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Kelly Johnson: Bounceback Candidate

December 15, 2009

Kelly Johnson is a nice bounceback candidate for 2010 and would be a nice fit for the Giants.

Kelly Johnson was non-tendered by the Braves after posting a line of .224/.303/.389 in 346 plate appearances in 2009.  Johnson, who will be 28 in 2010, had posted a .273/.356/.440 slash line between 2005 and 2008. With a walk rate of 11% and a wOBA of .348, Johnson’s talent level resided around +10 runs above the average Major League hitter, or roughly one win.  That being said, it was a shock to see his numbers dip the amount that they did- but was it due to a wrist injury, regression, or bad luck?

Injury and bad luck seem more logical explanations than regression; players typically don’t see a drop in physical ability at the age of 27- this is usually the beginning of a player’s peak years.  While sifting through Johnson’s numbers, I noticed something that really stuck out: his batting average on balls in play.  Up until 2009, Johnson’s weighted BABIP had him as being a .328 BABIP hitter.  His 2009 BABIP, rather than being anywhere near this rate, dipped all the way down to .249.  That’s a drop of 79 points from his norm and is highly unusual.  Now, it’s very possible that this dramatic drop in BABIP is due to poor hitting- perhaps Johnson wasn’t hitting the ball as hard as he used to as a result of his wrist issues.  But I thought it’d be something worth looking into, and I did.  And the results were quite pleasant.

I’ve used Peter Bendix’s xBABIP calculator in the past to take a look at Jay Bruce’s 2009 season.  And while I love Bendix’s method, it isn’t infallible- while it is very useful, it is a bit limited in the data it uses (since his calculator is a “quick and dirty” method).  That being said, I’ve decided to bring in another xBABIP calculator into the mix simply for a bit of variety.  Since the creator of the second method uses the handle “Slash,” I’ll just refer to his BABIP estimator as sBABIP.  His equation:

sBABIP = 0.391597252 + (LD% * 0.287709436) + ((GB% – (GB% * IFH%) * -0.151969035) + ((FB% – (FB% * HR/FB%) – (FB% * IFFB%)) * -0.187532776) + ((IFFB% * FB%) * -0.834512464) + ((IFH% * GB%) * 0.4997192)

After plugging in Johnson’s batted ball rates, we see that his sBABIP is .296.  Now, this doesn’t mean that he should have had a .305 BABIP, but it certainly suggests that it should be around there, rather than the .249 he posted.  Hitters also have a tendency to either out perform or under perform their expected BABIP, and so I looked for a trend in his full seasons.

BABIP, expected BABIP, (Difference)

2007: .330, .343 (0.013)

2008: .344, .335 (0.09)

So we’re looking at a weighted average of +0.0105 difference between his expected BABIP and BABIP.  Once we apply the “Johnson Effect” to his sBABIP, we have an expected BABIP of .307.  This is still very much a drop from his career rate, but that’s to be expected due to his batted ball distribution.  If we apply this BABIP to his component rates and assume each ball that’s falling in is a single, this gives us a slash line of .273/.346/.438.  Johnson’s wOBA in 2009 was .306; this swing in BABIP increases his wOBA to around .345 and his RAA goes from -6.5 to about +5.0.  Over a full season (600 PA), that’s about +8 or so runs above the average hitter.  That’s not far from the “talent level” that I spoke of earlier.

What can we take from this?  Johnson’s component batted ball rates suggest that his BABIP should have been closer to .310 than the .249 he posted, but of course there’s always uncertainty in an estimate.  We don’t know for a fact that Johnson had 15 singles stolen from him- perhaps it seems unlikely, but it remains a distinct possibility.  Ultimately, I believe that this is an indication that Johnson’s rates will improve back to his norms and that 2009 was nothing more than an outlier.  So we’re looking at a second baseman/outfielder coming off of what appears to be a season mired in bad luck, with above average hitting skills and above average defense in left field (albeit in a limited sample size).  I can think of a number of teams that could be looking for a player like Johnson- and naturally, being a Giants fan, he seems like a sound option for the Giants.  Johnson’s above average bat and defense in left field, along with a good approach that fits at the top of the order, could give the Giants a respectable leadoff option for 2010, at a relatively cheap price.

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