Q&A: Kelly Johnson, Sabermetrically Savvy FA

Kelly Johnson may or may not be a Toronto Blue Jay next season, but wherever he ends up, he promises to have a better year with the bat — regardless of how many times he strikes out. The free-agent-to-be second baseman hit a respectable .270/.364/.417 after coming over from the Diamondbacks in a late-August trade — but his overall campaign was a huge disappointment. Fresh off a season in which he hit 284/.370/.496, he saw his numbers plummet to .222/.304/.413. He went deep 21 times — his second consecutive year with 20-plus — but he struck out a whopping 163 times.

During a late-season visit to Fenway Park, Johnson talked about his approach to hitting, including his K rate, his extensive use of video and how Toronto compares to Atlanta and Arizona.

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David Laurila: What type of season have you had?

Kelly Johnson: One of those learning seasons that you kind of wish you were over. It’s been up and down — mostly down. At my age [29], you feel like you should have ironed out some of the ups and downs and be a bit more consistent. It’s not been the year I wanted.

DL: Why has it been such a down year?

KJ: I don’t know. It’s just been an inconsistent year, feeling for my swing. More times than not, I’ve been 0-2 and feeling like I’m in an uphill battle. It’s been a struggle to find something that’s clicked — that’s worked — and I’ve been coming here thinking more about my swing than just playing the game of baseball.

DL: Is there anything about your hitting style that makes you prone to inconsistency?

KJ: Oh shoot, I don’t know. I think that even when I’m going good, I’m going to have longer at bats. I’ll be in some 3-2s and 2-2s. I feel like I generally have better swings and become a better hitter as the at bats go along. I’m not one of the guys that likes to always look first pitch, this, and that’s my pitch. I’ll do it, but it’s not something I feel is a strength for me. So, strikeouts will come. When I’m going well, walks will come, too. Like I said, this year has been more [about] missing my pitch and being 0-2, 1-2 too many times.

DL: What is your approach on a pitch? Are you looking middle and adjusting, or are you looking in specific areas?

KJ: It depends on the pitcher, but I generally try to look out over [the plate] a little more. I try to stay with my strengths. Pitchers are good — they can exploit you — but at the same time, they’re going to make mistakes. When they do, you can’t miss them. If you start missing mistakes, then you get yourself in non-predictable situations, versus being in a predictable situation. Maybe you’ve seen a pattern, or it’s a guy you’re familiar with, and you’re looking for something once you get into a 2-1 or 2-2 count. You know what he’s thrown you and you can look for it. When you take away that edge, sometimes it’s tough. I’m definitely not one of those people that can shut his brain off and just hack; see ball, hit ball.

DL: To what extent do you use charts and video?

KJ: Video, all the time. Pitchers will generally have a couple of pitches. They might throw a few – three or four or five – but they have a couple of pitches they want to go to for strikes. If you can kind of single out a certain pitch, like a changeup or a get-me-over slider… sometimes I would rather hit something coming in at 80, versus something coming in at 95. Video is big. I don’t use it for my swing, I use it more for pitchers.

DL: When you’re studying video, do you pay particular attention to how a pitcher attacks hitters who are similar to you?

KJ: Oh, yeah, although I look at all lefties. And I always check with guys in scoring position, because a lot of times that will tell you what a pitcher wants to throw, and what he feels comfortable throwing. A lot of times you’ll see a guy nitpicking fastballs and coming in sort of for show. Then, all of sudden, he’ll want to throw something softer, for a strike, to try to get a rollover, or whatever. If that’s a pitch you see well out of this guy’s hand, and you feel comfortable with it, that’s the one. But pitchers are different, so sometimes it’s hard to pick out the one you want to hit.

DL: What did [Blue Jays hitting coach] Dwayne Murphy want to know when you came here?

KJ: First, I guess, just more of my routine and how I get ready. When I’m going well, what do I think and feel about myself? What’s my approach? Do I go up there with a plan? He’s real big on having a game plan — looking at charts and reports — and then watching video. We definitely get along in that sense. He likes looking to hit immediately, and getting ready to hit fastballs. He’s definitely along the same lines as me with his thoughts.

