With a salute to Lucas in the title.
We see it so often. It’s late in a close game, where one swing can make the difference. On the mound is a right-handed pitcher. His identity doesn’t much matter, really. He could have reverse platoon splits for all we know. But if a lefty is due up, you’ll see the manager stroll out of the dugout while pointing to his left arm. On the flip side, you might not see left-handed hitter in the game at all if the opposition has one of its southpaws on the mound.
Managers play the platoon splits constantly, but it seems to affect lefties more than righties. That is, there are a number of right-handed hitters on the vs. RHP splits leader boards. But there are very few lefties that rank among the best at hitting lefties. If you look at the vs. LHP splits from 2009 through 2011, you’ll see the usual list of right-handed hitters. Among them you’ll also see some unsurprising lefties. Chase Utley has fared better than any lefty against LHP in the past three years, and Joey Votto isn’t far behind him. What might surprise you is the name that sits in the 34th spot out of the 150 qualified hitters: Kelly Johnson.
At a .382 wOBA against lefties since 2009, Johnson has fared better against same-handed pitching than noted batsmen Hanley Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, Dustin Pedroia, and Adrian Beltre — and they all hit right-handed. More impressively, of course, he has hit lefties better than all but those two superstars listed above. That includes Robinson Cano, who is known for his ability to hit lefties, and Josh Hamilton, who seemingly is an equal opportunity pitch destroyer. Johnson also has the 12th highest ISO against lefties in the past two-plus seasons, and the second highest among his lefty brethren.
What makes this even more surprising is Johnson’s performances in 2009 and 2011 to date. After he produced a mere .306 wOBA in 2009, the Braves non-tendered him. He bounced back with a huge 2010, but this year he has fallen considerably, a .333 wOBA that includes a .299 OBP. Of course, it has been his performances against lefties that kept his numbers afloat in 2009. He hit .325/.368/.600 against lefties that year, good for a .408 wOBA. Of course, he got only 90 PA against them, because he spent time on the disabled list and on the bench that year. Last year, playing full-time, he hit .310/.366/.587 against lefties, again good for a .408 wOBA.
While we can clearly see that performance against same-handed hitters powered Johnson’s 2009 and 2010 seasons, we’re still dealing with one of those dreaded small samples. It comprises just 292 PA, and a half-season’s wroth of data doesn’t tell us much about a player’s true talent. During that span he had a .358 BABIP, which certainly makes it look suspicious. But throughout his career Johnson has not only hit lefties well, but he’s hit them better than righties. No, he’s not .408 wOBA good, but in 781 career PA he has hit .294/.352/.476, good for a .359 wOBA. That ranks 59th among all major leaguers since 2005 (minimum 700 PA vs. LHP). It also ranks fourth among left-handed hitters, behind only Jason Giambi, Travis Hafner, and Utley.
This year Johnson has gotten off to something of a slow start, hitting just .223/.299/.445 through 247 PA. The power is still obviously there, as his .223 ISO ranks 24th in the majors. One reason for his poor performance has been his .192/.222/.327 line against lefties. That’s just a .242 wOBA against them, though it has been only 55 PA. He has done some damage against righties, though, hitting .232/.321/.482 (.250 ISO). That has been his bright spot on the season. As Jeff wrote last month, contact has been his biggest problem. While we don’t have readily available splits for plate-discipline data, it would make sense that he’s having more trouble vs. lefties. But he does have a 24.6% line-drive rate against them, more than double his rate against righties, so we could see a turnaround soon enough.
There are a number of lefties who we recognize as having the ability to hit same-handed pitching very well. Both Votto and Utley make sense, as they’ve been two of the best left-handed hitters, period, in baseball during the last few years. Johnson’s name stands out, because he’s not typically thought of as one of the game’s premier hitters, never mind a rare lefty who hits same-handed pitching better than opposite-handed. It’s holding back his season right now, but if Johnson’s career numbers take hold, we could see a second half rebound.