The Yankees landed Kelly Johnson relatively early in the offseason on a one-year $3 million deal. Considering the money given this offseason, and the contracts offered to other infielders, the deal now looks like a steal.
The 32 year old left-handed hitter has most of his experience at second base, but is also capable of playing the outfield, third base, and first base. It looks like the Yankees’ plan is to utilize him as the starting third baseman, and if Brian Roberts or Mark Teixeira find themselves injured, Johnson will move over to their spot with Scott Sizemore stepping in at third base. But Johnson has only started 12 games at third base, which happened last year after minor injuries to Evan Longoria. In his extremely limited sample size of 118.0 innings, DRS and UZR liked what they saw out of Johnson. To assume that he can handle third base full-time, the Yankees must have liked what they saw as well.
Offensively, Johnson provides power from the left-handed side of the plate. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been a contact hitter since 2010. In that season, Johnson saw his K% spike to 22.1%, and even more so in the following three seasons. PITCHf/x has Johnson swinging outside of the strike zone much more often ever since his 2010 season, and his contact rate has fallen from the low-to-mid 80%’s, all the way down to low-to-mid 70%’s. In 2013, Johnson improved those numbers slightly, and it’s possible that the Yankees believe he can fix these issues while working with Kevin Long.
Luck-wise, Johnson’s 2013 numbers look consistent with the rest of his career. His BABIP was lower, but that was due to a low line drive percentage and higher fly ball rate. If these numbers correct while his swings outside of the zone and contact rate continue to improve, Johnson could be in for a big improvement, but after three seasons of mediocrity, it’s hard to depend on that.
In 2010, Johnson hit .284/.370/.496 with the Diamondbacks, and the combination of his defense and offense gave him a 5.4 fWAR. Most Yankee fans are dreaming on that season, but his subsequent numbers have fallen to a 93 wRC+ in 2011, an 85 wRC+ in 2012, and a 101 wRC+ in 2013. With the Yankees in 2014, Johnson should continue to at least provide power from the left side. No other ballpark that he’s played in offer the type of right field porch that Yankee Stadium does, and we could see him again hit 20 or more home runs.
Outside of adapting to third base full-time, Johnson needs to take an improved approach at the plate. If he wants to hit like 2010, he needs to be more patient with pitches outside the zone, and his fly ball and line drive rate needs to move back to career norms. There’s a slim possibility that hitting coach Kevin Long can fix these issues, but I wouldn’t count on it. Expect his power numbers to increase, but the rest of his bat will be rather disappointing. I’ll project him at a .240/.310/.420 slash for 2014, with 23 home runs and average defense at third base. This would be much more acceptable out of a second baseman, but for the time being, Johnson looks like a left-handed Mark Reynolds with more upside on his defense.