DL: Does an individual hitting coach, and his philosophy, impact a hitter very much?

KJ: I think it can. You’ve got some hitters that come in and don’t watch a ton of video. They just go up there and look for the first straight fastball. They’re ready to hack and have a lot of success that way. I think that’s kind of an old-school way, to be honest. There are also guys talking about what pitchers throw, and thinking more about certain situations and spots. You see that more now — and it’s a little too much for some people — but to each their own. You can definitely have one kind of coach, versus another kind, and I could see where there might be some disconnect.

DL: You were originally with the Atlanta Braves. Coming up through their system, was a specific hitting philosophy espoused, or did they mostly let guys be themselves?

KJ: There was no philosophy, that I [saw]. I felt like it was more, for them, either you can do it or you can’t.

DL: What about when you got to Arizona?

KJ: When I first got there, yeah, it was similar to Murph. There was a certain amount of value to seeing pitches — [former general manager] Josh Byrnes was there — and that’s kind of what they liked. Then it switched to more of the old-school see-it-and-hit-it, where you either get it or you don’t.

DL: How cognizant are players of front-office thought process?

KJ: I think a lot depends on struggles — on ups and downs — when the lineup decisions are made. If you’re not doing well, or whatever, you see real quickly what they value. People want to stick with you and back you and just wait you out — or they get sick of it and want to try something else.

DL: Have your strikeouts been brought up by anyone in your current, or former, organizations?

KJ: Probably once. Really, these last two years have been the most I’ve struck out in my whole career, by a long shot. Last year, I had the best year of my life, and this year is one of the worst. They come when they come. In the minor leagues, I’d strike out 90-100 times, and I remember one of my coaches saying that he didn’t think I was that type of hitter. So, just one time ever.  To be honest, if I start thinking about not striking out, I’m going to strike out as much and lose a lot of my ability to drive the ball. I try not to think about it.

DL: Do you buy the sabermetric premise that strikeouts don’t matter?

KJ: To an extent. This year, as an example for myself — just how fed up I get with having bad at bats — I was playing with Mark Reynolds. Mark does so many more things than people understand. They come to a game and see him strike out and strike out and strike out. But there are little things that he does that, to me, mean you forgive [the strikeouts]. At the same time, when he’s going through certain stretches where he’s striking out more than others, and there are guys on third, or times where you’ve got to put the ball in play to get a guy over… being able to put the ball in play when you need to is definitely a big part of the game.

DL: Do you pay any attention to your walk rate?

KJ: I pay attention if I know it’s not where I need it to be. I don’t try to go out and draw extra walks because I feel like I haven’t walked in a while. But I do know that if I haven’t walked in a while, it probably means I’m swinging too early and not getting myself into a comfortable position at the plate. So, it kind of reminds me that I need to go up there and relax a bit more, see the ball a bit better and try to focus a little better.

DL: When you moved from the outfield to second base [in 2007], how aware were you that putting up the same offensive numbers at your new position would increase your value?

KJ: Oh, very aware. That’s a no brainer. I mean, last year, choosing between going to Arizona and staying at second base, or going to… actually, Toronto wanted me to play some outfield, and so did some other teams. I knew immediately that it wasn’t the right time, or a good decision on my part. I wanted to stay, and I feel like I made a lot of strides in the last two years, and I’m happy I did.

DL: Are you happy with your defensive game?

KJ: Yeah. I mean, I’m not a guy that was drafted or signed for defense, but there are certain plays that are completely necessary to be a major-league second baseman. You need be able to handle them. Most of those are making sure you get those double-play balls, because pitchers work for them. They’re not out there just throwing to get a swing and miss. A lot of times they want the ground ball — they’re pitching to a spot to get an easy ground ball — and you need to be there for them.

DL: What has the league adjustment been like, National to American?

