Reed Johnson the Right (Field) Answer for Atlanta

Forget Jordan Schafer, Reed Johnson should be Jason Heyward's full-time injury replacement in RF.

Jason Heyward is out for 2-3 weeks, and that’s bad news for the Braves. Although he has struggled mightily this year, posting a .121/.261/.259 slash line over the season’s first three weeks, he was one of the NL’s best outfielders in 2012.

It’s impossible to know if Heyward’s performance was affected by the appendix he had removed, but he’s had some bad luck this year too. A measly .114 BABIP dragged down his rate stats, and his fly balls were leaving the park at roughly half his career rate. When he gets back, look for a return to his career form. In the meantime, let’s take a look at what the Braves’ replacement options are.

And Playing Right Field...

Fortunately, the Braves have one of the best fourth outfielders in the game on the roster in Reed Johnson. Johnson is a career .284/.340/.412 hitter who can run the bases at field at an above average level. He got the start in the first game Heyward missed and promptly went 4 for 4 with three doubles. Look for him to see the most time in right until Heyward returns.

However, Johnson tends to struggle against righties. In his career, he’s hit .266 against right-handers and .311 against lefties. He strikes out more, walks less and hits for less power against right-handers. Fredi Gonzalez will be hesitant to use Johnson in those matchups, as he showed by pulling Johnson in the nightcap of yesterday’s double header. And that was even though he had just racked up four hits and is 8 for 13 career against Jon Garland, the Rockies’ starter.

Gonzalez gave that second start to Jordan Schafer, a former star prospect for the Braves turned journeyman pinch runner. Schafer is a left-handed hitter, so theoretically he should be a better option against right-handed pitching. That is, if he could hit at all.

Schafer has an anemic career slash line of .225/.309/.304. He has hit righties better than lefties in his career, .237 to .184 which is still replacement level anyway. Schafer was waived by the Houston Astros last season, a club that could challenge for the worst record in MLB history this year.

The reason Schafer plays at all is his defense and baserunning, both of which are good. He stole 27 bases last year with a 75 percent success rate, and 22 with an excellent 85 percent success rate in 2011. With Freddie Freeman back in the lineup, it’s possible the Braves can sacrifice some offensive punch from right field in exchange for pitching and defense.

There have been some rumblings of Evan Gattis getting a few games in right as well, but don’t look for that to happen any time soon. For now, it looks like Johnson and Schafer will share a platoon in right, which is a shame as Johnson is the significantly better player. Although he struggles against righties, he still hits them much better than Schafer does, since Schafer doesn’t really hit at all.

And the defensive difference, one of only two justifiable reasons to play Schafer over Johnson? It might not exist at all. UZR, one of the main defensive metrics, rates Johnson as well above average for his career. Schafer, despite being labeled a defensive specialist has a negative career UZR, meaning he has cost his teams more runs than the average replacement. UZR is notoriously finicky in small sample sizes, which Schafer has, but still, it’s reason to worry that the Braves are trotting the wrong guy out in right every other day.