to learn how to do. He might take to it real quick, you never know."
It is a job that has found him in part because of that thick medical history. Probably the worst of Johnson's injuries came in 2006 with the Nationals, when he suffered a broken femur after colliding with teammate Austin Kearns in pursuit of a shallow fly ball at New York's Shea Stadium.
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Johnson often reflects on that painful play, recalling the snapping sensation that cost him the entire 2007 season and left him writhing on the outfield grass, but promises that its memory does not influence his approach.
"It's part of my past," Johnson said. "It happened, I've moved on from them, and it is what it is. I can't do too much about them. I wouldn't change how I play the game.
"I'm still going to go after that ball down the right-field line. It was a 'tweener.' I couldn't call it, Austin couldn't call it and we had a collision. It happened, and it was a little painful."
He completes the thought with a smirk. Time has taught Johnson not to take himself too seriously, and this is an opportunity he does not want to waste, coming full circle with a competitive Yankees team.
"I try to control things I can," Johnson said. "I stretch, stay flexible. Back a long time ago, I got tight, so I try to stretch and stay loose. That's the main thing that I concentrate on -- staying loose and preparing that way. You put in your time in the training room or weight room, and the other stuff -- if it happens, it happens."
As for getting in the field, Johnson needs no reminder that Mark Teixeira has things well under control as the Yankees' first baseman, having secured a Gold Glove Award last year for his stabilizing effect on the infield.
Girardi wants Johnson -- and not Nick Swisher -- to play first base on the days when Teixeira takes the DH spot, but if 2009 serves as any example, once or twice a month should suffice. That leaves Johnson to focus on his hitting approach, which he describes as "patient" -- sometimes, too much so.
"It's a fine line between being too aggressive and too passive, but when I start going bad, it's because I'm too passive," Johnson said.
With only a finite number of opportunities to help the Yankees win a game each night, Johnson needs to make them count. The biggest adjustments to the DH role could be mental ones.
"The only thing you can do is give him a lot of DH days in Spring Training, so he figures out what he's most comfortable doing in between at-bats," Girardi said. "I think sometimes guys can get too caught up with going to watch too much tape."
That could present a temptation for Johnson. The new Yankee Stadium splurged on one of the finest video rooms in the big leagues, installed just down the dugout runway. A player could literally be viewing his at-bat within one minute of swinging the bat, and Johnson agrees that he needs to be mindful of getting wrapped up in reviews.
"I'll probably have to not think too much," Johnson said. "You'll have whatever it is between the at-bats, so you try not to beat yourself up over an at-bat. Maybe you take a peek at the video room here and there, but you don't kill yourself over something, because you can do it for a long time. You stay loose, stretch a lot, hit off the tee or do flips, and go get 'em."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.