December 13, 2009 at 6:23 pm by Capitol Avenue Club under Atlanta Braves
Transaction Analysis Blog – Kelly Johnson
Decline to tender Kelly Johnson a contract.
It’s not something I didn’t see coming, yet, somehow I’m still every bit as disappointed as I thought I wouldn’t be. Those of you that read this space regularly are probably already familiar with my stance on Kelly Johnson. I’ve spent as much mental energy trying to convince people that Kelly Johnson is worth keeping around as anything else. Either pointing out that one inopportune error doesn’t make someone a bad defender or a fluky-low BABIP season doesn’t mean his bat is shot or debunking various other “KJ is done” myths, I’ve written a lot about him since this site’s inception nearly eight months ago.
Kelly Johnson was drafted by the Braves under the Roy Clark draft camp in the first supplemental round of the 2000 draft out of Westwood HS in Austin, Texas. He was drafted as a SS and played SS and 3B exclusively for the first 4 years of his professional career. In the 2nd year of his professional career, he spent the entire year in the South Atlantic League as a 19-year old and hit .289/.404/.513 with 23 HR. When you do that as a 19-year old SS in the Sally league, you usually get a lot of attention.
In 2004 the Braves decided to move Kelly Johnson to LF. He was at AA at this point, and spent the entire 2004 season there, playing 125 games in the OF and hitting .282/.350/.468 with 16 HR. In 2005 the Braves did the super-2 chicken game with him (along with Francoeur, McCann, et all), but he was eventually called up and he basically had taken the every-day LF job by mid-June. His first taste of the majors wasn’t as pleasant as his first full season, as he hit only .241/.334/.397, but he still showed promise with the bat with above-average walk rates and pop.
In 2006, he had Tommy John surgery and spent most of the year rehabbing.
In 2007 he diligently worked with Glenn Hubbard at 2B–a position he’d never played in his professional career–and assumed the big-league every-day 2B role. That year he hit .276/.375/.456 with 16 HR and a 117-to-79 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 608 PA’s. His 116 OPS+ ranked 3rd in the NL among qualified 2B, behind only Chase Utley (146) and Jeff Kent (123).
In 2008 Terry Pendleton decided that he didn’t want Kelly Johnson (and I quote/paraphrase), “looking at so many called 3rd strikes”, so he messed with his approach a bit, which resulted in a lower walk rate. Overall, Kelly Johnson hit .287/.349/.446 with 12 HR and a 113-to-52 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 614 PA’s. Yet, still, his 109 OPS+ ranked 3rd in the NL among qualified 2B*, this time behind Chase Utley (135) and Dan Uggla (126). I don’t know if it’s fair or not to blame Pendleton for Johnson’s decline in walk rate, but it sure would make an awful lot of sense, don’t you think?
*If you count Mark DeRosa (117 OPS+), who played 95 games at 2B, but 5 0ther positions, Johnson drops to 4th.
At this point, Kelly Johnson had become a somewhat polarizing character among Braves fans. Critics of Kelly Johnson cited his “bad defense” and “streaky-ness” (for example, in 2008 he hit only .263/.332/.403 with 9 HR, 3 3B, and 30 2B the first 5 months of the season, but boosted his overall line to the above .287/.349/.446 by hitting .398/.429/.643 with 3 HR, 3 3B, and 9 2B in September/October).
Overall, Kelly Johnson is about average, though slightly below, defensively. He makes too many errors, that’s for sure, but that seems correctable to me, and he’s got above-average range. The common fan’s perception of his defense is largely influenced by his errors (which are only one component of defense), and the visibility thereof. We all know about the dropped pop-up, which probably did more to damage his reputation as a fielder than anything else. However, evaluating a player’s defense based on one play (or just on errors in general) is not a good idea. It’s over simplistic and tells you virtually nothing meaningful about his defensive value. The advanced metrics have KJ pegged as slightly below average and that’s basically what scouts think. No, he’s not Bill Mazeroski out there, but he’s also not Adam Dunn, as some fans would have you believe.
