Cliff Johnson: A Study in Contrasts

1975 Topps # 143

1976 SSPC # 6

The power was certainly there. It's the fielding that wasn't. Cliff Johnson is a fascinating player to look at because of the contrasts. Ridiculous statements like Bill James claiming Johnson would have "hit 500 homers if the Astros hadn't wasted half of his career trying to make him a catcher" only obscure the issue. Come on Bill; Johnson had 196 career home runs. He lost some at bats, but not THAT many. Well then, if Cliff Johnson wasn't a 500-homer guy, then what was he? First off, the man holds the major league record for career pinch-hit home runs with 20. So, he had power and was clutch. "Heathcliff," as he was known, also hit 5 pinch-hit homers as a rookie for the '74 'Stros. This was, of course, not only a team rookie record, but a team record overall. If you think about it, the rookie record will probably never be broken.
Johnson also hit homers in five consecutive games between August 19 and August 24, 1975. On the 25th of August vs. the Cardinals he actually extended the streak, but saw his homer, which would have made him only the second man in NL history to homer in six consecutive games, disallowed. The blast (off an aging Bob Gibson, no less) came in the eleventh inning of a game eventually shut down by a massive thunderstorm that hit St. Louis with two out in the bottom of the eleventh. Under the rules in effect at the time, if there was lead change and an inning had not yet been completed, the score reverted back to the last completed inning. Before the eventual 2 hour 19 minute delay, the Astros had been one out from victory. The game was never resumed, and it remains the most recent tie game played by the Astros, and one of only four ever played by the Houston franchise.
Johnson also led the Astros in homers in 1976 and hit a home run in 5.2% of his Astro at bats, a number that puts him within a stone's throw of more-noted Houston sluggers like Bagwell, Lance Berkman, and Moises Alou. In the team media guide, they have established a 500-game minimum to be listed on the career team leaders charts, which seems 1) a little on the high end for club records, especially since the onset of free agency and 2)especially hard on a pinch-hitter/catcher like Johnson. Take a look at the table below where I've re-figured the Astros all-time slugging table based on 700 at bats. The guy was one of the most powerful players in club history. And with the patience he showed in his ability to take a walk, the OBP was a little higher than you might expect from a guy who struck out 17 times per 100 appearances.
But who wasted who's career? says that, "Without the designated hitter rule, Johnson struggled in the NL, never settling at a defensive position and leading the ML in passed balls in 1976 in only 66 games at catcher." In '77, before his trade to the Yankees, Houston gave Johnson 34 games in the outfield, and he responded with an appalling .946 fielding percentage. His fielding totals at first base for the Astros actually were not bad, but the club was saddled with Lee May. I might have played Johnson at first base and let May do the pinch-hitting, but I suppose the the lingering embarassment of the Morgan trade made that impossible. It's also true that the Yankees (and subsequently the Indians) didn't play Johnson much at first base, either. The man was a DH, a reality which Toronto and Oakland (stops for Johnson at the very end of his career) were able to come to grips with. The fact is, the National League has little use for good hitters who just happen to be horrible fielders, and can't or won't learn, just as the game as a whole has little use for high-velocity pitchers who just happen to be unable to throw strikes (and can't or won't learn).

Astro Career Leaders in Slugging Percentage
Minimum 700 At Bats
Stats current thru 11/28/06, when I stopped by to update
PlayerAt BatsSLG
Moises Alou 1151 .585
Lance Berkman3687 .567
Jeff Bagwell7797 .540
Carl Everett  931 .526
Jeff Kent 1045.521
Richard Hidalgo 2827.501
Morgan Ensberg 1848.486
Glenn Davis 3032 .483
Sean Berry1031.476
Cliff Johnson  997.471
Jason Lane1037.475
Lee May1693.471

1976 Topps # 249

1977 Topps # 514

Thanks to the following members of the SABR-L boards for the Gibson tidbit: Stew Thornley, Bob Timmerman, David Smith (also of Retrosheet), and Thomas Zocco