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Kelly Johnson, an Elite Second Baseman?

The league leader in WAR for second basemen? Kelly Johnson. I made some pretty bold predictions in our staff-wide preseason series, one of them being that Matt Kemp will not even get to 30/30 (looking like a bad one). One of the ones that is looking good so far is my prediction of Kelly Johnson being a top-5 second baseman.

In Yahoo! leagues, Johnson is currently the third ranked second baseman. His seven home runs leads the group, a group that consists of more home run threats than in past seasons. He has also added over 20 runs, with his team’s best hitter, Jose Bautista, hitting under .200 directly behind him (Johnson batted second until recently). Since moving to the leadoff spot, Johnson is three for three in steal attempts, and should score more runs as Bautista’s production improves. Johnson’s season is looking much more like his breakout 2010 campaign than his underwhelming 2011 season, which is exactly what those who drafted him were hoping for.

The similarities between this year and 2012 are quite noticeable. That season, Johnson walked at a rate than his career average, with a 11.8% rate. This year, Johnson’s walk rate has sky-rocketed all the way to 15.8%. He is striking out in over 1/4 of his plate appearances, but that is not too much of an issue when his walk rate is this high. Johnson has always prided himself on being a hitter who zones pitches, so he is able to wait for pitches to drive rather than make more consistent, weaker contact. This has always held him to be a less conventional middle infield bat, as he hits for solid power, lower averages, but with higher walk and strikeout rates.

It was easy to be down on Johnson after last season, but looking at the peripherals suggests that he was at least somewhat unfortunate. His power and steals were still there, which is huge for fantasy, as he hit 21 home runs and stole a career high 16 bases. His ISO still sat above .190 and his walk rate was still near 10%, but his average dropped from .284 the season prior to .222, mostly due to a very low .277 BABIP. His career BABIP is .311, which is close to in line with his .314 mark this year.

The home run per fly ball ratio he currently has is far from sustainable, and the fact that he is hitting fly balls at a rate lower than any season but his rookie year is somewhat worrisome. Even though his current home run pace is unsustainable, he should still produce solid numbers in a hitter friendly division and in a good spot in a potent lineup. When his power dips, he will likely attempt more steals. The combination of power and speed is rare for Johnson’s low cost, and though his average will likely never be a driving point for fantasy value, his ability to perform well in three categories makes him an extremely valuable fantasy, and real life, asset.