Name: Kelly Johnson
Age on Opening Day: 29
2011 Stats (combined): 147 games, 613 PAs, .222/.304/413, 21 HR, 58 RBI
2010 Stats: 154 games, 671 PAs, .284/.370/.496, 26 HR, 71 RBI
Like Aaron Hill, this is another second-baseman report card that probably won't need to be too long. Here, we can skip the whole "looking forward" section, since Arizona's interest in Johnson largely ended in August, after his trade to the Blue Jays (with whom he just agreed to arbitration). However, the mere fact he was deemed surplus to requirements as we pushed for the NL West title, probably summarizes KJ's season adequately.
Johnson came in to 2011 after a career year, in which he set highs for just about every offensive category, and was considered a key component for 2011, with a contract extension even being discussed. Sure, there were the 148 strikeouts, not something likely viewed with equanimity by new management, but it's not as if the Diamondbacks had any real alternatives. Pencil his name into the line-up every day, probably in one of the top two slots, and let the above-average production for the position commence.
But after going 2-for-5 on Opening Day, his batting average for the year didn't see .230 again. Right from the get-go, something seemed off about Johnson, and barely two weeks into the season, having gone 8-for-51, Kirk Gibson gave him a mental health day off: "We need to get him back to where he's confident and comfortable again. We thought that this would help." Kelly had been suffering from a cold, and also reported his balance was off, especially against off-speed pitches, so he had been taking additional batting practice against curveballs. "Everyone wants to feel perfect, but you're not going to feel perfect. I'm just trying to get it right so there aren't any excuses."
It didn't help, at least initially. Johnson finished the month batting .180, but did have a significantly better month in May. His line there was .267/.313/.552, for a very respectable .865 OPS. His power seemed to be coming back too, with seven home-runs. Two of those came in the biggest offensive game for a Diamondback in more than four years, as Johnson plundered 13 total bases against the Florida Marlins on May 30th, as we crushed them 15-4. That was the most by any second-baseman in the National League since another Arizona player, Damion Easley, matched it in a three homer game against Atlanta in 2006.
We saw the tape of that as one of the nominations for Single-Game Performance of the Year - but, what the heck, let's enjoy it again...
It wasn't long after this game that KJ's numbers peaked, reaching .229/.306/.458 following the contest on June 8, and encouraging words were heard from the second-baseman at that time. "I'm definitely in a better position to hit. You can tell the way the ball is jumping off the bat. When your front foot lands and it's time to cut it loose and swing, my hands are in a better spot. I'm just in a better position." However, in the light of subsequent events, his other comments seem prophetic. "I hate talking about it... I feel like when you start talking about it, it will come back and bite you. I hate even trying to put it in words. I'm not even going to try to think about it."
Johnson went 9-for-63 with a .483 OPS the rest of June. He did get a boost early in July, hitting his second grand-slam of the season (below) to break a seventh inning tie against the Cardinals, taking advantage of Tony La Russa's decision to stay with his starter. That said, Gibson "wouldn't divulge whether he would have gone to to his bench had La Russa brought in a lefty." It seems to indicate how far Johnson's stock had fallen, with serious consideration was being given to using someone like Willie Bloomquist instead, for a crucial situation like this one, the bases loaded and one out in a tied game.
Johnson remained upbeat, telling Nick Piecoro early in August, "It's been a struggle. But it's been a lot of fun being on this team, one of the most fun teams I've ever been on playing baseball. That's even without having personal success." But it seemed as if pitchers had adjusted better to Kelly, than Kelly had to the pitchers. "They've definitely made some adjustments. Everybody's getting more cutters in the league; that's a tough pitch, bearing in on you. But I'm missing pitches when I do get them."
The wheels were in motion, and later that month, Johnson was swapped for Toronto infielders Aaron Hill and John McDonald - his final line for the Diamondbacks was a .699 OPS, almost the same as the one posted in 2009, after which Atlanta non-tendered him. "I think my first reaction was pretty much shock and then being disappointed," said KJ, who thought his strikeouts were indeed too much for Kevin Towers. "I think KT would rather throw up three times a day after eating than have his team strike out a lot." For his part, Towers was quoted as saying "the team had "lost patience" with Johnson's slumps and wanted a more contact-oriented lineup." Here's the Toronto take:
In the final analysis, the trade speaks for itself. Johnson's 2011 was far more like his 2009 than his 2010, though I still think that his true level of talent is somewhere between those extremes. Johnson's fate with Arizona was likely sealed by his failure to cut down on the strikeouts, but even putting those to one side, outside of the home-runs, few of his numbers were anywhere near the level we expected or wanted. Perhaps his greatest legacy was supposed to be Kelly's being on the receiving end of Adam Laroche's It's Raining Men prank.
I'll always fondly remember Kelly as one of the greatest value pickups in the team's history for his 2010 pillaging of MLB, but it's hard to see 2011 as anything but a disappointment. On one hand, you have to wonder what could have been if only the team had been more willing to embrace his philosophy of hitting. On the other hand, you have to wonder if the volatility Kelly has shown at the plate throughout his career is no coincidence. A great guy, a good player, and someone who seems to just lose his swing/confidence a bit too much to be elite. Given 2010, we were hoping for elite, and it's disappointing that we didn't get it.
Aw, Kelly. I think your season was the second most painful for me to watch this year, just behind Barry Enright. I don't think we were looking for anything too flashy, just something along the lines of what you put up last year, but it just wasn't to be. I was always waiting to see if you'd be able to turn it around, but other than a few big hits- and thanks for the two grand slams, we did really appreciate those- it never happened. I was disappointed to see you go, but I was even more disappointed to realize it was the right thing to do. Good luck, Kelly. I hope you have a better season in Toronto next year.