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james_piette_kelly_johnsons_proverbial_fork-in-the-road | July | 2009 Articles

2009 Archives

James Piette: Kelly Johnson's Proverbial Fork-in-the-Road

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Another post -- happy Independence Day, everybody! Here's James Piette's take on Kelly Johnson.

Not to get all poetic, but Kelly Johnson's career path has diverged into two roads. Perhaps the metaphor is lost on me, since I certainly did have comprehension problems in Engrish class[1], but there are two directions he could choose[2]: one leading him to years and years of success or another directing him to the door.

Okay, I'll admit my segues are cheesy, but the point is still the same. Johnson will either make a stand and be in the league for years to come or his major league career will soon be over. It is shocking to believe that someone who had such a promising career is so close to the flaming out. But it is an actual possibility. Why do I believe there is such starkness in what is to come for KJ next? Instead of traipsing through all of his statistics, I believe it is better if we take a look at some of his comparables. Before the season started, here are his top 4 similar batters through age 26[3]:

  1. Whitey Kurowski
  2. Bret Boone
  3. Ron Belliard
  4. Johnny Vergez

Most of you probably recognize the middle two, the one who hit that home run (and occasionally flips golf carts) and the other with his famous Predator braids, but the first and last might be less familiar. To provide a little background on the other two, Whitey was a third baseman. He was selected as an All-Star in 1943, 1944, 1946, and 1947, while playing his entire career for the Cardinals, where he garnered enough votes to appear on the MVP ballot five times. Vergez was also a third basemen and spent a majority of his time with the New York Giants in the mid to late '30s. To really grasp the dichotomy that may be the potential career paths of Kelly Johnson, let's first look at his numbers at 26 compared to the other four batsmen listed above at that same age:

Player Name PA AVG OBP SLG OPS+[4]
Kelly Johnson 614 .287 .349 .446 108
Whitey Kurowski 625 .270 .341 .449 119
Bret Boone 570 .267 .326 .429 98
Ronnie Belliard 410 .264 .335 .453 103
Johnny Vergez 507 .271 .332 .448 122

It seems that the similarity scores are really doing their job; I honestly cannot see much difference with any of these batting lines. If I was going to pick one, though, without adjusting for leagues and parks, I would have to pick Kelly's over all others. However, after adjustments, it seems Johnny Vergez pulls ahead. That is neither here nor there, since the more interesting question is how did all of these players fare after their 26 year-old campaign. Below are the lines for the same players in the very next year (plus Johnson's up to July 3rd):

Player Name PA AVG OBP SLG OPS+
Kelly Johnson 263 .214 .286 .359 71
Whitey Kurowski 573 .323 .383 .511 144
Bret Boone 568 .233 .275 .354 64
Ronnie Belliard 317 .211 .257 .287 45
Johnny Vergez 353 .200 .269 .328 60

Wow! Excluding Kurowski's tremendous season at the age of 27[5], the rest of the comparable players had terrible years. In fact, Kelly Johnson's current line is better than what the other three players put up when they were 27 years-old. Maybe Kelly Johnson's off year isn't such an anomaly. Could it be that he bounces back and goes on having a prosperous career? To answer that question, we should continue to look at the three comparable players who also had off years at 27. Here are those three player's cumulative batting lines after their 27 year-old campaign[6]:


Player Name # Seasons PA AVG OBP SLG OPS+
Bret Boone 9 5433 .267 .330 .452 105
Ronnie Belliard [7] 7 3334 .278 .335 .423 98
Johnny Vergez 2 664 .248 .310 .671 73


Bret Boone went on to have a terrific career, posting 4 seasons with an OPS+ of more than 100. Plus, he captured two silver sluggers, one of which he won during his 2001 campaign for the Mariners where he put up the line .331/.372/.578, three All-Star appearances, and four Gold Gloves. As for Ron, he bounced back and became a very solid player. While his career is currently in peril at the age of 34, he still had 6 above-average offensive years after the age of 27. With Johnny Vergez, we observe a completely different story. Poor Johnny did not recover from his mediocre 27 year-old season. Vergez bounced slightly back, getting his OBP to an acceptable .312 (remember, this was 1935), but it wouldn't matter. He was only able to stick around in baseball for another 2 years.

There we have it. Two players who came storming back after poor seasons at the age of 27 and one hitter that failed to put it all together. Which road do I believe Kelly Johnson will take? I don't know, but I do not think that is the answer we are to take from this analysis. Even if he continues this atrocity in the batting box, he was promising enough as a young kid. Now, I sincerely doubt that Kelly ever wins the prestigious fielding award[8] like Bret Boone, so it must be hard for Bobby to trot him out there every night, but we can look to Ron Belliard for an example of just that. I find it hard to make argument that Belliard was kept in because of his defense; he was never spectacular at second base. Yet he still turned it around.

I am not saying Kelly is going to be a great player. Instead, my claim is that Kelly has the potential to be a great player, an upside not too many players, much less second basemen, have. By giving KJ the opportunity, we'll get to see which road he decides to take.

UPDATE: Of course, Kelly is now officially on the 15-day DL, just in time for this article! For cereal though, I think it should do him some good. It'll prevent him from feeling like he lost the starting job, Bobby won't necessarily feel guilty that he has to keep telling him to ride the bench, and he can recover from what ails him[9]. Hopefully, when he comes back, he'll get another chance. 


Footnotes

[1] I got over those problems through this fantastic program, just in case there are others out there with similar needs.

[2] It might not be a choice, but his destiny as a player. Regardless, he, or at least his ability, does have a say in the outcome.

[3] I took this directly from Kelly Johnson's player page on Baseball-Reference.com.

[4] 100 * [OBP/lg * OBP + SLG/lg * SLG - 1]. This is also adjusted for a player's ballpark.

[5] Whitey hit 21 homers, drove in 102, scored 84 runs, and did it all in the matter of 133 games. That's probably why he was fifth in the MVP voting that year.

[6] FYI, Baseball-Reference.com has an amazing feature where you can simply select all the seasons you are interested in for a certain player and look at their batting stats over those seasons. Sweet.

[7] I included what Ron Belliard had done so far this year for the Nationals.

[8] This year, UZR has him pegged as a slightly above average fielder, but he was markedly below average the two years before.

[9] Honestly, I doubt there is anything wrong. Too often these days when a player is doing poorly, teams throw them on the DL. It's like forcing someone to take paid vacation, except it has a more dire name (and cool acronym).


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