The “streaky-ness” is the other knock on Kelly Johnson. It’s true, he has been rather streaky over his career. It’s not something that can be explained by injury or anything else, I think it’s mainly just BABIP fluctuations (aka luck). I’m yet to see one scientific study that suggests “streaky-ness” is an actual attribute and not just fluctuations of chance. Furthermore, even if it is an attribute, I’m yet to hear one good argument that suggests a player is incapable of overcoming this so-called “streaky-ness”. So I don’t buy that. Yeah, he’s been streaky, but I’m not concerned with what he’s done, only what he’s going to do. And I see no evidence that he’s destined to be a “streaky” player for the rest of his career, other than he has been, which I don’t even consider valid evidence.
The supporters of Kelly Johnson have always cited his above-average walk rates, power, plus base running, left-handedness, and ability to play a premium position. All of these things make him a valuable commodity. Left-handed hitting middle infielder is a good start, but throw above-average walk rates, decent contact rates, pop, and plus base running and you’ve got an immensely valuable commodity.
I sort of got side-tracked there, back to the story.
In 2009 Kelly Johnson had a miserable year. He hit only .224/.303/.389 with 8 HR and a 54-to-32 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 346 PA’s. It included a trip to the DL and, in turn, AAA, to rehab a wrist injury. Nearly all of his ill-fated numbers can be attributed to atrocious luck, rather than a decline in fundamental skill. His .165 ISO (Isolated Power) was right in line with his career average (.166). His strikeout rate was the best of his career (15.6%) and his walk rate rose from 8.5% in 2008 to 9.3% in 2009. His line-drive rate did take a hit in 2009, but not nearly enough to account for his .247 BABIP (.311 career average). Adjusting his BABIP to .300 yields a line of .267/.346/.432/.778, which isn’t Albert Pujols, but it’s above-average for a 2B. That’s more or less what his fundamental, luck-removed, ability looks like in a slash line, perhaps even better.
Due for a raise from his 2009 arbitration salary ($2.825 million), and seeing as the Braves plan to use Martin Prado as their every-day 2B in 2010, the cards were stacked against Kelly and he was non-tendered at the December 12 deadline.
There was a somewhat similar situation last year with Matt Diaz. Diaz was arbitration eligible for the second time in 2009 and was coming off a season where he was mostly hurt and hit only .244/.264/.304 with 2 HR and a 32-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 140 PA’s when healthy (note the slash like is far worse than Kelly Johnson’s 2009, and that’s saying something). The Braves decided he was worth the gamble, tendered him a contract, signed him for $1.2375 million (a raise of only $125,000 from his $1.225 million 2008 salary during his first arbitration season). What did Matt Diaz do in 2009? He led the Braves in AVG, OBP, SLG%, OPS, and OPS+. Imagine how much of a mistake it would’ve been to non-tender him.
Kelly Johnson was due to make quite a bit more than $1.2375 million in 2010, probably something like $3.3 million. However, I believe that the Braves will regret letting Kelly go just as much as they would’ve regretted letting Diaz go.
In addition to the future value of developing an above-average regular (aka allowing KJ to rebuild value that would manifest itself as either future on-field production or the return in a trade involving him), I think keeping Kelly Johnson for 2010 could have been a solid financial move, too. No, he wouldn’t be a starter (at least until someone got hurt), but if he isn’t struck by the bad-luck reaper again, he’s probably a 0.7-1.2 win player in a ~300 PA, 600 defensive innings role. And when you’re signing a 0.7-1.2 win player on the FA market, what do you pay? The sane teams spend somewhere around/between $3 and $5.5 million. Paying a bench player $3.5 million isn’t the worst thing in the world, especially if they’re, you know, good players. Not every bench player has to be a replacement level piece of garbage paid twice the league minimum. Value is value no matter where it comes from. And last time I checked, having quality depth isn’t a bad thing. Especially since the teams’ most capable back-up 3B (Martin Prado) also happens to be the starting 2B, and the starting 3B has averaged missing 37 games the past 5 years.
But, alas, the Braves are trying to win now and they probably believe the money could be better spent elsewhere. Or maybe they don’t see what I do in Kelly, but I really doubt that’s true. They’re not a stupid organization, they’re not a lazy organization, and they’re the best in the business at knowing their own.
