ATLANTA -- When the Braves acquired Chris Johnson before the 2013 season, they did not anticipate he would be competing for a batting title nine months later. Nor did they expect him to return last year and produce the lowest OPS among all qualified National League third basemen.
The contrasting production provided over the past two years has proven to be equally maddening to Johnson, who is preparing for the upcoming season with the understanding that in order to distance himself from the frustrations of 2014, he must regain the simpler approach he had in '13, when he played within the means of his talent level.
"I think I just tried to do too much [last year]," Johnson said. "I think I was really worried about forcing my numbers back to where they were in 2013. Right now, I'm just focused on the process. I'm focused on getting my swing right, getting my path right and working on this new approach that [Braves hitting coach Kevin] Seitzer has us working on right now."
Instead of recognizing that he is primarily a contact hitter who is strong enough to occasionally run into a home run, Johnson spent too much of this past season ignoring the opposite field and trying to pad his power numbers. This led to him falling off pitches with great regularity and unintentionally altering the sound swing mechanics he had possessed the previous year.
After getting a chance to acquaint himself with Seitzer as they worked together for three days in January, Johnson gained a sense that his new hitting coach preaches the same approach he wants to regain this year.
"It's a simple approach," Johnson said. "He likes to stay up the middle, stay the other way and take what the pitcher gives you. When you get two strikes, he just wants you to battle your butt off. I'm pretty excited. It's definitely an approach that I like. When I had those good numbers in 2013, I had that approach. I think I realized last year, I should be what I was in 2013 and not anything more."
When Johnson tallied 12 homers and finished second in the NL with a career-best .321 batting average in 2013, he produced a .394 batting average on balls in play -- the sixth-highest mark produced by a Major Leaguer since 2000. Accounting for this BABIP mark, which provides a sense of how fortunate a hitter might be during a specific stretch of time, it was easy to assume Johnson would not be as consistently productive in '14.
But few could have predicted that Johnson would end up hitting .263 with 10 homers and a .653 OPS. After striking out once every 4.73 plate appearances in 2013, he was set down on strikes once every 3.84 plate appearances last year. He also missed 30 percent of the pitches he swung at after whiffing on 25.2 percent of his swings in 2013.
The Braves proved unsuccessful in their attempts to trade Johnson this offseason. The Astros, Padres and Giants were among the teams that were not interested in taking on the three-year, $23.5 million extension he was surprisingly provided by Atlanta's former front-office regime in April.
So now the Braves are contemplating how to best utilize Johnson, who hit .395 with a .988 OPS against left-handed pitchers last year. The presence of switch-hitting infielder Alberto Callaspo and Phil Gosselin provide the Braves a few options if they opt to utilize a platoon at third base this year.
With that being said, manager Fredi Gonzalez has hinted that he is thinking about using Johnson as his cleanup hitter when his team is opposing a left-handed starting pitcher.
"I'm going to have the same approach wherever I'm hitting," Johnson said. "That's what I need to stick with -- having that same approach, no matter where I'm at."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.