Last year, Elliot Johnson was one of the worst hitters in the majors. With a 57 wRC+ backed by just four home runs, six steals, and a strikeout rate near 30%, Johnson’s lackluster performance had many questioning whether he would even earn any playing time this year. With injuries this year to infielders Evan Longoria and Jeff Keppinger and an even worse hitting performance from one of his primary shortstop competitors last year in Reid Brignac, Johnson has amassed 230 plate appearances and has been quite solid, netting a 110 wRC+.
Some of the performance is likely inflated, but Johnson has had a very effective year as a dual eligible middle infielder. An improved walk rate, reduced strikeout rate, and dramatically increased line drive rate have led to Johnson’s solid .275/.339/.386 line. The power has dropped, but the on base skills have improved as his ISO falls. Johnson’s biggest attribute in a fantasy context has been in his stolen bases, where he has nabbed 15 bags in 19 chances.
Over his past 20 games, the Rays have let Johnson run a bit more and he has taken advantage of every opportunity, going six for six in attempted steals. In 33 fewer plate appearances, Johnson has an equal amount of steals as Desmond Jennings. The speed is legitimate for Johnson too, despite stealing just six bags in 13 opportunities last year. In his last season in triple-A, 2010, he stole 30 bags while being caught just six times. The latest outburst shows improvement in his ability to steal, which could drive his value up even more if he increases his success rate.
Playing time will always be an issue, but he is at least on the right side of the platoon. This may actually benefit his rate stats, as he has been a significantly better hitter from the left side this year and for his career. He is hitting .331/.372/.426 against righties while hitting just .176/.291/.324 against lefties. When Evan Longoria eventually does return, Johnson should see fewer plate appearances against lefties as Sean Rodriguez and Jeff Keppinger will take an even greater majority of starts at second and short against lefties.
In standard leagues, starting Johnson is not recommended unless you really need steals. However, in deeper leagues and dynasty formats, Johnson is a solid play. In a deep dynasty league in which I am in win now mode, I traded Vinnie Pestano for Johnson due to my low standings in stolen bases and weak play from shortstop Yunel Escobar. A guy like Johnson, who ZiPS has ending the year with a .324 on base percentage, seven homers, and 23 stolen bases, is certainly valuable in those formats — and if his stolen base opportunities continue to rise then he can become a surprisingly valuable asset.
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