But let me put it this way. In 2009, the Braves signed Garret Anderson to a 1-year, $2.5 million contract and re-signed Greg Norton to a 1-year, $800,000 contract. For the money spent on those two worthless pieces (cumulative -1.9 Wins Above Replacement), they could have retained Kelly Johnson as a quality back-up in 2010 and done much better to maximize his value, either on the field or in a trade.
My point is that $3.3 million isn’t all that much in the grand scheme of things. It’s no small chunk of change, and mid-market teams like the Braves can’t afford to simply throw away that kind of money, but they’ve spent a lot more on a lot worse before and will likely continue to do so. Considering the fact that keeping Kelly Johnson was probably a fairly solid investment in 2010 in isolation with significant future upside, I think non-tendering him was a mistake.
Personally, I’ll miss Kelly Johnson. I always liked him as a player and a person. Not that I know him, but he always seemed like a really classy guy: the way he dealt with the demotion, how many different times his role changed and he never complained, etc.. Jeff Francoeur, on the other hand, a fan favorite for some damn reason, whined and whined when he was sent down, benched, dropped in the batting order, etc.. Why Jeff Francoeur was allowed to behave like an ass and hit like a back-up catcher, yet still remain a fan favorite I’ll never know (BTW, Francoeur ’08: .234/.294/.359, KJ ’09: .224/.303/.389). But Kelly Johnson never complained, even though the organization probably didn’t give him the respect he deserved.
I suppose he’ll sign for a million or two with a team who needs an every-day 2B. I suppose he’ll hit about like he did in ’07/’08, perhaps even better. I suppose he’ll be one hell of a value for his new team. And I suppose the Braves will regret letting him go for nothing. At any rate, good luck to him, and I’ll be pulling for him wherever he goes (unless it’s Philadelphia, Florida, or The Stem, of course).
He’s not a bad guy, he’s just misunderstood. A man of his circumstances. A man who so desperately wanted to succeed, he failed. And now, a man with a clean slate who has learned his lessons. His intentions are good as his potential, and I think he’s finally going to put it all together next year. Hopefully the fan base and Front Office of his next team appreciates him more than Atlanta’s did.
I was looking forward to watching Kelly Johnson play 2B for the Braves for a long time. I guess I won’t get that chance, but life goes on.
I promise you, this will be the last article whose primary subject is Kelly Johnson and this situation. There have been a few themes on this site throughout its’ 8-month existence. Other than the concept of always asking questions rather than blindly accepting something (and of course the usual humor and bad tastes themes), one is the concept of value to a team (or, surplus value, value of contracts, etc…), one is the concept of regression to the mean (alternatively, luck), and one is the study of perception vs. reality. I believe that the complete examination of this scenario (the Kelly Johnson arbitration decision) most glowingly exemplifies all three concepts. In that regard, this article is sort of a snapshot of history. In 30 years, if I am attempting to gather a sense of where I (or, more generally, though probably a bit less accurately, the saber community) was right about now, this is the article I should probably choose to read. It’s sort of a convergence of everything I’ve been working on for awhile, now.
I started this site because I wanted to attempt to sort through the pile of shit and find the truth somewhere in there. It’s a dirty job, I know, but life isn’t fair, and for some reason this is what I most enjoy. I don’t consider this article a sort of “snapshot of history” because I’ve found the truth. I haven’t, nobody has. Hell, I may look back in 30 years and say, “that’s the stupidest shit I’ve ever read in my entire life”. We don’t know anything. As Bill James said:
Q: Has sabermetrics pretty much squeezed the last drop of new insights out of traditional counting statistics? If so, what data ought to be collected to improve our understanding of the game? If not, where can the boundaries be pushed?
A: We haven’t figured out anything yet. A hundred years from now, we won’t have begun to have the game figured out.
But this, this article you’re reading, has sort of systematically summarized my quest for the truth. And for that, it’s sort of the manifesto for this site.
But, enough of my pretentious ramblings and pompous overstatements. I’ll link to this in the required reading section and be done with the subject for good.
Goodbye, KJ, you’ll be missed.