There has been a lot of talk lately about how Kelly Johnson needs to be impaled on a stake, and that Martin Prado should be starting in place of him, or that the Braves should try to swing a deal for a second baseman, specifically Felipe Lopez in Arizona. So what should the Braves do? Lets evaluate all options.
The first option is to do nothing, and let Kelly keep starting. There are some flags that get thrown up when looking at Kelly's shoddy batting average (and as a result, lower slash stats across the board) thusfar this season. Here are some statistics for Kelly, comparing last season (which is what I believe his true talent level is as compared to 2007) to this season.
- Walk rate: 8.7% (2008), 8.2% (2009)
- Strikeout rate: 20.7% (2008), 16.9% (2009)
- Isolated power: .159 (2008), .151 (2009)
- BABIP: .344 (2008), .247 (2009)
- Pitches/PA: 3.77 (2008), 3.52 (2009)
Looking at those stats, the main culprit is Kelly's absurdly low BABIP. Kelly is a player who can naturally keep a high BABIP (.333 in his minor league career, .329 in the majors prior to this year), and his horrifically low BABIP this year would really skew his slash stats in a negative direction. If you look at the rest of his stats, everything else looks about the same as last year. His walk rate has dropped a smidge (it ends up being approximately a 3 walk difference over a 600 plate appearance season, which is not a factor at all), while his strikeout rate has actually decreased by nearly 4% (a decrease of nearly 22 strikeouts over a 550 AB season). Kelly's ISO remains essentially unchanged despite his low batting average and his RAWR FAILURE TO TAKE PITCHES is in actuality about one less pitch a game compared to last season.
Another odd little quirk about Kelly's year thusfar is his complete and utter failure against right handed pitchers. He is somehow putting up a line of .184/.267/.285 in 177 plate appearances. What can possibly explain that 240 point drop in OPS from last season? It all comes back to that magic acronym again: BABIP. Against righties this season, its a whopping .204. Last season, it was .319. So we've essentially found what's eating Kelly Johnson: luck, and his lack thereof this season, especially against right handers. Thats essentially what it boils down to with Kelly Johnson...luck.
Maybe there is a better option than Kelly, be it internally or externally. How about Martin Prado? Prado is having a pretty solid year for the Braves, with a line of .283/.348/.450. Thats pretty gosh darn good for a middle infielder. But is Prado really a better option? Lets take a look...scanning his peripherals, everything is coming back pretty good. 9.1% walk rate, 10.8% strikeout rate, .167 isolated power...and look at that, a .298 BABIP, so he's been a little unlucky too! He's got some great plate discipline too...4.07 pitches per PA this season, which is up .3 from last season. All of Prado's numbers are based on a small sample size though...he's got exactly 500 career plate appearances through 4 years in the majors, compared to 2111 in the minors where he put up a line of .300/.353/.393. The patience has always been there with Prado, but the power factor is the new kid on the block. and because of his small sample size, its a variable as to whether that power is something he's just developed over the past couple of years, or if its a hot streak. So Prado seems like a decent enough option at second.
There is one more in house option to be discussed, one that is impossible to put into action right now, but could be ready to go in a couple of weeks...I am of course talking about Omar Infante, the Braves supersub who was having a great season before breaking his hand against Colorado back in May. Infante struggled early in his career with the Tigers, before dramatically slashing his strikeout rate in his 2 years with the Braves (2007: 17.5%. 2008: 13.9%. 2009: 8.1%. Terry Pendleton should clearly be fired.) His BABIP actually shot up like a geyser during his time in Atlanta, to levels not seen often in his career (career majors BABIP: .301. Career minors BABIP: .313. 2008 BABIP: .333. 2009 BABIP: .372). Infante actually showed pretty good power from 2005-2008 in his career with Detroit and the Braves, before actually dropping off this season to his career minor league level. Infante's high BABIP is inflating his batting average and the rest of his slash stats, and as such, the fans impression of him is also being inflated. Infante's 5% drop in LD% sticks out at me like a sore thumb, and he really can't be expected to keep up his red hot first 6 weeks of the season. But even if he drops off, he'd be around the same range as Prado and Johnson...an interesting option.
Finally, people have been clamoring for an external solution, which they think would somehow fix all of the team's problems. The solution people are referring to is Felipe Lopez of the Diamondbacks. Lopez became a hot name on the free agent market this offseason after putting up a line of .385/.426/.538 with the Cardinals after being released by Washington. Just a little FYI for everyone, Lopez's BABIP during his time with St Louis was .452. I did not make a typo there. Apparently, a BABIP over .400 all of a sudden means you could be a great major league starter. The Diamondbacks overlooked Lopez's one season with an OPS over .800 in his career (for what its worth, that season was not 2008: he OPSed .619 with the Nats over 100 games to kill his line for the season), and rewarded him with a $3.5 million contract. Josh Byrnes = not a genius (combine that with the Eric Byrnes & Jon Garland contracts, and that Dan Haren deal looks a little bit like a fluke now, don't you think?) Lopez has taken Arizona by storm...well, not really. Not a whole lot has changed for him. His BABIP is .362 (or what around Infante is doing this season), and he still can't OPS .800. His K rate is standing strong at 18.9%, while his walk rate is at 7.7%, and he's hitting more than twice as many balls on the ground as in the air. Lopez has always been able to take pitches (dead even at 4 per PA over his career), but hasn't been able to turn those taken pitches into a good walk rate. Lopez can do what the 3 internal options can do AT HIS ABSOLUTE PEAK, and he costs as much as what we're paying the right fielder to stand around with his glove duct taped to his face. This should not be a seriously considered option.
So we've pretty much come to the conclusion that one of the internal options would be best. But which one WOULD be the best? Theres one slightly important statistic I haven't discussed: defense. Second base is a pretty important position on the field, what with the double plays and stolen bases and such. Infante's overall defense at second grades out just below average (-1.9 UZR/150) over his career, and he hasn't logged over 300 innings at the position since 2006. Heres another cute little stat I've just made up (which essentially means nothing since errors are a stupid stat): E/I. Errors per inning. Simple enough, right? All you do is take the total errors, divide by the total innings at the position, and boom boom pow, there you go. You don't want a high number in this category. Infante's E/I is 0.0105, 22 errors in 2097 innings at second. Martin Prado is next up on our list, and his UZR/150 at second grades out horribly, at -29.7 for his career (which is really bad..like..hm. Worse than Adam Dunn bad.). His E/I is 0.0231, more than twice that of Infante. So yeah, Prado is a real defensive liability at second and would negate any positive effects from his bat. Kelly Johnson is the final candidate, and his UZR/150 has to be taken with a grain of salt. He was initially an outfielder, so he's still getting used to the position. He had negative ratings his first 2 years, but has crept his way up to the positive level this year, possibly indicating that he's grown comfortable enough at the position. His E/I has also dropped each season he's been at second, and overall, his UZR/150 is -6.8, and his EI is 0.0115, slightly worse than Infante's...but as I said, he's cut the number every season. So whats the final verdict?
I believed this when I first began this entry, and after crunching the numbers...my mind has not been changed. I still believe that the Braves should stay patient with Kelly Johnson at second base, and not dip into their deep bench or, god forbid, go outside of the organization to find a solution. Kelly Johnson is a streaky hitter, this should be news to no one. He's had a really bad June. But I firmly believe that if the Braves just continue to be patient with him, and don't jump the gun and demote him to the bench or waste valuable resources on a trade, the team's patience will be recorded and Kelly will get those numbers up to a level where we can once again talk about him being one of the best second baseman in the National League, as opposed to cursing him under our breath.