KJ: Not too much. Pitching all around baseball is ridiculous. There are guys that can throw the crud out of the ball — they’ve got good stuff and can put it all over the place. Bullpen guys, rookies and even the young guys that are up-and-coming. There are plenty on both sides, so it hasn’t been too different — except maybe a little bit in the advance scouting. I’ve had more at bats in the National League, so they kind of have a plan as to how they want to attack me. Here, they’re still feeling it out.

DL: What about the ballparks?

KJ: The difference from the NL West to here is massive, probably in the hitter’s favor. But, again with a lot of good pitching, some of the ballpark stuff can be thrown out the window.

DL: You went from a first-place team to one that’s not in contention. Is there really that much of a difference in talent between the two?

KJ: No, actually. If you flipped them right now, it could be the same. The Blue Jays could be in first place in the NL West, just as easily as the Diamondbacks are. But that’s comparing this to that, and taking credit away from what Kirk Gibson and guys like Ian Kennedy, Justin Upton and other guys have done. That isn’t fair. Still, the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays are among the most-talented teams in baseball. You can win 85 games and finish 10 games out in the AL East. Obviously, that makes a difference.

DL: You’ve played for distinctly different managers in Atlanta, Arizona and Toronto. Can you address their respective styles?

KJ: There are actually some similarities. Honestly, just the way you would expect an intense old-school manager to be. You might think Bobby (Cox) ahead of Kirk Gibson, John Farrell and A.J. Hinch. But I would probably put Gibson above even Bobby, just in terms of everyday intensity and old-school challenging your players to show up every day. Bobby was very intense, and definitely old-school, but he could also just let the clubhouse be the clubhouse and let the players play their game. He wasn’t going to hoot and holler and yell at you if you screwed up as much.

John is definitely more calm and relaxed; definitely an internal fire. There’s a difference in the way it comes out. They have their similarities, it’s just a little different in how they handle players.

A.J. was a little bit like John. He was just a little more laid-back and understanding about mistakes that might happen, but there was also an internal desire to get it corrected. He’d talk to you behind closed doors, versus challenging you in front of the other guys.

DL: How did the trade from Arizona to Toronto impact both your season and your career?

KJ: That’s a good question. I think career is to be determined. Season, in a large way… one thing that was nice about being in Arizona was that even if I’m struggling, there’s still a way to pat guys on the butt or be a cheerleader, and like I said, make a defensive play or a base-running play that helps you win a game and move another step closer to the playoffs. You could always have fun with that. This became more personal, more individual. It’s tough, and it makes for longer days. But at the same time, you never know how it’s going to work out. You come to the right place and you might be there a long time. You might be there 10 years. You never know.




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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-March 2011 and is a regular contributor to several publications. His first book, Interviews from Red Sox Nation, was published by Maple Street Press in 2006. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA


28 Responses to “Q&A: Kelly Johnson, Sabermetrically Savvy FA”

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  1. C Green says:

    Excellent interview. Very informative.

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  2. joshcohen says:

    nice interview!

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  3. tdotsports1 says:

    Excellent read.

    I believe the Jays will offer arbitration, we’ll see if he accepts.

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  4. mike wants wins says:

    Great interview, I love these things.

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  5. MikeS says:

    These interviews are really top rate. You ask good questions and get insightful answers that teach me about baseball.

    Thank you.

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  6. Hurtlocker says:

    A strikeout is just an out, I get that. But I will never be convinced that guys like Johnson that strike out so much are value added to a linup. (even if they hit 20-25 HR’s) Good interview though.

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    • Chair says:

      So you don’t think Kemp would add to a lineup? …………

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      • Hurtlocker says:

        Good point, but Kemp does a lot more than strikeout and hit a few homers. He hit over .300, got on base, hit a bunch of homers. I should have clrified my statement, thanks.

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      • Chair says:

        So….you just disprooved your own way of thinking. Striking out in and of itself does not equal a good or bad player. Having the right balance of overall skills is necessary. Hitting for zero power, not drawing walks, striking out too much, those are all flaws, but they can be made up for if you do everything else well. No reason to treat the strikeout flaw as worse than the other flaws, in fact it’s probably the least troublesome of the three.

