August 8, 2007
After missing essentially all of 2006 following surgery to repair a torn ligament in his elbow, Kelly Johnson has come back strong at a new position this season, helping the Braves once again fight for a division title with his .297/.393/.491 season line. Johnson was and still is a relative unknown in some circles, overshadowed by the Braves' other outfield prospects, a situation exacerbated by his 2006 absence, but he has fared very well this year. How does his future look, and can he continue to post something close to .300/.400/.500 at second base for a Braves team that is once again rebuilding and contending at the same time?
Kelly Andrew Johnson was selected by the Braves in the first round of the 2000 amateur-entry draft out of Westwood High School in Austin, Texas. The lefty hitter debuted at age 18 for the Gulf Coast League Braves in Rookie League, where he would show solid plate discipline but little power:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2000 GCL Braves(Rk) 193 .269/.349/.425 37% .156 15 11.0% 20.6%
Johnson played most of his games at shortstop. His power and patience were both attractive for that position, and his BABIP was a healthy .333 at the complex league level. Johnson's main issue was strikeouts, as they kept his batting average down despite his high rate of success on batted-balls. The Braves would promote Johnson to Low-A Macon for the 2001 season, and Baseball America shed some light on Johnson by listing him prospect #25 in the Braves organization:
More than a few people looked at one another and said "Who?" when the Braves called Johnson's name last June. Unlike most high-profile draft choices, Johnson hadn't played in national showcases, causing him to slip under the radar screen. The Braves, however, had eight different scouts evaluate him and every report said Johnson is a player. After his solid debut in the Gulf Coast League, Johnson has drawn comparisons to Robin Ventura. A shortstop throughout his career, he has soft hands and a strong arm, but his body is on the verge of necessitating a move to third base. His natural sweet swing attracts the most praise because of his outstanding plate coverage. He also has better-than-average speed and is consistent defensively. Johnson produces a lot of line-drive hits in the gaps, and the Braves believe he'll hit for more power as his body matures naturally.
Considering that many analysts begin to dissect the next year's draft class just days after each year's draft is finished, it's tough to imagine a player selected in the first round surprising anyone with his existence. That is just what happened with Johnson to the Braves' benefit, as he slipped to the 38th overall selection.
Johnson's 2001 at Macon resembled the kind of season you would expect Robin Ventura to put up, but he remained at shortstop for the whole year:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2001 Macon(A) 415 .289/.404/.513 38% .224 23 14.3% 22.3%
The .345 BABIP was a bit high, but Johnson was classified as a line-drive/gap hitter, just what you need to be in order to sustain that rate. The combination of power and patience at shortstop is attractive, but this kind of production also works at third, helping to explain why the Braves moved him there.
Johnson would fly up the Baseball America organizational rankings before the 2002 season, moving to #3:
An excellent athlete with a potent stick, Johnson hits the ball hard and has as much raw power as anyone in the organization. He also has above-average speed that enabled him to steal 25 bases. Sally League managers tabbed him as the league's best prospect, best hitter, best power hitter and most exciting player. Johnson might not blossom, though, until he finds a comfortable defensive position. He struggled at shortstop in the season's first half, making numerous careless mistakes, before showing better concentration during the last two months. Johnson tends to ride the emotional rollercoaster and can be hard on himself when he fails. Scouting director Roy Clark and scout Charlie Smith simply outworked the competition in evaluating Johnson.
Unfortunately, Johnson's 2002 was not pretty, especially following his promising 2001:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2002 Myrtle Beach(A+) 482 .255/.325/.394 31% .139 26 9.4% 19.4%
Johnson's .304 BABIP was below average for the level, and his overall numbers suffered as a result; this season would not look nearly as bad if he had hit .275 instead of .255. His power numbers suffered at Myrtle Beach due to the large dimensions and the constant winds blowing in from center; he hit nine of his 12 homers on the road. This season also squelched any dreams of Johnson stealing 20+ bases a year, as he was just 12 for 27 in his stolen base attempts.
Johnson would spend both 2003 and 2004 at Double-A Greenville, the first as a shortstop and the second as an outfielder:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2003 Greenville(AA) 334 .275/.340/.425 36% .150 27 9.3% 21.5% 2004 Greenville(AA) 479 .282/.350/.468 40% .186 38 9.2% 19.1%
His .348 and .330 BABIPs are very high for the level, though he was still more of a linedrive-power hitter than the flyball type. Johnson had 16 assists in his first year as an outfielder, though he also made 10 errors. His walk rate seemed to stabilize around nine percent from 2002 to 2004, though how high his power was going to end up was still up in the air, thanks to increases in his Isolated Power two years straight at high levels.
Part of his improvement came from opening up his stance during the 2003 season, and this carried over to 2004 when he repeated the level. He was only entering his age-23 season despite five seasons of pro experience, so the Braves still had plenty of time to figure out if he was going to stick in the outfield and for Johnson to finish developing his power. Baseball Prospectus 2004 liked his chances to become an everyday corner outfielder akin to B.J. Surhoff, and Baseball Prospectus 2005 had faith that he would produce some quality years for Atlanta in the future:
He's not going to meet those "future superstar" expectations that were laid out for him following the 2001 season, but he still might be quite a player. He's had only one genuinely disappointing season, and in his second look at Double-A Greenville he fared much better. The transition to the outfield was not without its fits and starts, but he'll be a capable corner defender at the highest level. He still has a near-perfect swing, good power numbers and decent patience. One of these years, he's going to put up big numbers in Atlanta.
