ATLANTA — Another atypical part of the Braves’ atypical lineup, Chris Johnson paused when trying to remember the last time he was as consistently high in the order.
"College," he said, smiling. "College I think I hit third."
There’s little that fits the blueprint when it comes to having Johnson at the cleanup spot. Last season, nine players hit 20-plus homers in that spot, while Johnson had 12 and his .136 ISO — slugging percentage minus batting average, which offers a truer measure of raw power — would have been 19th among those with at least 300 plate appearances.
But so far Johnson, who last year finished second in the National League with a .321 average, hasn’t dissappointed in the role, hitting .296/.310/.519 with two doubles, a home run and two RBI. The third baseman went 1-for-4 in Tuesday’s 4-0 loss to the Mets and his a hit in each of the first eight games this season.
"(I’m) pretty comfortable. I’m not trying to read too much into where I’m hitting," he said. "Whatever the situation is when I come to the plate is what I try to do. Even though I’m hitting in the four-hole, if there’s a guy on second base (and) less than two outs, I’m trying to get him to third base.
"That’s not your prototypical four-hole hitter; it’s usually probably trying to hit the ball out of the ballpark."
To Johnson, it’s an at-bat, regardless of where he’s at in the lineup, an approach that was among the biggest reasons for bucking the power-hitting template at the No. 4 spot.
He was moved up to cleanup role over the last seven games of spring training and before the team prepared to leave Lake Buena Vista, Fla., manager Fredi Gonzalez called Johnson into his office to discuss a new role for Johnson, who made 416 of his 547 plate appearances from fifth or lower in ’13. He only spent 56 PAs at fourth.
"I told him I was going to keep doing my same approach and and if he wants to put me there, he can put me there; if he wants to put me in the eight-hole, he can put me in the eight-hole," Johnson said. "I’m just going to stick with my same approach and that’s what he wanted to hear."
Despite having Freddie Freeman, whose .443 average with runners in scoring position last season was second in the majors, at fourth for 353 PAs, the Braves were 14th in baseball in runs created from cleanup (93.8). Planting Freeman at third and having a consistent bat behind him in Johnson, regardless of what’s being given up in the power department, is at least giving the Braves a way to maximize Freeman’s at-bats.
That’s a school of thought that is only strengthened by the fact that the players in front of Freeman are hitting .107 (Jason Heyward) and .138 (B.J. Upton). At this point, Freeman has had just three plate appearances with men in scoring position and only six with anyone on base.
Evan Gattis was long penciled in this winter as the cleanup hitter after six home runs and 30 RBI from that role last season, but consistency won out in Gonzalez’s eyes and Johnson simply provides it.
He posted a .336 average with RISP last year, second on the team among qualifying players. If there was a drawback from his ’13 numbers, he did hit into 20 double plays last season, eighth most in the NL.
To his credit, Johnson has yet to induce a double play this season in 14 chances with men on, hitting.231 in those situations.
Seven games in, still too small of a sample size to get beyond the rash-judgment realm, Johnson is proving the atypical gameplan works — largely because he refuses to put much stock into the number next to his name in the lineup.
"Other than the first inning, I don’t know that it really matters," he said. "If I don’t hit in the first inning, I’m a leadoff, so what’s the point of being the four-hole hitter anyway? For me it doesn’t really mean much."