A Remedy for Nick Johnson’s Slump

I forgot what it felt like for the Yankees to come out of the gate in April like Secretariat and just have their way with the rest of the American League. Well, that feeling is back.

After six seasons (60 seasons in Yankee years) of bad starts, the Yankees have made a seamless transition from the end of 2009 to the beginning of 2010. The offseason feels as though it was just one long off-day rather than a four-month layoff, and 2010 has felt like an extension of 2009 and I like it … I LIKE IT A LOT (Lloyd Christmas voice). I’m not about to say that the 2010 Yankees are better than the 2009 Yankees because that won’t be determined until the decorative bunting returns to the Bronx, but as of right now, it looks like getting to October won’t be a problem.

In the first two and a half weeks of the season, there has been 11 wins, a .733 winning percentage, five series win in five tries, to near no-hitters and a triple play. It’s almost as though the 2010 season has a script to make the potential end-of-the-year championship DVD as Hollywood-like as possible.

This Yankees team has the “We play today, we win today, dassit” attitude that Mariano Duncan implemented and that the 2009 Yankees didn’t find until late May (at the earliest). The difference? There isn’t an injured Chien-Ming Wang or up-and-down Joba Chamberlain in the rotation, and the bullpen isn’t still waiting for the Phil Hughes Bridge to be built to Mariano. The Yankees entered the season with a pitching staff that has limited flaws, and the only real question was Javier Vazquez, but he finally answered some of those questions on Tuesday, even if they weren’t the convincing answers we were looking for.

On Tuesday I wrote about Javier Vazquez’s needed to get into the win column and contribute to the team’s success in some way to avoid more boo birds at the Stadium at the end of the month. Vazquez responded with a so-so performance, but it was good enough for a W against the surprising A’s, and at least it bought him some time to stay out of the way of headlines and criticism until his next start on Sunday against the Angels.

But the real issue with Vazquez, one that he might not be able to shed, is that I don’t trust him, and I don’t know any Yankees fan that does. There is no question that the ability is there for Vazquez to be successful, I’m just not that sure if he is cut out for this whole pitching in the American League thing. If he finished the year with 17-plus wins and an impressive ERA in the AL East, would he gain my trust? I’m not sure, but I hope we at least get to the point where I have to make that decision.

Vazquez isn’t the only Yankee that suffers from my lack of trust, and if you couldn’t guess the other one, it’s Nick Johnson.

I am at a constant divide with Nick Johnson. Part of me loves his on-base percentage that hovers around .400 and the other part of me thinks that $5.5 million could have been spent on something else. I don’t know if I am supposed to classify it as a love-hate relationship or frustration or a combination of the two and other synonymous words for annoying, but like Vazquez in the rotation, Nick Johnson is the farthest thing from trustworthy in the lineup.

Plenty of my sabermetric friends who read that last paragraph probably just threw up, as did sabermetricians around the world (including those that built the 2010 run prevention Red Sox), but there is more to evaluating Nick Johnson than on-base percentage, which I am certainly an advocate of. What’s the sabermetric stat for someone who has one hit since two Tuesdays ago? Do I think that Nick Johnson is capable of hitting .300, making this early season slump forgetful and being the “R” in a lot of Mark Texeira and Alex Rodriguez’s RBIs? Yes. But I also know that my TV remote is only a few more called third strikes with runners in scoring position from no longer being safe.

Now, am I ready to purchase www.benchnickjohnson.com (which is available) and start a movement to sit No. 26 next to No. 28? Not yet, but don’t think that thought hasn’t crossed my mind. Part of the reason I am writing this is because my reverse jinx of calling out Javier Vazquez out on Tuesday worked, so why not try the same with Johnson on the day the Yankees begin a three-game set against the now red-hot Angels at Angels Stadium. I figure if my words can get Javier his first win in three starts, maybe they can get Nick his first hit in his last 19 at-bats.

To be fair, if Johnson was enduring this slump during say Games 91 through 105, rather than Games 1 through 15, it would be a side note in a Yankees notebook column somewhere. But because it is the beginning of the year and because of who he is replacing on the roster, his early season slump is now the one negative on a team that is trying bury the Red Sox and separate themselves from the Rays.

When Johnson hit that home run in the first inning of the first home game, I thought he was going to become the short porch’s new best friend, a void that Johnny Damon left. Instead he has become the best friend of opposing pitcher’s and the electric chair for rallies.

Obviously I want Nick Johnson to do well and I want to like him, but he needs to give me a reason to, and right now, coming out to “Party in the USA” is the only thing to like about him. The common theme about the Yankees right now is “Hey, they are 11-3 and Nick Johnson and Mark Teixeira aren’t even hitting yet.” But at some point the people responsible for the 11 wins won’t be hitting either and Nick Johnson will be asked to carry the club for a series or two. (I don’t mention Teixeira here because I don’t think anyone is truly worried about him).

Let’s hope this attempt at a second reverse jinx in four days works. Let’s hope that Nick Johnson tears it up against the Angels this weekend and the Yankees win their sixth straight series to open the season. Let’s hope Nick Johnson finally shows us why Brian Cashman was devastated to let him go the first time and eager to bring him back a second time. Let’s hope the only thing Yankees fans have to boo when the team returns home are the players on opposing teams.