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What's Up With...? Kelly Johnson

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Kelly Johnson is congratulated by teammate Rodrigo Lopez after his home run against the Phillies.
Kelly Johnson is congratulated by teammate Rodrigo Lopez after his home run against the Phillies.

On Monday, the #1 hitter in the National League, as measured by OPS+ was not Albert Pujols, Manny Ramirez, Ryan Braun, or any of the usual suspects. Leading the list was a second-baseman who played so badly in 2009 that his team simply declined to offer him a contract this year. Atlanta's loss is Arizona's gain, for the the best-hitting player in the NL over the first three weeks was Kelly Johnson, who has matched last year's home-run total while the calendar is still in April.

Seems like a good time to ask, what's up with Kelly Johnson?

Johnson had a very disappointing 2009, posting a line of 224/.303/.389, with the resulting OPS+ of 83 being well below his career average to that point of 108. He missed most of July with tendinitis in his wrist and never really recovered. Johnson said after coming to Arizona, "The wrist thing definitely hampered me. Looking back, I started developing some bad habits, mechanically doing some things that were keeping me from being the best I could be and being the guy I was a couple of years before that.."

Arbitration-eligible, so likely to get a salary of $3-4m, and with the Braves having a younger (25), cheaper (league minimum) and apparently better (OPS+ in 2009 of 117) alternative at second-base in Martin Prado, Atlanta opted not to offer Johnson a contract. This wasn't a surprise, as the team had shopped Johnson around at the winter meetings without finding a taker. Arizona had been interested in him for some time, with talk of a Johnson for Conor Jackson swap dating back to 2008., so the first call Josh Byrnes made after seeing the list of non-tendereds in mid-December was to Johnson's agent.

With some recruiting help from another former Brave in Blaine Boyer, the Diamondbacks signed Johnson less than three weeks later, Josh Byrnes saying, "We scouted him thoroughly this year, as always, and feel that he's a good candidate to rebound." agreed, calling Johnson, "a perfect breakout candidate. We saw nothing in his plate discipline or isolated power numbers to suggest that 2009 was anything more than a product of poor luck on balls in play."

There was certainly a good deal of truth to that: His BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was .330 in 2007, .344 in 2008, but then slumped to just .249 last year. With a drop in his line-drive rate, but no significant case of Chris Young-itis i.e. his infield fly-rate remained close to league average, he was a much better hitter than his 2009 numbers seemed. fangraphs' David Golebiewski estimated that Johnson's 2009 line should have been a much more respectable .288/.367/.453, an .820 OPS. Add the move to hitter-friendly Chase Field - especially helpful for left-handed home-run hitters - and the stars were favorable aligned.

Even in spring training, Johnson appeared better. On March 10th, Nick Piecoro wrote, "So far, Johnson looks a lot more like the player who was one of baseball's better offensive second basemen than the guy who lost his job with the Atlanta Braves last season." Kelly was also noticing the difference, saying at that time:

"I feel good. I feel comfortable again. I just need to get back to working up the middle, working gap to gap. I just wanted to work on grooving that swing a little bit better. I took a whole lot more swings. It's so early in spring, but I know I've got to continue to pound out the routine and just keep working on that."

So what is different this season? We can start by comparing where Johnson is hitting the ball. The charts below show, on the left, his 2009 spray chart for Turner Field, and on the right, his 2010 one for Chase Field. The letters indicate singles, doubles, triples, homers, fly-balls and ground-outs.

Kj2009_medium Kj2010_medium

The thing that stands out is that Johnson seems to be pulling the ball a good deal more this season. While the home-runs are fairly evenly-spread around the park, there's only one hit by Johnson which is significantly the other way. Everything else is to the right-fielder, and much of it between him and the right-field line. From what I can see there's only one hit that stayed in the park, much to the left of center. However, Johnson has certainly be hammering the ball. HitTrackerOnline has a "standard distance", which adjust home-runs for temperature,altitude, wind, etc. Previous to his year, Kelly's longest was 427 ft. Three of his seven (before today) have matched or passed that.

The good news is that Johnson's BABIP remains below what we would expect, based on his other numbers. His BABIP is only at .267, fifty points below his career average: when that returns to normal, it should allow him to add on to his batting-average, if not his home-runs (as these are excluded from BABIP). Perhaps as impressive as his home-runs is Johnson's improved plate-discipline. Before this year, he walked in 10.9% of all PAs, but that number is up to 15.4% in 2010. His K:BB ratio is an impressive 14:12, and he's seeing 4.42 pitches/PA, almost half a pitch more than previously - both things you want from your lead-off hitter.

Thus far, it's true to say that Johnson has surpassed all expectations, though obviously, no-one is expecting him to hit the 62 home-runs for which he is currently on-pace. Johnson is not exactly getting carried away by his hot start to the season, recently telling Steve Gilbert. 

"I look at it like this is a very, very small grain of salt because it's so early. Everyone will tell you that it's just the way baseball is sometimes. There are crazy stretches. The thing is, though, if you have some stretches like this in July or August it's not the same. There's plenty of guys that will hit something ridiculous like .460 for two weeks and if it happens then it's just that they are on a hot streak. But because it's so early in the season and that two-week stretch is your stats, it looks different."

That's undeniable the truth. But if nothing else, it's a start to the season that is bound to make Josh Byrnes smile - because it makes our GM look like a freakin' genius right now for this pick-up.

[All stats, except Johnson's HR total, exclude this afternoon's game]