Despite being in fourth place at the moment, the Rays are obviously in the playoff mix, only four games back of the AL East leading Red Sox. Indeed, Tampa Bay has been in the mix pretty much every season since 2008. Their ability to prevent runs has been what has received the most attention the last few seasons, as they seemingly add an above-average starter from the minors every year, but their hitting has not been as bad as the perception. True, the only recognizable offensive star since the departure of Carl Crawford has been Evan Longoria, but the Rays have still managed to be in the top half of the American League in wRC+ since then.
This season, the Rays have a collective 107 wRC+, their best since 2009. Having Longoria healthy and hitting has been a big plus, of course, but as in past seasons, it is surprising performances from apparent stopgaps such as the previously-discussed James Loney — who currently leads the team with a 151 wRC+ — which have provided the needed boosts. Loney’s contribution thus far has been probably the most surprising, but almost equally as significant for the 2013 Rays has been the hitting of second-baseman-turned-left-fielder Kelly Johnson, who seems to be regaining the form he displayed in a previous out-of-nowhere career year for Arizona in 2010.
After two fairly successful seasons with Atlanta in 2007 and 2008 as a second baseman whose bat made his seemingly less-than-stellar glove acceptable, Johnson crashed pretty badly in 2009, ending the season with an 83 wRC+. Unable to find a trade partner after the season, Atlanta non-tendered him, and the Diamondbacks signed Johnson as a free-agent for a bit over $2 million. The low-risk signing paid dividends right away for Arizona in 2010, as Johnson launched a career-high 26 home runs and finished the year with a .284/.370/.496 (129 wRC+) line. Since Johnson was still in his arbitration years, the Diamondbacks made the easy choice to bring him back. While Johnson’s 2010 power was still intact for Arizona, his strikeout rate increased (again), and his BABIP issues from his last year in Atlanta returned. With Johnson putting up an 85 wRC+, Arizona pulled an August trade for similarly-disappointing Toronto second baseman Aaron Hill.
That trade turned out well for the Diamondbacks, of course, but that is another story. As for Johnson, although he hit better over the last month of the 2011 season for the Blue Jays, but it was a mostly small-sample, BABIP-drivin improvement, and his power dropped. That was a harbinger of things to come in 2012, as Johnson combined the contact problems that had started developing even in his first year in Arizona with the power outage already evident in the month after the trade to Toronto. The Blue Jays seemed to have little difficulty letting Johnson walk after his .225/.313/.365 (86 wRC+) performance, and who could blame them? Johnson was going to be 31 in 2013, projected to be a below-average hitter, and had never been exactly Frank White at second base.
Enter the Rays, who were, as usual, looking to fill multiple holes in the field with not much money. They signed Johnson for $2.45 million. It seemed a bit odd, given that a combination Ben Zobrist and Sean Rodriguez seemed slated for second, perhaps with a bit of Ryan Roberts mixed in. However, it soon became clear that Johnson was going to see most of his time in left field. It might have made a bit of sense given that Wil Myers needed to spend some time in the minors, but even with Johnson looking pretty good in left field defensively, his bat hardly projected to fit there.
So far the season, it has fit just fine, with Johnson sporting a single-season career best 135 wRC+ (.275/.340/.515), including 10 home runs. He has done so despite hitting in a home park more difficult to hit in than either Toronto or Arizona. Moreover, Johnson has not been platooned. Johnson is outplaying pre-season projections by a wide margin, and with the usual qualifications about sample size acknowledged, it is worth seeing just how he is doing it.
The biggest difference has been power, with Johnson’s .240 isolated power outstripping even his .212 from his first season in Arizona’s hitters’ haven. The ISO jump is almost completely due to an increase on his rate of home runs on contact, which is up to around eight percent after being around six percent in 2010 and 2011 and under five percent in 2012. Johnson’s rate of doubles and triples on hits in play in 2013 is actually the second-lowest of his career, and only slightly better than in his career-worst 2012 in that respect. His home run per fly ball rate has jumped from 13.7 percent to 17.5 percent, even better than his 15.6 percent from Arizona.
Johnson’s 2013 BABIP (.310) is slightly higher than last seasons’s (.292), but not so much higher that is is a huge proportion of the improvement. On the surface, Johnson’s non-reliance on a high BABIP is a good sign. A closer look might recommend a bit of caution, though. As seen earlier, Johnson’s fly balls are leaving the park at a high rate. His power has also been aided by hitting more fly balls than ever. That is good. But a high rate fly balls also tends hurt batting average on balls in play, especially when many of those flys are popped up, a problem that Johnson has had since last season. As long as the fly balls keep going out of the stadium at a high rate, Johnson’s bat can handle the expected regression in BABIP. That is a qualifier to be noted.
One more change has to do with strikeouts and contact rate, and for this it is worth jumping back in Johnson’s history. While Johnson never had great strikeout rates with Atlanta, they were never terrible, and his contact rates were about average. In fact, during that last year with Atlanta in 2009, both his contact and strikeout rates improved quite a bit. That changed in his first year in Arizona. While he took more walks and hit for more power in 2010, his strikeout rate also jumped from 15.6 to 22.1 percent, not surprisingly corresponding with a drop in contact rate from 84.1 percent to 76.7 percent. It was a fair trade off for the power, and it is reasonable to speculate that Johnson was selling out a bit for power.
When the power went down as it did once he was traded to Toronto, and, worse, when the fly balls turned increasingly into outs in play, as they did in both Arizona in 2011 and Toronto, Johnson’s offensive production plummeted. Making matters worse, Johnson simply was not putting as many balls into play, period, as his strikeout rate jumped to around 27 percent, dovetailing with contact rates under 72 percent. That might work for a player with Mark Reynolds‘ power, but Johnson clearly does not have that kind of power.
Although Johnson’s 2013 power surge has understandably received the attention so far, whatever adjustments he might have made to restore his contact rate also deserve scrutiny. His 2013 contact rate is back up to 79.1 percent, and his strikeout rate, while still high at 23.4 percent, is markedly better than the 27 percent of the previous two seasons. It is hard to get hits, even home runs, when the ball is not put into play.
As has been discussed many times before, contact and strikeout rates stabilize fairly quickly for hitters, so even this small sample is a positive sign for Johnson, however, as with the increase in home run power, it is still a small sample. This is reflected in the relative lack of confidence in Johnson’s improvements displayed by ZiPS and Steamer’s rest-of-season projections, which both see Johnson as roughly a league average hitter the rest of the way — not great for a left fielder. Still, even if that is all Johnson is the rest of the way, his performance to this point is already in the bank, and the Rays will easily get more than their money’s worth.
Nonetheless, it might be worth noting that Johnson was able to put something like this combination of skills together for a year-long success in 2010: his 2010 and 2013 strikeout and contact rates are closer to each other than to 2011 or 2012. His 2010 and 2013 power are also close. It may be that Johnson has returned to his 2010 approach, and has found a way to hit for both power and making contact (both of which eluded him in 2011 and 2012). If so, he is not necessarily a long-term solution for the Rays, but he could be more than just a stopgap for Wil Myers.