PECOTA didn't think Johnson would be all that ready for the majors in 2005, forecasting a .259/.321/.421. What PECOTA wasn't taking into account was the fact that the Braves were going to throw everything they had in the organization into tacking another division title to their record streak. Atlanta would use 12 rookies that year, but among the standouts were Kyle Davies, Joey Devine, Jeff Francoeur, Brian McCann, and Kelly Johnson.
Johnson struggled with the bat, but he was +10 defensively according to The Fielding Bible:
Johnson came out of nowhere to team with Andruw Jones, Jeff Francoeur, and Ryan Langerhans to form the best defensive outfield in the majors. He's a converted minor league shortstop who made a relatively seamless switch to the outfield in 2004. He has displayed great range and good arm strength, and as he learns the nuances of playing the outfield he will become an even better defender.
His .241/.334/.397 line wasn't pretty, but he was also having poor luck with his liners dropping into gloves instead of dropping in. Despite hitting almost 26 percent of his batted balls for line drives, Johnson's BABIP was a pedestrian .296, whereas it should have been around .376. A line-drive rate that high isn't sustainable, though, so you shouldn't start entertaining visions of Johnson as a consistent .321/.414/.477, as he would have been if his liner rate produced as expected.
Johnson began to feel elbow soreness in spring training before the 2006 season commenced, forcing him into inactivity through June, at which point he finally gave in and had ligament surgery. In rehab work, he put together just under 60 at-bats between Single-A and Triple-A, but did not join the Braves in September when rosters expanded, although Johnson was just the sort of added piece the 2006 team could have used. Heading into the following season, Baseball Prospectus 2007 showed faith in Johnson's abilities at the plate, as well as his chances at second base in the upcoming season:
Elbow surgery shelved Johnson for a considerable portion of the year, but he showed no ill effects once he made it back onto the field. As he did in 2005, Johnson will likely have to contend with Francoeur and Langerhans for playing time, though with Giles non-tendered, his minor league experience at short and third could make him a candidate for the second base job this spring. Should the Braves find a spot for him, he'd provide some much-needed plate discipline in an offense that ranked tenth in the NL in walks last year.
Johnson has indeed moved to second base from the outfield, and he's done well for himself there both offensively and defensively:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2007 Atlanta(MLB) 377 .297/.393/.491 36% .194 28 13.3% 21.8%
Johnson's brought the power back to his new infield job while also posting a fantastic walk rate, which is great news for his overall production, since he's a little over his head in the batting average department this season:
Year P/PA FB% LINEDR% GB% IF/F% HR/F% BABIP eBABIP Diff. 2005 4.1 30.2% 25.6% 44.2% 15.4% 13.8% .296 .376 +.080 2007 4.1 35.6% 20.0% 44.4% 4.8% 11.4% .353 .320 -.033
Part of his improvement has come from cutting down on the number of infield flies without compromising his flyball rates or power production. Adjusting his 2007 line for his liner rate and eBABIP, Johnson should be around .264/.360/.458; that's not the level he appears to be at right now, but it's still very good production at second base, especially since he's right in the middle of the league defensively according to Revised Zone Rating, an improved version of ZR that John Dewan introduced. Johnson's RZR ranks eleventh in the majors and fourth in the NL. Since his 33.0 VORP ranks him fourth in the majors at second base, this gives the Braves a pretty nifty player, more than most teams bargain for with their supplemental round picks. Given his minor league track record as a line-drive hitter with lofty BABIP, I'd also expect his liner rate to jump up above the league-average clip it's currently sitting at, meaning he should earn those lost points right back in the future.
PECOTA forecasted a .291/.374/.495 line for Johnson in 2007 despite his missing a year with an elbow injury the year before, which is pretty impressive. PECOTA expected more of the same from Johnson from 2007 through 2011; if it's right, the Braves have themselves their second baseman of the future without compromising their outfield situation.
Johnson has also managed to cut down on his problems against southpaws this year, posting a .283/.377/.441 line, although with just a pair of homers. He's been a beast away from Atlanta as well, with a .330/.407/.530 line in 185 at-bats. He's had an interesting monthly breakdown so far as well. Johnson had a huge April (.326/.473/.593), helping the Braves out while others slumped, then succumbed to his own dry spell during May and June (.258/.338/.397). He's hit .370/.442/.620 since then, though, which makes figuring out just what Kelly Johnson is capable of doing tough.
Small samples of ups and downs aside, Johnson is a quality talent who is capable of above-average defense and offense in an outfield corner while at the same time playing a quality second base on both sides of the ball. There aren't enough guys like that in the league-although some teams try to force that quality on particular utility guys-and the Braves deserve praise for their scouting and development work with Johnson, as well as their confidence that he could handle second base and the majors after missing a full year of development time.