Former elite Yankees prospect Nick Johnson retired on Monday at the age of just 34. Johnson played last season with the Orioles, posting a .714 OPS in 38 games with the team. His issue last year wasn't productivity, but the same thing that plagued him over his entire career: injuries.
During his major league career, which began in 2001, Johnson put together a career line of .268/.399/.441, good for a 123 OPS+. That's a pretty solid statline, but Johnson did all of that in just 832 career games over those 11 seasons. He didn't play at all in 2000 or 2007, missing 2000 with a wrist injury and 2007 with a broken femur, and spent all of 2011 in the minors with the Indians, logging a total of just 55 games. During the rest of his career, Johnson managed to accumulate 500 plate appearances in a season just three times: 2005, 2006, and 2009. Not coincidentally, those were the three best seasons of his career, and Johnson was actually worth just shy of 10.0 fWAR between 2005 and 2006 with the Nationals.
Johnson was a top 20 prospect in baseball for four straight years, from 1999 to 2002. He was the fifth best prospect in the minor leagues heading into the 2000 season after posting an absurd .345/.525/.548 line as a 20-year old with AA Norwich. But injuries did him in for the long haul, and aside from that two season peak with Washington, he was never able to fulfill is potential for an extended period of time. Johnson's failed career isn't some sort of damning of sabermetrics (which some silly people are flaunting), but instead a failure of health. It has nothing to do with his skillset, just a series of rather freakish injuries that doomed a career.
From his major league debut in 2001 until his final year in 2012, Johnson's 15.7% walk rate was fifth best among all players with at least 3000 plate appearances. The four players who had a better walk rate than him? Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Jim Thome, and Adam Dunn. That's some rarified air. Johnson's .399 OBP was also tenth in the majors during his career, besting players like Thome, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, and Matt Holliday.
Nick Johnson didn't have a bad career by any means. But if he stayed healthy, he could have had a really good career. It's a shame things didn't work out as well for him as they could have, but so many players haven't even gotten a cup of coffee in the majors, let alone been there for a decade and made close to $30 million in their careers. I think Johnson could have a great future as a coach somewhere, beacuse his amazing plate discipline is something that could benefit many young players across the sport.