In 2010, Kelly Johnson was among the most productive players in baseball. He ranked 19th in the majors with 5.4 fWAR, sandwiched between Carlos Gonzalez and Joe Mauer. However, he failed to produce even half of that total in the following two years, amassing just 2.2 WAR in 135 more games, barely beating out Cliff Pennington for that period.
Braun, Longoria, CarGo, and Mauer excel at baseball. Cliff Pennington does so relative to your average man, but not in that company. So to what should we attribute such a drastic turnaround, and is it something the Rays in particular are doing?
Jonah Keri recently assembled an "All-Bargain Team," which included Johnson and fellow teammate James Loney. For the pittance Andrew Friedman & Co. are paying those two players, there's no doubt they have been superb values. With respect to Johnson in particular though, Keri seems to suggest that the Rays deserve credit not only for eyeing Kelly as an undervalued player, but also for the way they've deployed him:
Signed as an apparent afterthought just days before the start of spring training, Johnson has responded by putting up bigger numbers than any other second baseman. In typical Rays fashion, they've recognized Johnson's strengths and hid his weaknesses well, giving him occasional days off against tough lefties and spotting him in left field at times, while making sure to pull him for late-inning defensive replacements.
On the handedness splits, Keri must be alluding to the fact that Johnson has hit all ten of his home runs off of right-handed pitchers, and owns a 176 wRC+ against righties with a 108 wRC+ against southpaws. And Johnson has certainly been trending that way since his struggles began in 2011:
Looking at those recent figures, you can see why the Rays would want to limit Johnson's appearances against lefties. However, that was hardly the sole reason Johnson faltered in those years- he was ineffective against righties too. If it were as simple as benching or pinch-hitting for him against lefties, Johnson would have merely been pretty terrible, instead of completely terrible.
In fact, Johnson owned a reverse split for his breakout 2010 season as a Diamondback, and for his career owns the exact same wRC+ and wOBA from both sides of the plate, at 106 and .339, respectively. In his best years in Arizona and Atlanta, he usually hit better against southpaws:
Now, it's entirely plausible, and perhaps even likely, that Johnson is a different hitter now. He is older, bat speed slows, and effectiveness against same-handedness pitching is often among the first skills to decline. But the Rays didn't stumble upon Kelly Johnson and think, "The market thinks he sucks, but he really just sucks against lefties. We'll platoon him and reap the profit." If they did, that would have been disingenuous - you could not definitively, or even cautiously, say that his his lack of production against lefties was the main factor holding him back, and that could be mitigated by dictating favorable matchups.
Instead, I'd attribute his resurgence to regaining his plate discipline (current 24% O-Swing is down from >31% in both 2012 & 2011), and murdering fastballs (3.27 runs per 100 fastballs, good for seventh in the majors). If you want to credit Rays hitting coach Derek Shelton, feel free, but according to a recent chat with Dave Cameron at FanGraphs, there is little evidence that hitting coaches actually have tangible impacts on results.
The defensive usage is a trickier issue. The Rays have elected to use him primarily as a left fielder, logging 204 innings versus 47 as a second baseman. We know how fickle UZR can be in small sample sizes, but Johnson has been just fine in either position. In fact, his UZR on a rate basis would rank him #1 among all second baseman, if he were to qualify. That barely means anything in 47 innings, other than he hasn't been a sieve. If it's a product of the Rays' shifts, well, then Elliot Johnson for that matter could have racked up those runs saved.
Outside of his 2012, Johnson has been more than usable at a premium position. If anything, the Rays haven't fully utilized his ability to play second, which is a nice perk, not a weakness. I'm not saying he's Willie Randolph out there, but many teams would happily take his glove at second with the way he's hitting. Not every team has Ben Zobrist to help out.
I certainly don't want this to read as poking holes in Keri's one-sentence claim. He may simply be pointing out that the Rays are selectively using Johnson, and does not explicitly declare causation for his overall performance. But independent from this particular Keri article, there is definitely an aura around the Rays that they magically rebuild formerly broken veterans. That may be true to some degree, but there's a big difference between correctly identifying a buy-low opportunity that has a decent chance of paying off, and actively putting players in better positions to succeed by protecting their weaknesses. If the latter were so easy, the Blue Jays would've just told Johnson to stop swinging at balls and hit fastballs harder. For every Johnson, Loney, and Casey Kotchman, there's a Manny Ramirez, Carlos Pena (second term), Luke Scott, and Yunel Escobar (so far).
The Rays are an eminently likable franchise, and few cover them better than Keri. They have done excellent work developing their young arms, running out dominant bullpens for pennies on the dollar, and constructing progressive defensive alignments. But their free agent hitters have been...hit or miss. Kelly Johnson has been a hit, but let's leave it at that. He could very well have done this for the Royals.
All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.
Andrew is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. Follow him @AndrewShen_SF.