Monday, July 23, 2007

Unsung Hero: 2B/OF Kelly Johnson

At the beginning of the fantasy season, a typical draft cheat sheet would look something like this at the 2B position:
  1. Chase Utley, PHI
  2. Robinson Cano, NYY
  3. Chone Figgins, LAA
  4. Brian Roberts, BAL
  5. Rickie Weeks, MIL
  6. Dan Uggla, FLA
  7. Julio Lugo, BOS
  8. Felipe Lopez, WAS
  9. Jeff Kent, LAD
  10. Howie Kendrick, LAA
Down the line were sleeper picks like Ian Kinsler, Brandon Phillips, Josh Barfield, etc. Chase Utley was the concensus 1st pick, but after him there was no clear #2 pick. In most leagues it was Robinson Cano, no doubt because of his .342 batting average in 2006 and his surrounding lineup of sluggers in the Bronx.

This position was perceived to be extremely thin coming in, creating an opportunity for a fantasy owner to find incredible value in the later rounds. Besides Utley, Cano, and Roberts, most of the rest of the second baseman were viewed as one giant lower tier, with some more unproven higher ceiling players (Weeks, Uggla, Phillips) balanced out by proven performers (Kent, Lugo). Lost in the mix was an outfield prospect turned second baseman in Atlanta, one Kelly Johnson.

At 19, Johnson showed promise as an outfielder in the low minor leagues by hitting 23 HR in 124 games. He did not repeat his success in the next couple of seasons, but still earned a call-up to the majors. In 2005, he played 87 games for the big club in Atlanta, showing some power (9 HR), but with little in the way of average and slugging. He struggled with elbow problems, and as a result he missed the most of the 2006 minor league season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Even though he had enjoyed only 1 outstanding season to date, there were plenty of signs to suggest Johnson could be a quality major league hitter. Throughout his minor league career, Johnson showed very good plate discipline, posting a solid .366 on-base percentage fueled by a solid walk rate of 11.5%, (277 BB in 2401 plate appearances). That kind of control of the strike zone usually translates very well for a player once they reach the majors, so it should have been no surprise that when he picked up an infielder's glove, Johnson won the starting second base job in Atlanta during spring training, even without a big season since 2001.

During the 2007 season, Johnson has put together a very solid fantasy campaign. He has hit .291, with 10 HR, 45 RBI, 60 runs, and 7 steals. His plate discipline has been impressive yet again, as he sports a .391 ob-base percentage with the help of 53 walks, second only to Brian Roberts amongst all second baseman. His only downfall has been his streakiness, which has seen his monthly averages fluctuate: .326, .259, .256, .370. This may be due to his abnormally high strikeout rate during those months, (16 and 11 in April and July, compared to 23 and 21 in May and June). During those months, he managed to maintain some value due to his walk rate, but he was unjustly punished during a Braves' team slump and relegated to starting only against right-handers.

Even though he has been sitting against left-handed starters because of those two mediocre batting months, his contributions cannot be ignored, as he is hitting .346 in the second half and figures to continue contributing. His skills are legitimate, and as long as he controls his strikeouts, he will hit and walk with the best of them. He should provide value comparable to the top fantasy second baseman when he plays, save for superstar Utley. If you need a boost for your 2nd base, middle infield, or outfield spot on your fantasy team, do not hesitate to pick Johnson up.

Even with the two mediocre months, he has given fantasy owners production only bested by 6 other second baseman (Utley, Phillips, Roberts, Uggla, BJ Upton, and Placido Polanco). His skills set, coupled with his high walk rate and a normalized strikeout rate (somewhere between his high May and June totals and his low April and July totals) mean he should hit .300 with 5-7 HR, 30 RBI, 40 runs, and a handful of steals the rest of the way.

Let's not forget that Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projection system has Johnson tabbed for a sick full season line that looks like this: .291 23 HR 89 RBI 104 runs with 12 SB. The Braves made a mistake by taking away at-bats from Johnson, so don't make the mistake of keeping him out of your lineup. That is just too much value for a player that may be available on your waiver wire.


Adam "Luke" Luther said...

I actually ranked Brandon Phillips about the middle of your list as a non-sleeper. I drafted Barfield too.

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