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    • Bip says:

      So if two guys have the same slash line, but one gets out via strikeout more often then the other, then the small amount of value that comes with reaching on error or moving over runners occasionally is enough to neutralize the value of one of them? Johnson’s above average power at second base does nothing to make up for his above average strikeout rate? How many advanced runners and ROE’s does it take to equal the value of one home run? A lot, I can tell you that.

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  7. Kyle says:

    Great stuff, as always.

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  8. grady says:

    Nice interview. I assume you asked where he plans on playing next season and he didn’t answer? Or something like that?

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    • Tim says:

      Why do you assume a good interviewer would ask a question that the interviewee couldn’t really answer? You expect it from the guys on ESPN, but David is better than that.

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  9. Bodhizefa says:

    Any chance you can go back and ask him if he’d be amenable to playing third base next year if a team wanted him for that position? :)

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  10. BurleighGrimes says:

    Great read!!

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  11. Jake says:

    Strikeouts do matter. At the risk of stating the obvious, players to high strikeout rates need a higher BABIP for the same batting average. It’s not as important as the mainstream media makes it out to be, but it’s also certainly not a detail that can be glossed over. To use the example of Reynolds, unless he has a Bautista-esque walk rate or Ichiro’s BABIP…it is tough to forgive the strikeouts.

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    • Mike says:

      Except that batting average doesn’t really matter either. The three most important skills are getting on base, hitting for power, and catching the ball, and you only need two of them to be a good major league player. You might even be able to get by with one if you’re really, really good at it.

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  12. Re: Strikeouts

    The Boston Red Sox, NY Yankees and Texas Rangers scored more runs than any other teams in the American League, they also finished 1st, 3rd and 4th in most strike outs.

    Some players change their swings with a 2 strike count in fear of striking out, this swing also tends to be less productive, however players that keep the same approach even with a 2 strike count may strike out more, but are often more productive in that count.

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    • Gort says:

      If you go by K%, they ranked 7th, 13th, and 1st in FEWEST strike outs, respectively.

      The extra Ks are just a result of having more PAs than other teams.

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  13. It sounds like Farrell picked up some managerial tendencies from Francona. Next thing we know Cecil, Litsch, and Drabek will be pounding beer & fried chicken in the dugout.

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  14. Kevin says:

    kelly sounds like a really bright guy. definitely not against the jays bringing him back.

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  15. es0terik says:

    I liked the whole interview except the little part near the end. By the sound of it, it seems like he was happier in Arizona. What does he mean it’s more personal and more individual here? He doesn’t like it in Toronto?

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    • Wee-Bey says:

      Seems like he just meant that on a team that wasn’t making a playoff push, there were less “small victories” in things like moving guys over, making a nice defensive play to get out of an inning, etc. Those things were nice, but at the end of the day they don’t affect the Blue Jays’ season much. It might get them an extra win, but they’re going to be in fourth place no matter what.

      I actually thought it was a refreshingly honest answer. Great interview.

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  16. kdodger says:

    Kelly Johnson sounds really intelligent and analytical from his answers. Definitely not your average athlete where you get generic answers 90% of the time.

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  17. CircleChange11 says:

    or times where you’ve got to put the ball in play to get a guy over… being able to put the ball in play when you need to is definitely a big part of the game.

    Sounds like a baseball player just said “productive outs” are a big part of the game. Doesn’t that go against a big sabermetric principle?

    Readers also had good comments about strikeouts. If you strikeout a lot, then (obviously) you need to be better in BB and BABIP and/or ISO to make up the value lost. Some are, some aren’t. I don;t think we can out of hand, wave off high K numbers.

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  18. Cooperstown2009 says:

    great interview! i completely agree with kelly’s approach at the plate. on thing though – sabermetricians don’t believe that strikeouts don’t matter – in fact, they’re the worst thing you can do as a hitter (aside from hitting into a double/triple play) sabermetricians believe that the benefits that come from taking more pitches (higher OBP) outweigh the downsides (strikeouts)

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